I had the rare and distinct pleasure of living in Saudi Arabia not once but twice, for five years each time. I ended up there because my husband, a Palestinian refugee, emigrated there with his family when he was about seven years old. My first stint in the Magic Kingdom was in the 1980s; the second was in the 2000s.
The two experiences were as different as night and day: the first years were spent living in the real world of Jeddah, in a middle class-ish apartment building with Saudi neighbors who always kept to themselves (as did we).
For the later stretch, we lived in a compound, away from the eyes of Saudis and surrounded by non-Saudi neighbors. Compounds are created for expat living, and have a bit of a spa feel to them: palm trees and flowers, clean streets, swimming pools, and, for many residents, maids and drivers.
Some things never seemed to change over the years, including what I call the Ramadan culture. (I haven’t been back there in a long time, and I know a lot has changed under Crown Prince MBS, but my guess is that Ramadan hasn’t changed much. Nevertheless, I’ll set my descriptions in the past tense.)
It was a lot like the Christmas season in the West: we started seeing decorations for Ramadan weeks in advance, along with big sales (especially on food and kitchen-related items). Saudi Arabia was kind of famous for its emphasis on the feasting aspect of the month, and there was a running joke about the “pious” Saudi gaining at least ten pounds before Ramadan was over.
I’ve seen them shopping, and I believe it is not an exaggeration.
Shopping on an empty stomach
Here’s how they could manage it: first of all, the men often did the grocery shopping in order to…protect the women from other men’s eyes, I guess? Men often shop with their stomachs, not a grocery list – and when you’re looking at breaking a fifteen-hour fast, everything sounds delicious and everything goes in the cart. And when you’re not the one who’s going to have to do all the cooking and wash all the dishes afterward, a ten-course meal seems reasonable.
Many grocery stores and countless small shops offered pre-made goodies (especially pastries) too, all arranged irresistibly. So there was that too.
Then there were the traditional endless cups of hot tea and coffee after the evening meal, plus lots of great Ramadan entertainment on TV, and Saudis were up all night. They were eating leftovers from iftar and extra desserts, maybe making a midnight run to get fast food (all restaurants are open till at least 2 am during the month).
And then just before dawn, they’d sit down for suhoor and eat enough to keep them from feeling hungry until the next iftar.
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How to survive in Ramadan without really trying
You’re probably wondering how somebody could stay up all night and then work all day.
In the Magic Kingdom, work was rather optional during Ramadan – if you’re Muslim.
Work and school days were shortened by several hours, and in many cases if someone said they weren’t up to it because of the fast, they were excused.
My husband managed a company for a Saudi CEO, and one particular employee didn’t even try. He called in on the second day of Ramadan and informed my husband that he just had to sleep the entire day and would not be coming in to work for the whole month. That’s it. Nothing can be done about it. And yes, he got his paychecks.
Not every Saudi took advantage of the system like this guy, but I can tell you the entire country pretty much shut down for Ramadan. Only the food-related services kept going at full speed – because they were staffed mostly by non-Muslims. Saudi Arabia has a large Filipino population (usually Christians) that have many of the service sector jobs.
Way too much fun
If we ever had cause to leave the house in the middle of a Ramadan night, the roads were jammed. Thousands of people would head for the Red Sea for a picnic and hookah. Jeddah is right on the water, so it was a popular destination. Families would often sit in a tight circle on a sidewalk or patch of grass if they could find it, and talk for hours. Non-Saudi vendors walked around selling ice cream, cotton candy, balloons, kites, and toys. It was a genuine party atmosphere.
Can you see why it wouldn’t be hard to gain ten pounds, and how an entire country could become unproductive, for a month?
Kind of reminds you of December in the US, though, doesn’t it? We put on our holiday pounds, we overspend and don’t get a lot of work done. We flock to festivities. We just don’t bother to fast in between our parties.
Those were good times. I’m glad I had a chance to reminisce with you!
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