Tariq A. Al-Maeena
How does Ramadan in this country appear to a female expatriate who is a first-time visitor from a Nordic country and who had no inkling of what the essence of Ramadan was until she set foot on this soil? Layla, a Finnish national and the author of the blog Blue Abaya, shares her story:
"Most non-Muslims know this month as the time when Muslims abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours. Before I came to Saudi Arabia, admittedly, just like most non-Muslims living in Western countries, I was pretty ignorant about Ramadan. I knew that this was the month when Muslims fasted from sunrise to sunset, but that was pretty much it. I had heard people saying 'them Mohammedans can eat only at night and need to fast only part of the day because they couldn't handle a week in a row' and other such nonsense. I remember wondering, what was the real reason behind the Muslim fast, but never bothered to find out the answer. That is, until I came to the Kingdom.
"During my first Ramadan here, I became very curious to find out more about this month as it all suddenly became much more of a reality to me. To my surprise, as Ramadan drew closer, my expat friends grew grumpier. 'I hate Ramadan!' 'Everything is closed, nobody is working' 'Muslims skip work and leave all the work for us to do' 'Whatever you do, don't stay in Saudi Arabia for Ramadan, it's just crazy.' 'They will arrest you if they see you drinking water during the day', etc, etc, etc. I did not hear a single positive comment about Ramadan. So naturally, I was somewhat wary of what Ramadan would bring and started to dread the beginning of it along with all the other expats.
"So Ramadan rolled along and the entire hospital where I worked turned upside down. Patients ate at the strangest hours, visitors came and went in the middle of the night, the working hours of Muslims were cut, some Muslim employees would disappear in the middle of shifts, medicine regimes had to be changed and fasting patients could not even be administered intravenous medicines during daytime. It was all very confusing.
"Despite all the weird schedule changes, I could not help noticing other changes too. There was a remarkable sense of unity, cheerfulness and a feeling of high spirits among my Muslim colleagues. The patients, if possible, became even more welcoming, friendly, and hospitable. There was a sense of elation in the air that I could not quite put my finger on, but it made me even more curious.
"One day I watched all the ward clerks praying together with some nurses and doctors in the staff room where I was doing charting. I finally mustered up the confidence to ask about Ramadan, despite the fact that they were all Saudi males and I felt a little intimidated to approach them on this matter. I remember simply asking: 'Why do you fast during Ramadan?'
"I was blown away by the reply. Looking back, the way one of the men explained it to me in such a nice and respectable way was commendable, despite my seemingly super ignorant question.
"He said: 'We fast to remember all those people who cannot eat and drink daily. We fast to feel their suffering, to remind ourselves of how blessed we are to have food and water. We fast to feel those same pangs of hunger that our poor sisters and brothers feel daily around the world. We fast to become more generous, to practice self-discipline and to strive to become better Muslims and people.'
"His words had a profound impact on me. Somehow I had failed to see the true meaning of the fast. I started to look at it from an entirely different perspective. I came to realize that in reality, Ramadan is so much more than just abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours. Basically, Muslims are supposed to abstain from all harmful acts as much as possible and concentrate on becoming better Muslims. Everyone can set their own goals for Ramadan according to their life situation and abilities. While one person struggles to quit smoking, another might set as a goal to read the entire Qur'an during Ramadan. Some might plan to pray extra prayers every day, donate to charity or memorize a new Surah from the Qur'an.
"So I learned from my Muslim colleagues that Ramadan is also about remembering our Creator, reading the Qur'an, which was sent down during the month of Ramadan, doing good deeds (out of a sincere wish to do them, not by habit or force), being kind to others, giving out Dawah (teaching, not preaching to non-Muslims about Islam) and remembering the poor and the less fortunate. Ramadan is about being humble, modest and abstaining not only from food, but from extravagances, over-consuming, spending, and wasting food, money and resources.
"Sadly, what I see today is very disturbing in that many people in Saudi Arabia are doing the exact opposite. The true purpose has been long lost and forgotten. I see people stocking up on food and spending on groceries like crazy, and cooking and baking like there is no tomorrow. Women are spending their days in the kitchen instead of focusing on their religion; some out of their own will or perhaps out of learned habit and routine and some because of demands from their husbands and even peer pressure.
"When the time comes for iftar, people indulge in extravagant meals and then lay around all evening snacking on deep fried, highly sweetened and unhealthy foods, watching Arabic soap operas on TV, gossiping with friends and staying up all night. Many go to shopping malls which are now open until the early morning hours for mindless shopping. Some even force their kids to stay up late or wake them in the middle of the night so that the parents don't have to get up early with them! The next day they sleep until the evening until it all starts over again at sunset.
"The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) taught Muslims by example to break the fast with simply dates and water and to eat a light meal later and to pray Taraweeh prayers, then go to sleep as one normally would, get up early for night prayers and suhoor (breakfast) and go about the day working and doing things that one would normally do.
"Let's not forget the true meaning of Ramadan, its purpose, and all the blessings of this month. Break those unhealthy and binding routines and habits. Layla."