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The final RetroSaudi – Ramadan

May 7, 2018

This is the last episode of RetroSaudi, my series of posts about Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. In most of the instalments I have included impressions of the country that I wrote at the time. After each piece I’ve  followed up with thoughts on the country as it is today, or at least nearly today, since it’s been eighteen months since my last visit.

If I’d written the same series five years ago, I would have said that eighteen months is as near as dammit current in a country that over the past thirty years has changed at a snail’s pace. But not now. More has changed since 2016 than in the three decades preceding.

So I can no longer claim that my impressions of country “today” are anything more than recent history, as opposed to the ancient history that the 80s represent to me.

I can’t think of a better way to bid farewell to Saudi Arabia than to look back at Ramadan, a time of year that is special to all Muslims, and unforgettable to those of any faith who have lived through the holy month in a Muslim country.

I’m saying goodbye because it’s unlikely that I will be returning to a country in which I lived for the best part of a decade, and visited many times since. There are other places to visit, and time is running out.

Here’s what I wrote thirty years ago:

1988: My first Ramadan in Saudi Arabia started a couple of months after my arrival. It was a bit of a shock. My apartment overlooked one of the many plots of waste ground scattered around the city. One moment I was lying peacefully in bed, and the next I was looking for a sturdy table that would give me shelter. The cause of my alarm was a loud boom that rattled the windows. In my befuddled state I thought that war had broken out.

A few minutes later, when no further explosions were forthcoming, I looked out of my window and saw an ancient field gun set up in the waste ground, along with a tent for its minders.

The cannon stayed there throughout the month, blasting thousands out of their beds for daybreak prayers, and acting as the starting gun for the feeding frenzy that begins at dusk.

For me Ramadan is a wonderful month, not least because of the scarcity of traffic on the roads during the day. Going to work is a dream. Virtually no traffic at 7.30am, and although it gets busy just before dusk as everybody rushes home to eat, this heralds a period of ineffable calm, in which the city becomes a ghost town. No traffic. No angry, honking, road-hogging maniacs trying to run you off the road.

It’s the eye of the hurricane. Twenty-minute car journeys reduced to five. Bliss. But when the devout have eaten, they all seem to take to the road simultaneously, and bedlam breaks out. There are parts of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia included, where drivers verge on insanity. During Ramadan, the ecstasy of the broken fast  – or perhaps the sugar rush – seems to drive them over the brink, and the city’s roads are monopolised by battalions of racing drivers, dodgem cars and would-be suicides.

With headlights on full beam, a cacophony of horns, bits of children hanging from of every window, babies climbing out of sun-roofs, the families of Jeddah take to the roads, to shop, to play football on floodlit lawns by the airport, or to visit relatives.

Some just to sit by the side of the road drinking tea. They arranged themselves in a semi-circle, the corpulent patriarch with two, maybe three wives next to him, drinking tea as the children play in the sideroad. Beside the station wagon is a portable TV, from which an impassioned Egyptian soap opera is commanding rapt attention.

I love it all.

True, there are minus points. Everything slows down, and dark rumours circulate about post office staff burning sacks of mail because they can’t be bothered to process them. As the month progresses, those who are fasting become more sluggish and irritable. The evening drivers become faster and more erratic, and the minds of your colleagues become exclusively focused on one thing: the Eid-Al-Fitr holiday that marks the end of the month of fasting.

I have no time for those who sneer at the Arab world because so little can be achieved during Ramadan. Do we in the West achieve miracles of productivity in December? At least Muslims don’t drive off drunk from an all-day office party and mow down groups of Christmas shoppers.

I welcome Ramadan because of the break it provides in the routine of life in this Muslim country. I envy Muslims their certainty in their faith, of the Five Pillars of Islam, of which the fasting month is one, even if I don’t share their certainty.

In that piece I didn’t really capture what Ramadan means to Muslims, only its effect on non-Muslim expatriates, who are effectively bystanders. In a piece I posted to this blog a few years ago, I tried to look at the month as it affects Muslims themselves. A few hundred words can’t adequately capture the meaning for believers, but for what it’s worth, here’s an excerpt:

2010: Consider the implications of fasting from dawn to dusk for 30 days. No food, no, drink, no smoking. In short, nothing to enter the mouth or any other part of the body. And the vast majority of the hundreds of millions of Muslims around the world, rich and poor, do this every year. For example, as I sit in an air-conditioned room writing this, I can see manual labourers in the street working away in 40 degrees of heat with no food or drink to sustain them.

There are, of course, exemptions derived from the Quran and religious tradition. Pregnant women, children, and the sick do not have to fast. Nor under certain circumstances, do travellers, although they have to fast at other times to complete the obligation. There are also rules which apply to people living in areas where the summer sun doesn’t fully set, such as Finland, Alaska and Antarctica. Fasting for 23 hours a day simply isn’t practical, and contrary to some perceptions in the West, Islam is a practical religion.

Such is the power of the obligation that in many parts of the world, including where I live, it is enshrined in the law. Nobody, Muslim or non-Muslim, is permitted to drink, smoke or eat in public during fasting hours. The penalties for breaking the law can range from admonition to jail.

So this is no festive season with a bit of religion thrown in. Nor is it the equivalent of giving up chocolate for Lent. It’s a drastic, annual, change of behavior by a significant percentage of the world’s population. For many Christians, their religion is a way of living, and the teachings of Jesus inform, without enforcing, social norms, morals and behavior in the West. But Islam is a way of life, and Ramadan exemplifies that life. Obligation. No compromise, right and wrong, adherence both to form and substance.

Yet beneath the seeming harshness of the obligation lies the meaning of Ramadan for Muslims. A time of contemplation, of spiritual cleansing, of consideration for others, of self-discipline, of shared experience. It’s a positive time which leaves participants with a real sense of achievement and wellbeing.

Of course not everyone enters into the spirit even if they adhere to the form. Just as in the West the inevitable reaction of horror follows the appearance of Christmas advertising many months before the season begins, there are Muslims who complain of the creeping commercialization of Ramadan. Just as we do, many people max out their credit cards during the season and spend the aftermath worrying about how they will make ends meet. And many overindulge during the night time hours, with some actually gaining weight over the month.

Some also mitigate the fasting hours by sleeping. Visit the more traditional offices in parts of the Gulf during Ramadan, and it’s not uncommon to see sleeping bodies littering prayer areas, offices and communal areas. But even among the weak-willed, there’s no mistaking the desire and intention to meet the obligation of their faith.

For non-Muslims living through Ramadan, only those who wrap themselves in their own bubble of reality can fail to be affected and often uplifted by the experience. I enjoy the month immensely. Social activities go on late into the night. Shops stay open until the early hours. There are special Ramadan foods, including the sweet, sticky variety which I adore. Above all, there’s a spirit of animation and excitement in the night time hours not to be felt at any other time of the year.

Daytimes are quiet. Working hours for those who are fasting are shorter. Meetings late in the afternoon are best avoided. Try as they might, even the most diligent start flagging. I remember one meeting with a very senior executive. At his request, it was at 5pm. As the meeting went on, I could see his eyes drooping as he fought to stay awake. Though there was a good chance that I would have bored him to sleep anyway, I learned my lesson.

How is Saudi Arabia celebrating Ramadan this year, as its women look forward to being able to drive, as movie theatres are under construction, as its armed forces are still bogged down in Yemen and as its young Crown Prince promises a new era of social liberalisation, while reserving the iron fist for anybody who speaks against his regime?

Much the same as in previous years, I suspect. No social reform is likely to touch the enforcement of the rules of Ramadan, or the intolerance of those who don’t respect them. So the country will slip into its traditional rhythm. Night will become day, families will celebrate, the Quran will be read in mosques and homes, families will visit each other, and across the world, wherever there are Saudis in exile or studying in universities, people will be gathering together to pray and to break their fast with traditional Ramadan food.

As Saudi Arabians enter a season that transcends the uncertainty surrounding its present and future, it would be easy for me to sign off a retrospective by focusing on the negatives. After all, everyone in the West seems to want to learn about executions, political repression, treatment of women, abuse of expatriate workers, the backwardness of religious conservatives, superstition, corruption and warmongering.

But when I look back at the country, I prefer to remember the good aspects, of which there are many.

If what follows feels like a tourist blurb, perhaps that’s appropriate, because the Kingdom is now issuing visas for people who want to visit the country for reasons other than work or religion.

Let’s start with the geography. In between nondescript rock-strewn plans lie majestic mountain ranges and escarpments devoid of vegetation yet full of colourful rock strata. In the central region there are deserts that change in hue from deep red to almost pure white. In the East you will find oases full of date palms. To the South there are green mountain valleys full of streams and lakes. All along the Red Sea coat lie stretches of pristine coral reef teeming with marine life. And then there’s the rolling sand sea of the Empty Quarter.

Al Sawda Peak, Asir Province

The big cities are a glorious melange of architectural styles, ever changing. There are old souks and shiny malls, ridiculous luxury sitting side by side with corner shops, family stores and petrol stations. And for those who are reluctant to take to the multi-lane highways that double as racetracks, the age of the train is fast approaching. A new metro in Riyadh, and a network that links Jeddah with the holy cities of Mecca and Madinah.

Jeddah Corniche

Then, most important of all, there are the people. Like every other country, Saudi Arabia has its share of the mean, the cantankerous, the greedy and the arrogant. But the best of them could teach my country a thing or two about humanity and decency. The women I remember most are feisty, ambitious and determined. Those who work do so with enthusiasm and a glint in the eye. They have something to prove. The men are laid-back yet welcoming.

Collectively they are capable of showing great kindness and hospitality. They have an open-hearted enthusiasm for life that is hard to find in societies where the only emotion it is acceptable to display in public is anger. While their Egyptian neighbours are better known for their sense of humour, the Saudis match them. The public image may be of a solemn and serious people, you don’t have to look far to find them rocking with laughter. I include in this description the people of Bahrain, where I also lived for several years.

Nobody, least of all me, can ignore the negatives. Yet the good things about the country rarely get a mention beyond the paid-for efforts of the publicists and spin doctors. I’m neither. I’m just a person who over the years has been enriched beyond measure by my experiences of Saudi Arabia and its people.

And as the Saudis and all the other nationalities that throng the country find their thoughts turning inwards for Ramadan, I hope that in the years to come they will be able to celebrate many more Holy Months in peace, unperturbed by the turmoil that surrounds them.

For those in the region who don’t have that blessing, in particular Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Libya, I devoutly wish for the same.

To Muslims everywhere, Ramadan Kareem.

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