First of all, Ramadan kareem to all my Muslim friends in the kingdom and around the world.
Secondly, can you believe that it’s the first weekend in the last 3 months that I actually get to sit in front of my computer? Yes, that will be my excuse for having neglected Sand and Lemon Mint readers… some of you I had the chance to visit personally on my whirlwind tourto Toronto, Vancouver then Bangkok, Taiwan, and Bali… so hopefully no judging please!
Having just returned from the most compact, intense, and amazing pre-Ramadan diving/turtle watching trip in Oman, my sanity and patience has been well replenished to deal with the everyday frustrations of living in Riyadh. (Anyone who has been to other parts of Saudi Arabia will testify to the warm and friendly nature of the locals which has somehow been beaten out of Riyadhees by the dry heat and the mutawahs.) So I am actually looking forward to Ramadan this year and would like to share some of my survival tips to being in Riyadh during Ramadan as an expat.
Ramadan is the most holy month of Islam, and all Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sundown as one of the five pillars of Islam. This year Ramadan falls between July 10th and August 8th, which makes it more challenging to those abstaining from food and water for long hours (in Riyadh from 3:39am to 6:46pm) and in the summer heat. For some, Ramadan is a time for devotion, cleansing, giving, and introspection. Forgo one’s earthly needs and think about the suffering of others. For others it is a time for family and celebrations. The nightly feast shared by family and fellow devotees bring all together in the spirit of Ramadan. For those of us non-Muslim expats who had not yet escaped the realm, it can be trying times, or perhaps a respite if you know how to navigate through Ramadan like a good old expat.
During Ramadan, the country goes to sleep during the day. Most businesses, our hospital included, operate on minimal staff, and all Muslims work reduced hours (5 to 6 hours a day). All the foreign teachers and most families with school age children (or anybody in their right mind really), have flown somewhere more free and less scorchingly hot. For those of us remaining, it means slower days at work and quiet streets and shops, as long as you are smart enough to follow a few simple rules:
1. No drinking or eating in public between dawn and sunset, or face jail time or deportation.
2. Do your shopping during the day, and return home by 6pm, before ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE (I don’t mean the literary Hell, it’s just an expression to convey the chaos and frenzy before the evening prayer, with a city full of starving drivers rushing home to eat).
3. Plan what and where you are going to have your lunch, bring your own food if you have to, because all food vendors are closed during the day. Restaurants are open from 4pm for takeouts and dine-ins from around 6:30pm.
4. If you absolutely have to be out past 6pm, have your favourite music, audio book, or podcast downloaded and some snacks ready, because you are going to be on the road for awhile and as always when traffic gets bad in Riyadh, all road rules goes out the passenger window.
5. Be sensitive to your HANGRY, thirsty, lightheaded colleague who just stayed up all night. I would equate the condition to a minor hangover.
6. If you are an obsessive compulsive snacker like myself, plan your snack breaks well. Practice sneaking food into your mouth and ingest that cracker while keep absolutely still.
Optional: Have your handy boyfriend build a Camelbak jacket with the straw discreetly coming out of your sleeve.
Once you prepare yourself mentally for the small inconveniences, Ramadan does have its perks and fun even for non-Muslims. All the major supermarkets like Tamimi, Hyper Panda and Danube are decked out like it’s Christmas and they carry special food and desserts for the occasion. My favourites include sambosas (triangular meat or cheese filled pastries), kanalfa (a crunch pastry layered with cream cheese, tastes best when freshly baked), and all the varieties of comforting soup for breaking fast and warming the soul. Most restaurants offer Iftar specials – a set meal of ample proportion with either traditional Arabic food for breaking fast or the restaurant’s own specialties.
Both the workplace and the expat community (what is left of it) show unprecedented comradeship. Share this special time with your Muslim friends and colleagues. Experience fasting even just for a day to appreciate the level of stamina it requires and the reward that comes at sunset (just remember to keep it healthy). Take part in an Iftar feast if you have the chance. Make these adorably shaped rice crispy treats for your friends. Enjoy the peace and quiet in the city and by the compound pool during the day. Have fun and stay safe!