x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Ramadan in Saudi Arabia is a different experience

Ramadan had begun. It was the month when life goes topsy-turvy as night becomes day. Normal sleep patterns change.

Television has played a role in changing the atmosphere during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia.
Television has played a role in changing the atmosphere during Ramadan in Saudi Arabia.

RIYADH // Flying into Saudi Arabia one recent night, I was savouring my bird's-eye view of a gleaming, bejewelled Riyadh as we prepared to land. Then I noticed something strange. All the city's major thoroughfares were alive with what looked like two fast-moving conveyor belts of sparkling ants. "That's traffic!" I realised with a start, looking at my watch. It was past 1am. But then I remembered: Ramadan had begun. It was the month when life goes topsy-turvy as night becomes day. Normal sleep patterns change. You can shop until 3am. Important government meetings start at 10pm. In the late afternoon just before sunset, when fasting is taking its toll on the human psyche, Riyadh streets - indeed the whole kingdom - stand almost still in a hush. It sounds like 1am in normal times. Saudis feel fortunate to observe the holy month of Ramadan in the homeland of Islam. They have a very different experience from Muslims living in the West. There, the muezzin does not announce the end of fasting, offices and schools operate normally. And everyone else eats all day long. Ramadan in the Islamic year of 1429 keeps to ancient rituals: breaking the fast with dates, feeding the poor and attending Taraweeh, the evening mosque prayers. But nowadays it also is a time of excessive television watching, feasting on lavish midnight meals and going the extra mile in what seems to be the Saudis' favourite indulgence: mall shopping. For an increasing number of Saudis, it all adds up to an uncomfortable feeling that what should be a sacred month of spiritual enrichment has become tainted by commerce, entertainment and lack of purpose. "The holiest month in the Muslim calendar is becoming increasingly commercialised," wrote Sabah Abdul Hadi in the Saudi Gazette newspaper. "Everything from dates to new clothes for Eid is a question of money and one's worth is measured by how much one is willing to spend on the simple pleasures of life." Jassim Al Ghamdi, another Gazette commentator, commented, "Many people think that Ramadan used to be purer and more spiritual in the past." Their qualms echo those of many Christians who blanch at the commercialism smothering Christmas and Easter in the West, where Santa and the Easter bunny have become all-too-familiar icons. "One thing I don't like is that Ramadan has become a lazy month," said Abdullah al Shammri, a researcher with the ministry of information. "Now, instead of working, people take fasting as an excuse not to work. All government offices in the kingdom limit their activities, they say, 'Oh we're fasting'. So people are suffering and they are beginning to hate Ramadan. They want it to pass quickly." Television, which was introduced to the kingdom 43 years ago over the strident objections of religious conservatives, has played a big role in changing the atmosphere of Ramadan. Arab-owned satellite networks compete to grab audience shares with new soap operas and entertainment shows. "Regrettably, Ramadan has become a month of soap operas; more than 64 are being broadcast during this month on various channels," said Nourah al Khereiji. "Fasting and reciting the Quran will guarantee you with intercession on the Day of Judgment," she wrote in the Arab News. "So why ? do not we recite the Holy Book instead of sitting glued to the TV sets watching soap operas?" Ramadan television viewing took a bigger hit when the head of the country's sharia courts declared that those responsible for airing immoral television programmes could be given the death penalty. Sheikh Saleh al Lihedan, chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Council, later complained that he had been quoted out of context and said that broadcasting executives should first be brought to court. Many Saudis were taken aback. But there was no sign of a grass-roots television boycott. Or a change in airtime content by the networks, many of which are owned by Saudi princes and businessmen. It is 9pm inside HyperPanda supermarket at Azizia Mall. There are only a handful of customers, but the staff is standing by well-stocked counters, braced as if awaiting the start of a military campaign. The crowds build gradually and then more quickly, until by midnight the place is packed. Along with food, shopping carts are filled with toddlers, licking ice creams and lollipops. The night-time shopping will get more frenzied - and ATMs will run out of cash - as Ramadan comes to a close at the end of the month because it is a tradition to buy new outfits for everyone to wear during the Eid holiday. For the more well-off, Ramadan nights are a time for lavish partying. Hotels offer sumptuous suhour meals poolside or in huge banquet halls, beginning at about 11pm and lasting in some venues until 3.30am. Sometimes the meals are accompanied by "raffle draws" for expensive gifts. According to the Saudi ministry of Islamic affairs, the suhour "is a light meal usually taken late at night by people intending to fast". Some Muslims believe that night-time overeating violates the spirit of their daily abstinence, whose purpose is to learn empathy with the poor and gain spiritual insight. In Riyadh, one of the most elegant ambiences for Ramadan evenings this year is "Fawaneez," or "Lanterns". It is located in the upscale Al Faisaliah Hotel, where a 4,500 square metre hall has been decorated with fountains and handmade chandeliers from Damascus. Unlike in other restaurants, there are no partitions separating family groups from all-male diners. Unescorted women are welcomed, and may sit anywhere they wish in the room. Everyone partakes from the same copious, seemingly endless, buffet tables. In one corner, live Saudi television cameras invite diners to share their thoughts with viewers. The hall, which can hold 850 people, serves both the iftar and suhour meals. Each meal is 287 Saudi riyals [Dh281] per person, but that has not deterred the crowds. Ali Safa, senior sales manager for Rosewood Hotels, which manages Al Faisaliah, said they aim to serve a total of 20,000 to 25,000 diners this Ramadan. "Last night, we had 1,000," he said. Despite the materialism that now attends Ramadan, it remains a time of religious devotion for many Saudis. I was recently at a private home for iftar with several other women. About 8.30pm, two women exited quickly, saying they were going to the mosque for the evening Taraweeh prayers recited during Ramadan. Those who remained behind said it has become increasingly common for women, who are not encouraged to pray in Saudi mosques during the rest of the year, to attend the Taraweeh prayers. Mosque attendance, always higher during Ramadan, has grown to such an extent in some places that, according to the Saudi Gazette, some worshippers were paying others to "reserve" a good place for them in the prayer line. Mohammad Ali al Rashidi told the paper that when he entered the mosque, he "was surprised at the number of rugs", which he later discovered were "holding" prayer places. "These people must be stopped because they act as if they own the mosque," he said. Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz al Asheikh quickly banned the practice, adding that "the reward for prayer is not earned by praying in the front rows but by arriving early". Many young women have become more observant because of Ahmad al Shugairi, a budding young Muslim televangelist in Jeddah, who hosts his own Ramadan programme, Khawatir, or Thoughts, on MBC. His youth, down-to-earth manner and encouragement for young people to be proactive, innovative Muslims have made him a media star, particularly with women. For example, this year he launched a campaign on his website - thakafa.net - to encourage Arab youths to do volunteer work during Ramadan. Meanwhile, this year brought another small difference in Ramadan observance: "Bush's Rocket", "Sharon's Bomb", and "Bin Laden's Airplane", are scarce as hen's teeth. These popular items are hard to find because of increased enforcement of a ban on the sale of firecrackers, the Arab News reported. Undercover police have made several arrests, spooking those who normally provide the celebratory explosives. "After selling firecrackers for 10 years, I switched to selling perfumes," one street seller said. cmurphy@thenational.ae