My Syrian friend, Amer, told me back in August that, “During Ramadan, day becomes night and night becomes day.” He probably provided one of the most accurate descriptions of life during Ramadan that could be made. Modified work hours. Changed store hours. Altered meal hours. Different expectations define what is required of everyone during Ramadan.
After the sun comes up, during Ramadan, very little is open. Grocery stores are still open, but they all post signs advising customers not to eat during fasting hours. Fasting hours, if you remember, last from after dawn prayer (Fajr) to evening prayer (Maghreb). Companies modify hours for their Muslim workers – shortening the workday – rolling the start times back. Our company changed the working hours for Muslim employees from 8am – 4pm to 10am – 4pm.
Around 4pm many of the restaurants open up and allow people to order food for take-out only; dining in is prohibited until after Maghreb. The food is then taken home and used for the meal to break their fast. That meal occurs almost immediately after prayers conclude.
Driving in Riyadh is difficult and hair-raising on a good day. The month of Ramadan does not contain any good days when it comes to driving. In fact, it was really, really important to time exactly when departing from work. Fifteen minutes on either side of that little time cleft and a twenty minute drive became about an hour-and-a-half. Having not eaten or drank all day, those fasting often race home for Maghreb. That way, the second prayer is over, they can eat. The intersections become Gordian Knots – ten to fifteen “lanes” of cars competing for three to four actual lanes. One thousand cars where there usually are two hundred. A lack of aggression in one’s driving could result in absolutely no movement – sometimes a wreck – sometimes injury. Drivers must force their cars forward for that next open spot, and mercy will result in contempt and disregard. Conversely, that same aggression can also result in a wreck and injury. Drivers must be aware and on guard constantly; shoulder muscles remain in a constant state of tension.
We non-Muslim Westerners did our best to be respectful of the fasting rules, but we took advantage of those earlier hours when few or no Muslims were at work. It’s not like we had banquets of breakfast sausages and scrambled eggs; however, we made ourselves coffee and tea, and we often brought little things to hide away and snack on when no one was looking. Usually, we have a “tea boy” who brings us coffee and tea (I’ll write about tea boys in a subsequent posting) whenever we want it. During Ramadan, our guy, Mahdu, spent his time dusting, sweeping, and cleaning – anything to stay busy. So, we were left to our own devices, which kept him out of trouble should the wrong person arrive at work earlier than expected.
The Western Compounds – although they would provide a special meal at night for those who had been fasting – generally did not observe Ramadan. The restaurants within the compounds served lunch, and many of our group ate at one in particular that is located near the office. One of the guys in the company who lives in that compound had set it up so that we could get into the facility by mentioning his name. Although it turned out to be fairly easy to get through the day without eating (for me anyway), it was nice to have the option of getting lunch when we wanted it. Besides, they had an amazing hot & sour soup. Mmmmm….
People usually wrapped up their meals between 7pm and 8pm. Although encouraged to keep their meals light and not to try and make up for the missed meals, some of these culinary experiences could be quite elaborate. Some restaurants offered special buffets, and friends and relatives sometimes got together for what has been described as fairly expansive feasts. This is really where the day began for the regular citizenry.
Most commerce occurs in the evening in Saudi Arabia, and this is doubly true during Ramadan. Between 8pm and 9pm the streets fill up with cars. A friend and I were at Jarir Bookstores one evening during Ramadan. When we went in, the streets were practically empty. When we came back out, around 9pm…the streets were jammed, absolutely jammed, with automobiles – horns honking, lights flashing, did I mention the honking horns?
According to an article in the Arab Times, Ramadan is the biggest retail period of the year, rivaled only by the back-to-school timeframe. Gift sets of all sorts are displayed in stores. Fancy dish sets combined with traditional foodstuffs. Cups and coffee pitchers with packages of coffee. Countless packaging arrangements of dates. Dates are really, really big during Ramadan. When visiting a relative or friend for an evening meal, people sometimes will sometimes take dates to share as part of the meal. Though much tamer than the Christmas madness most Westerners are used to, Ramadan sales certainly had some of that flavor.
One of the more interesting details observed are these little sticks that suddenly appeared in the hands and mouths of the Saudis. Knowing there is a strict prohibition on consuming anything during the fasting period, it seemed odd that these guys would be walking around chewing on a stick. Turns out that the stick, called a miswak, is a traditional sort of teeth cleaner, and is allowed. When chewed, it has a sort of minty/spicy flavor that counteracts the ketones released when an individual enters ketosis during fasting. Anyone who’s ever been in ketosis knows that the mouth starts to taste nasty, and the breath becomes just as nasty. The miswak is the antidote for that.
If I ever go through Ramadan here again, I now know what to expect, and there is really no sense of dread regarding it – well, except for the traffic. Working from the apartment would be an awfully tempting proposition in that regard.
Copyright 2006, Greg Hubbard