Ramadan is a very special month to Muslims all over the world. In case you are not sure what Ramadan means to Muslims and why Muslims fast check out this post: The True Meaning of Ramadan
The crescent moon has been sighted and the fasting has started this morning.
Ramadan in Saudi-Arabia is a very different experience from any other country, even other Arab Muslim countries. Fasting is taken dead seriously and the whole nation accommodates to make fasting easier.Spirits are high, every Muslim supports one another. The whole country changes radically for a month. For some expats it seems to be a nightmarish experience. But again I think it all comes down to attitudes and what one makes of it. I personally think it’s a privilege to be able to experience it.
For expats it might appear something like this:
During Ramadan Saudis turn entirely into nocturnal beings, the daily rhythm reverses itself. Shops will open only in the late afternoon or after sunset and close around 2 am. Riyadh is like a phantom city until sunset arrives.
After the last prayer of the day Isha’a, thousands and thousands of huge SUV’s packed with the entire Saudi family start making their ways to their relatives houses or shopping malls. Slowly they begin crawling into the streets eventually stopping the traffic altogether.
When they finally reach the malls the women will go out looking for Ramadan sales. Everyone will be busy finding nice clothes to wear for Ramadan.
Tailors get packed with women and men having custom-made thobes and jalabiya ready for Eid celebrations.
Restaurants and food courts fill with families and screaming children throughout the night. Everyone including the smallest children will be stuffing themselves before they begin fasting. Some indulge in KFC and McDonald’s mega-meals followed by a box of Cinnabons until they cannot move anymore.
Special night prayers also known as Taraweeh prayers are called out from the thousands of mosques around the city. They can be heard as a discordant symphony throughout the night.
Dental offices will be busy until 3 am with fasting patients that cannot be treated during the daytime.
Finally the streets congest once again with families hurrying home before Fajr prayer, which at this time of year is around 4 am.
After that, nothing. Absolute silence on the streets of Riyadh until it all starts over again the following day.
At home some will stay up until the morning chatting and watching tv, finally falling asleep when the sun comes up.
This was a bit aggravated, generalized version of Ramadan in the Kingdom, that said there are many (although of course not all Saudis and expats) who do spend the Holy Month along the lines of what this post describes.
For an “outsider” the experience may seem somewhat absurd and incomprehensible. First timers are usually either extremely irritated or fascinated.
What irritates non-Muslims is of course that they cannot do anything during the days since everything is closed and when the stores do open they are fully packed. But this is also the time that consuming any kind of fluid or food in public during the daylight hours becomes a horrendous crime.
Non-Muslims drinking publicly might openly be shouted at and at least glared down by angry Muslims. Basically non-Muslims are forced to hide all evidence of consuming.
If the Muttawa spots someone publicly drinking they might be in big trouble for disgracing the Holy month and might even end up in jail.
I personally think this is quite ridiculous and blowing things out of proportion. I don’t mind if someone eats in front of me when I’m fasting! I can always go somewhere else, look away or just not care. After all fasting is about self discipline too. I don’t see why some Muslims will get offended by this. It’s not like the non-Muslims are doing it on purpose to offend anyone although I’m not saying that might rarely occur.
Sure people should be sensitive but this kind of dramatizing and exaggeration is in my view unnecessary. Why does respecting other cultures and religions only seem to work in one direction in Saudi-Arabia? Religious tolerance should work both ways.
For example in the hospital all the staff’s water bottles have to be hidden out of public sight, they are stored behind closed doors or bathrooms where staff has to go to secretly have a sip. Fasting Saudi employees will generally have very flexible working hours, arriving late, leaving early and taking hour long breaks while non-Saudi Muslims will not have all these luxuries and they are expected to be just fine with it.
Anyways Ramadan Mubarak everyone!