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Ramadan II

I’m now into my second Ramadan. I should be used to the total transformation that occurs to life in Riyadh, but again I am struggling to adapt. To recap, the holy month starts once the new moon is seen by the chief cleric and this means four weeks of religious devotions for the followers of the Islamic faith, which means 99% of the inhabitants of the city, and probably 99.5% of the whole country. It is wise for infidels such as myself to maintain a low profile. That said, Muslims are predominantly a peaceful and hospitable people, and as in the UK, the actions of the extremist minority are not representative of the whole.

On the positive side, our working day is reduced to six hours so I have the luxury of a lie-in in the mornings and an early finish. My Saudi colleagues are keen observers of the rituals, and the most noticeable of those is that of fasting from dawn to dusk. My ex-pat colleagues and I do not wish to antagonise them in any way, and so we also abstain from eating and drinking on the office. Depending on the interpretation of the holy Koran some Muslims are more literal in their interpretation of nil-by-mouth, and do not even swallow their own saliva. I have not witnessed this personally but it sounds very uncomfortable. Less strict are those who suck and chew miswak sticks, these are twigs off the Arak tree, and are said to have some antiseptic qualities that help keeps the mouth fresh.

Perhaps to look at a Christian parallel, when I lived in Kent, a nearby town had a Baptist Church. Where we lived (Cranbrook), we had a Strict Baptist Church, and down the road in Rye there was a Strict and Particular Baptist Church. I never found out what the different levels of observances these three churches had, but perhaps these differences are as outwardly minor of whether to chew or spit, or swallow that the different Muslims do. I’ve said it before, why when we have so much in common are we so divided over the tiniest of differences?

As I write, there is discord between the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, as Qatar has been isolated and blockaded over reported allegations of terrorist supporting. Whilst I have no knowledge of the actual facts, I do hope that solutions can be found quickly and normal relations can be restored. I have friends working in Qatar, and have heard of food shortages and semi-martial rule, a huge contrast from the interesting and vibrant country that I visited in January.

With daytime fasting, the Saudis turn nocturnal. After Mahgreb (Dusk) prayers, the fast is broken by having the Iftar meal, and then there are further devotions to be observed as the night continues. The final meal before daybreak is taken at around 3.30 am and then, for some, sleep is taken. Our office Saudis come in sometime after 10.00 and not all seem to be 100% alert all day. Last year as the holy month wore on, their office hours became later and later and Iftars were taken in the office. I believe that the religious intensity increases towards the end of the month and then they have the Eid al Fitr holiday period to cool off, and this is a time of feasting after the fasting. The Eid will allow me to have a few days off, but I won’t actually know what the days will be until shortly before the time!. Many ex-pats head for home during late Ramadan and Eid, but not me as I don’t have enough days from my leave allocation left to make it worthwhile. What I will probably do is look for a cheap flight and just escape somewhere for a few days, like I did last year when I went to Nepal.

One of the unfortunate effects of Ramadan habits and late-day drowsiness is that the accident rate rises on the roads. Unfortunately one of my friends was involved in an accident when his driver lost attention at a junction when they were coming out from a minor road, and poked the car’s nose out too far and it was ripped off by a passing lorry. Fortunately all were able to walk away from the car, but a scary moment nonetheless. And this was with him using a reputable limo-hire service, not just a local taxi! Some western companies present in KSA have imposed a “no-driving” restriction on their employees and require the use of personal drivers or taxis. I would suggest that during Ramadan at least, it would be safer for westerners to drive themselves. Of course this still presents an issue for women who are barred from driving.

I might do a little research on the accident rates on the railways during Ramadan and non-Ramadan months. Unfortunately there are not extensive records available here, so I might have to just use the 13 “normal” and 2 Ramadan months that I have been out here for a limited scope review.

The Saudi schools year finished on 25th May, a little earlier this year. The King had issued a decree that school and university exams would finish prior to Ramadan and that’s the kids on their holidays now. The wee souls have an incredible 120 days off and won’t return until after the Eid-al-Adha feast in early September. The decree does not apply to private schools, so the International schools in Riyadh are still in and will break up at the start of the Eid-al-Fitr at the end of June.


Compound cats

Obviously the Ramadan fasting does not extend to the animals in the Kingdom, and camels are out in numbers near to our compound at the moment, happily grazing on the last remnants of scrubby grass left after the rains of March and April. The cats on our compound (these are semi-wild and live off scraps that sympathetic residents leave out) seem to have exploded in numbers and there are a couple of litters of kittens living in hedges around the site. The cats are also nourished by nocturnal raiding of the bins and it isn’t uncommon to hear fierce catfights happening. There is one particularly dominant tomcat around at the moment, and he takes delight in bossing other cats around, and in the last few days I have seen him chase others up the trees that decorate the central pool area. Our cats are quite adept in climbing up and down the trees, the palms have helpful ridges in the trunk where fronds have been lopped. No need to call the fire brigade here!

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