No one celebrates Ramadan with as much festivity as do the Saudis. I lived there for six years. Ramadan is the highlight of the year. The entire focus of the nation shifts and you live it and breathe it. For one thing, day turns into night, and night into day.
Souks and Malls
Store hours are 1:00 pm to 4:00 pm, and 8:30 pm to 2:00 am. That is right! Here is why:
In December—when I was there, Suhoor is at 4:00 am i.e. the time to have breakfast and begin your fast. Iftar is at 5:00 pm i.e. the time to start eating again. So, after Suhoor, people go to bed and sleep late into the day; open for business in the afternoon; close at 4 pm, an hour before Iftar; and open again at night. That is when the crowds flock the streets, restaurants, shops, and picnic areas. The crowds grow as the night grows and the air is festive. At 2:00 am businesses shut down, people go home, have Suhoor, and go back to bed. And that is how it goes.
When I first read about the store hours, I could not comprehend it, and decided to experience it for myself. So Khalid and I went to Kingdom Mall at 8:30 pm, which is normally my ‘wind-down’ time. Inside was quiet. Too early to be crowded. At 10:00, just as we were leaving, the crowds started coming in. I was told that the town really comes alive after 11 pm.
Food prices go up. At first I didn’t understand. Do people really eat more in Ramadan? Yes they do. Iftars are festive, and every iftar is a party. I heard one of my Saudi colleagues say to me on the bus, “Ramadan starts tomorrow. Oh dear! I am going to put on all that weight.”
At the hospital where I worked, working hours were scaled back from 10 hours to 6 hours for Muslims. Non-Muslims had the routine 10-hour day. Some offices sent out memos listing the Ramadan hours; our office, which had only two Muslims, gave us the choice of choosing our work hours. I picked 8 am to 2 pm. It was wonderful to have half a day off and be home while it was still sunny. Winters are so mild that we would have Iftar on the patio.
Very little gets done at the workplace. It is a given that not much will get done. Standing meetings are canceled; projects postponed. At the hospital where I worked, the majority of the work force was expatriates, most of them non-Muslim, adhering to the 10-hour day. Think of what it would be like where the entire workforce is Saudi. All coffee/water cooler stations were shut down. One day, I decided to check out the cafeteria during lunch hour. It was open for those not fasting, as in expatriates. I expected it to be half-empty. The men’s side was quiet but the ladies side was bustling (if you haven’t figured it out, social areas are segregated). I should have known. Most of the female employees were non-Muslim expatriates, nurses being the largest bloc.
Alas! I don’t speak Arabic, so I couldn’t partake of the special Ramadan programs—TV soap operas and mini-series. But wait! Even if I did, these programs are broadcast late, late at night ending at Suhoor, and I am an early-to-bed person.
The Holy Cities
About two million converge into the holy city of Makkah to perform Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage. Hundreds of thousands more come during the last 10 days of Ramadan, seeking blessings of Night of Power, the most blessed night in Ramadan, when the holy Qu’ran was first revealed. An equally large crowd converges on the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah to offer special prayers. The authorities mobilize thousands of policemen, firefighters, religious guides, scouts, cleaners and emergency staff. The king, crown prince, commander of the National Guard, and senior members of the Cabinet are stationed in the holy city to oversee the services. Holy Zamzam water is supplied through water coolers kept in various parts of the mosque. Wheelchairs are readied free of charge. The police set up special rooms with recreational facilities for lost children. And always with the sublime, is the flip side: pickpocket arrests.
Ramadan is the month of giving charity, and it is highly visible on the Saudi scene, particularly in Makkah and Medinah. People come with truckloads of food at iftar, spread plastic sheets in the plaza, unload the neatly packaged dates, rice, yogurt, and drinks, as people sit alongside the spread. This story was related to me by an eye-witness: A woman walked up to the plaza of the Grand Mosque and sat down hauling a large plastic bag full of Saudi Riyals. The needy immediately lined up. She kept digging into her bag, pulling out currency notes, and handing them out to each person. The currency was in all denominations, 1, 20 50, 100, 200, …. It was the recipient’s luck as to what fell into his or her hand. She kept doling out until her bag was empty.
I was told that this is a common occurrence.