I’ve been in Jeddah for more than a week and worked my first full week at the Consulate. Right now is a good time to settle in and get the lay of the land, as things are slowed down for Ramadan. Most people are either at home on vacation or abroad with their families. In Saudi, eating, drinking, and smoking in public is forbidden from dawn to sunset, when the fast is broken. Most ex-pats and non-Muslims will eat and drink in the privacy of their home, and our compound restaurants are still open. At work many of our colleagues are fasting, so there are no snacks around (which is very good for many reasons!), and we keep water and drinks out of sight at our desks. Our colleagues understand that many of us are not observing Ramadan, but we try to be as respectful as possible as well. So in the normal course of home and work, it’s easy to get by during Ramadan.
However, the Saudi experience in Ramadan is quite something. I don’t think it’s unique, but it takes some getting used to. Basically, NOTHING is open during the daytime. This means restaurants of course, but also stores, malls, many businesses, many government offices, and most service-related entities. A few stores have limited morning hours, but they’re not always predictable or consistent. Some stores start to open in the mid-afternoon so people can prepare for iftar (the fast-breaking), but for the most part the city is shuttered until after evening prayers, around 9:30pm. During the day there is very little activity, which means very little traffic as well. We get to work in record time, but traffic picks up by the time we leave at the end of the day. By 9pm the streets are a madhouse. Even the most mundane errands (grocery-shopping, signing up for internet service, etc.) must be done in the late evenings. People are out and about until the wee hours of the morning, at which time they eat the pre-dawn suhoor and then sleep, many until past noon.
I’ve gone out a few times in the evening for things like procuring internet service, buying an abaya, and twice to go to ladies-only charity bazaars. Forget the picture you may have of the typical US craft bazaar, held in a church or town hall and marked by knitted tea cozies and scary-faced dolls. No, the Saudi ladies-only charity bazaar is a social event and a place to do serious shopping. They’re held at places like the Hilton conference center or the Jeddah Exhibition Center. Dozens of haute couture fashion designers and boutiques bring their gorgeous but commensurately-priced wares to sell to the Saudi elite. Designer abayas that cost thousands of dollars; traditional and modern dresses and outfits of every color, pattern, and fabric; jewel-encrusted watches and coffee cups and brooches; and high-end home furnishings are all on offer. The theme here is bling. Every single thing is covered by jewels, crystals, rhinestones, sequins, or something to make it shine and glitter. It’s amazing. Every woman has a designer handbag, impeccable makeup, and leaves a trail of expensive, made-to-order perfume in her wake. There is an entry fee charged, which goes to the organizer’s charity of choice, and I assume some of the proceeds do as well. Coffee, tea, chocolates, and other delights are passed around as you wander the maze of stalls. It’s an overwhelming but deliciously unique experience. I have only managed to walk away with a pair of moderately-priced earrings and some sweets to take as a hostess gift. But there are thousands and thousands of dollars being spent on the very latest in Saudi fashion and accessories.
In the spirit of Ramadan, I fasted today. I felt it was only appropriate, as I was invited to my first iftar, or fast-breaking, at a colleague’s house. Now granted I did my fasting Saudi-style, sleeping until after noon and then staying fairly inert for the afternoon, but I was definitely appreciative of the adhan (call to prayer) and then being able to take a drink of water for the first time all day. My entire section came to iftar, and my colleague and her husband were lovely and generous hosts. It was a great way to get to know my colleagues out of an office setting. We began by drinking juices and coffee and watching the Maghreb prayer in Mecca on the television, accompanied by dates and nuts. It’s important to break the fast with just a little bit of food and drink before having a large meal. I found I was more thirsty than hungry, which makes sense, especially given the climate.
Dinner was phenomenal. Everything was lovingly prepared from scratch and presented impeccably, and we had a wonderful, family-style feast. Lentil soup, salad, samboosas, lahmajoun, dolmas, roast chicken, Armenian rice with fruit and nuts, kibbeh, and hummus were all on the menu. We capped it off with tea and coffee, and then the desserts emerged. Cheese kunafa and carrot cupcakes were accompanied by a delectable fresh fruit salad. We were all stuffed but very satisfied after two hours of eating. I will now be able to fast for a week before eating again (though I will be guzzling water).
Tomorrow I’m going on a tour of the old city (in Arabic) with colleagues and to another iftar, this time in a restaurant. I have several other iftars on the calendar for the weeks ahead – Ramadan Mubarak!