It is now Ramadan around the world. Very briefly: Ramadan is the month of the Islamic calendar when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset (even trickier for those living nearer the poles); this is done so that people can cleanse their souls, appreciate what they have and think about their religion.
Here in Saudi Arabia, being a strict Islamic country, Ramadan surrounds us all day. For us, this has some negatives and also brings positives.
Most importantly, eating in public is strictly forbidden (with some exceptions including children and pregnant women). This means that all restaurants and coffee shops are also closed until sunset. You can buy food from the supermarkets for later, but it must not be consumed until reaching home. It is the combination of heat, small children and early school finishes which makes this tricky for us. The heat, and we are talking over 40°C, means that playing outside is pretty much ruled out. The swimming pool is usually the best bet for outdoor play. With hats and sunscreen on, an hour or so in the pool is the best way for us to all get outside. Bonus of tanning time for me! Although we are also often hit with high winds in Al Khobar around now which can make the pool tricky. Going to the mall for a wander, an ice-cream and a coffee is one of the best options for refuge from the heat…ruled out in Ramadan.
We have experienced Ramadan in Morocco, Dubai, Bahrain and here in Khobar and everywhere is slightly different. The food served is slightly different, traditions vary and the experience for non-Muslims also differs. In Dubai, more was open for business as usual. Eating in public is still a big no but many restaurants, including food courts, are screened off to allow those who still want to eat to do so.
Here, not only are food outlets closed but malls and play areas here also operate different opening hours, often late night openings. This is to help account for the change in hours which people keep so that they can eat and make visits while the sun is down. This can make things a little harder for those not changing their schedules.
Driving here is dangerous usually, with risky lane changes the norm and use of indicators almost non-existent. During Ramadan, although the roads are quieter, the driving is even more wild. This is understandable, as many of the drivers are tired, hungry and possibly dehydrated. The roads are best avoided as sunset draws closer as many people are rushing to get home in time for Iftar and prayers.
Ramadan is not all negative though!
We close school an hour early, allowing many of the children who are fasting or up late with their families to go home and sleep. This means an extra hour of family time for us. The shortened hours are welcome as the school year nears the end. Teachers and pupils are all getting tired, fasting or not, so a shorter day makes this easier.
Shops, restaurants, even apartment buildings, are all decorated with moons, stars and the traditional blue and red patterned fabric associated with Ramadan. This makes everywhere feel full of festivity and fun. There are sales and special offers on everywhere. Beautiful clothes and homeware, especially designed for Ramadan fill the malls. Even ASOS gets in on the act with Ramadan Edits online and discount codes for the season! Shopping is big business here and the malls are heaving at night.
Delicious, beautiful food is on sale, ready for the important meals at different points during the night and to celebrate the season with friends and family. Beautifully made pastries pile high in the shops ready for ordering. Supermarkets are full of yummy food especially for the month. Dates are a traditional part of breaking fast in this area and fabulous varieties are grown in Saudi. The range of dates available during Ramadan is amazing.
Ramadan is also a time for charity and sharing. Around the Muslim world, money, food and other items are given to those in need. Charity is an important part of Islam, even more so during Ramadan. There are donation boxes found all around and many places even have fridges where you can place donated food to be collected by those in need.
Finally, if you do make it to an Iftar or Ghabga (well worth it) or even just to the mall in the evening, the atmosphere is wonderful. Extended families and groups of friends all gather to talk, exchange small gifts and share food with each other. It really is a fantastic time for everyone to be together.
For us, as with everything here, we will enjoy Ramadan for what it brings and the babysitter is booked for the Iftar we will attend with friends this year! Ramadan Kareem!