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Letters from the Desert (3) It's Ramadan, and We're Going to Party Like it's 1420

Dear Barry,

With the end of Ramadan, school returned and work piled up, but I finally found a few moments to send you another note about life in the Kingdom. Or at least in Jeddah.

No doubt you've heard of Ramadan. Before I got to Saudi Arabia I had the rather hazy idea that Ramadan was some kind of religious fasting, maybe a little bit like Lent. That's not quite the way it is. Ramadan is a religious holiday, and there is fasting. It's also a party.

Ramadan is one month of the Islamic, or Hegira, calendar. This year, which is the Islamic year 1420, it fell over December and early
January, but that was happenstance. The months are determined by the phases of the moon, and sometimes one month is longer or shorter in one year than in another. Overall, the Islamic year is about 10 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar year, so in a few years from now Ramadan will fall in our summer.

Whenever it falls, Ramadan starts with the new moon, and that means no one is really sure of the exact day until, literally, the last moment. Islamic religious authorities make the call by going outside and looking at the sky to decide whether or not the new moon has arrived. If it has, then until the end of the lunar cycle, the Faithful fast.

In Lent, I think, one is supposed to give up a vice or a habit for the month. In Ramadan one gives up everything, and I mean everything. No food of any kind, no liquids of any kind, no cigarettes, no sex - the Faithful are supposed to give it all up. During daylight hours, that is. From one half hour before sunrise to one half hour after sunset.

One is supposed to remember the hardships of those who can't afford good food and drink, and fasting helps drive that point home. Fasting is also a way to help a person learn the ability to give up vices - if you can go a month without a cigarette jammed in your mouth (at least in the daytime) then maybe you can give it up altogether.

There are lots of exceptions, too - the sick, for example, who certainly don't need the extra stress of fasting while they recover from their illnesses. Travelers, too, are allowed to eat and drink during Ramadan. I suppose in the days of camel caravans desert travel was a real hardship and Islam recognized this. Travelers can ignore the fasting as long as they make up the days sometime during the coming year.

Today this leads to the peculiar sight of Muslims who might be flying on business, say, happily eating all that airline food in the middle of Ramadan. Personally, I think that's a mistake. Any excuse to avoid rubber chicken, soggy veggies, and mystery desserts should be taken advantage of. I wondered whether the travel exemption applied to sex, too, but I couldn't get an answer on that from my Muslim colleagues, all of whom professed not to know what the mile high club is.

Maybe they were just being cranky. Ramadan makes people cranky. The newspapers carry editorials complaining about increased fighting and the generally rude behaviour of many people in Ramadan. It is understandable. If you are a smoker, imagine what it would be like to give up the weed completely during the day. If you are a caffeine addict, imagine doing without that morning cup, that mid-morning cup, that lunch time cup. I think of the rivers of coffee that flow from the spigots of just one Tim Horton's and how many cranky people there would be if those taps were closed from sunup to sundown.

The Faithful balance this off by partying. At night in Ramadan food is king. Restaurants overflow. Sweets, pastries, fruits, nuts and
meats appear in small mountains on makeshift counters that sprout as if by magic. Grocery stores are overrun by those readying to entertain, although the overrunning doesn't start until maybe 11 PM.

In fact the whole life of the city shifts to the night time. Stores are open until two or three or four in the morning, and the normally
busy streets of Jeddah are nearly deserted during the day. All of this builds up to the end of Ramadan when the real feasting begins - that's called Eid. Eid happens twice a year, by the way, but I don't have time to explain since the bell for classes is ringing again. Just a final thought.

For non-Muslims, ex-pats like me, adhering to the rules is a must in the Kingdom - at least in public. Eating a chocolate bar on the street will get you arrested. Foreigners aren't really trusted to abide by this, certainly not in my school. A couple of days before Ramadan, the electrical adapter for the fridge that usually holds our lunches disappeared. Even this was not enough. It seems word got out that one teacher was brazenly drinking coffee during school hours - in the teachers' room, with the door closed, by himself.

The principal confiscated the kettle.

From the Kingdom,

The Major


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