Carrying Eid from Middle East to Oxford of the East

Eid Food

[This article first appeared in Beyond The Underpass on September 25 2015]

Festivals are sewn in the fabric of our culture and religion. We celebrate them with the same community and at times even use it to bridge understanding between different ones. When moving places, we observe them either with a strong familiarity of the past, or sometimes with a hope to salvage whatever little remains of it.

To me, celebrating Eid in Dubai had a touch of placid monotony. I didn’t necessarily enjoy it as much as be content with it. The mandatory day off, exquisite sprawling mosques, people joining congregation prayers in large numbers, the quaint scent of freshly pressed traditional garments, and Biryani and sevaiya carefully crafted by the tireless hands of mother made Eid familiar and added to a reservoir of memory. It was something I would certainly long for after moving to Pune in India for my Undergraduate studies.

Some things were clearly amiss with my initial experience of Eid in India. There was little of the inexplicable peace of Ramadan that preceded Eid al Fitr (feast of breaking of the fast), and discussions of the Hajj pilgrimage that counted down to Eid Al Adha (the feast of sacrifice) were few. Our University followed a holiday printed on pre-decided calendars, completely missing the quintessential thrill of moon-sighting and last minute cliff hangers on whether or not Eid would be the next day. I remember writing an exam just an hour after the Eid prayer once. It was one of the toughest exams I had taken; after all it isn’t easy to be writing an Economics paper knowing that the opportunity cost of this moment would be a delicious feast with succulent meat and sugary treats. I tried to be content with what I had, an attitude not very different from that in Dubai.

By the end of third year, what lacked in Eid was filled with what I had never experienced from the comforts of Dubai. Never in my life did I find an audience more eager to know about my festivals than friends at college. Perhaps my cross-geography and cultural experience helped me with answers to thoughts that would otherwise be suspended in an air of misunderstandings and controversies. Attending classes during Eid meant that greetings were exchanged in person and not from couches over text messages. Moreover, festive meals were special with friends who may not have shared my faith, but were all united by the love for Biryani.

Pune gave me a glimpse of imagery that Eid’s essence stands for – a sense of communal affinity, little children dotting the streets with new wears and toys, and vendors selling perfume and kohl in little glass bottles. People of all ages and occupations thronged to the mosques and made-do with the little space available for synchronised prayers The inviting aroma of seekh kebabs on an open furnace immersed with the fragrance of perfume, giving you the best of both worlds. Quite a contrast to the casual urbanness and glitz of Dubai, Pune’s humble demonstration of a religious festival reminded me that Eid is not necessarily where the heart is, but where people co-exist and celebrate the little joys of life, where smiles and giggles are not entrapped in concrete walls, and where there’s a little lesson taught in harmony and joy.

This time when I removed my traditional garment for morning prayers in Dubai, I remembered it was the same as I had worn for my last Eid in Pune. Verily, lifestyles and our space of existence may change, but festivals are sewn in the fabric of culture, religion, and fond memories.

Ramadan Campaign Watch: #SplashHeartOfGold

The holy month of Ramadan will begin on the 17th or 18th of June in the United Arab Emirates this year. Celebrated as a time of religious reflection and spiritual rejuvenation, Muslims abstain from food and drink from dawn to dusk.

While corporate activities do slow down owing to shorter work timings and the lethargy that kicks in after the initial hours, the only trend witnessed in commercial activity would be the increasing one. There’s a visible surge in shoppers who buy and stock up food and beverages that would otherwise not make it to the kart in months out of Ramadan. (Rooh Afza is my favourite example)

What would be wrong to assume, however, is that marketing and brand communications activities observe a fast too, avoiding any campaign that has the potential of staying relevant in the 4 special weeks. Brands that do not wish to merely see off Ramadan usually churn out that one big idea months in advance.

A notable example is Du’s #30DaysOfSharing campaign last Ramadan. Social Media users were encouraged to send in their precious moments which made Ramadan special.  Every post composed using the hashtag #30DaysofSharing had Du donate Dhs10 to its annual Iftar tables initiative, from which Iftar meals were distributed to the less fortunate. The results & reach of the campaign is shown in the short video below –

With enormous potential comes cultural and religious sensitivities attached to a campaign. There’s no margin for frivolity, and any attempt of merely trying to fit in with the spirit of a festival can lead to sharp criticism – both from passive observers and the religiously inclined. Finding the right space of creativity for a ritual guided by religious beliefs and practices poses an interesting challenge too. How does a brand go beyond the obvious leads of hunger and thirst, and place itself in an area respected & lauded by the people?

The ‘Heart of Gold’ Campaign by Splash

Splash – part of renowned Landmark Group based out of UAE – is one of the Middle East’s largest fashion retail outlets.  In just about a month from Ramadan, out of complete randomness, I chanced upon Splash’s sponsored tweet inviting people to participate in their Ramadan campaign.

The campaign uses the App medium for participation and aims to celebrate the human spirit of giving. Splash will be honouring 30 ‘unsung heroes’ throughout the month of Ramadan, which means a hero thanked and celebrated for a unique contribution each day of the holy month. In their own description in the App –

At Splash, the cause of humanity is one that’s always been close to our own heart. We believe there are numerous people out there, people from every walk of life, who espouse the cause of humanity in their own unique way without expecting anything in return. People whom you may have seen, known or heard of who strive to improve the lives of their fellow beings around them.

Splash ‘Heart of Gold’ has been instituted not only in the true spirit of giving during the holy month of Ramadan, but also as a tribute to these unsung heroes who devote their time, money and effort selflessly to the cause of humanity.

Points of Impression

As a retail outlet that decks up wardrobes with fashionable clothes and accessories, being relevant to Ramadan would certainly have been a challenge. The brand is not a consumable food item that can make it to the table during suhoor, nor is it a restaurant that people can flock to for iftar. They deal in products that are often displayed on lifeless mannequins,  and yet here they are hoping to acknowledge the goodness in selfless giving.

By indulging in this campaign,  in my humble opinion, Splash goes beyond the mundane obvious. It has identified a key element that is actively promoted in Ramadan – charitable behaviour towards society. By rewarding this act of righteousness, Splash will garner the respect of the public at large and those particularly involved in charity work.

The Clothes Connection

To talk purely of Splash’s main product offering, clothes come nowhere close to hunger and thirst – 2 things commonly (and sometimes narrowly) associated with the month. However, they’ve always been an important contraption in contributing to charity. Be it donating clothes to the poor or in areas afflicted with a calamity, the product association with the core of the campaign is not amiss.

In addition, people frequent clothes and accessories retail outlets to shop for Eid al-Fitr. This brings Splash another challenge of integrating their online efforts with their store customers, and to familiarize them with the campaign.

The #SplashHeartOfGold widget, Source: Splash Website

Democratizing the Nomination Choice

According the campaign, nominations will be sought from whosoever wishes to name their choice. Anyone can access the App, write the details of his/her nominee and justify the nomination in a 1000 words. The 30 winners will be chosen by a jury from the brand. The opportunity to nominate serves several benefits – the pool of nominees would be extensive and diverse (in nationality and sector of humanitarian work), and would encourage people to spot a potential nominee in someone who could be casually generous in expending social services.

[It would be nice though if Splash spelled out this jury and make this a more transparent affair. Knowing who selects the final winners would bring more credibility to the activity]

PR Potential

A campaign of this scale and philosophy can be expected to make its mark in media too. The print media in UAE has seldom held back from recognizing Good Samaritans in society, especially in highlighting stories that reflect honesty and nobility in their day-to-day dealings. The story behind each of the 30 nominees would certainly make for an interesting read.

Splash’s CSR in the past

This will not be the first time that Splash exhibits its relationship with societal responsibilities. Recently, the brand was recognized at the Princess Haya Awards for Special Education as an ‘Outstanding Institutional Supporter in Private Sector‘ for its work with students of Special Needs Future Development Center (SNF) in Dubai. I learnt from first hand account of a student & friend from SNF about his induction into the Splash workforce in one of the Splash stores, and being acknowledged by the management as ‘best employee of the month’. Such initiatives are a major boost for special education training centers as they search an inclusive environment for their students, especially adults of the working age,  to learn and thrive in.

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

Ms. Safia Bari, Director of SNF (left) with the CEO of Splash Fashions, Mr. Raza Beig ; [Source: SNF Facebook Page]

It will be interesting to know how the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign pans out for the brand. If successful, Splash could well set an example for other brands to buck up and come out strong, or look on as the sun sets on their Ramadan activity.

Is there a Ramadan campaign that has caught your attention from this year or the past? Contribute by commenting below!

[To participate in the #SplashHeartOfGold campaign and nominate someone, click here.]