22 October 2004

Ramadan - A Primer

Ramadan has been with us for a week now. Three weeks to go and we are just starting to get the hang of it. Here is some background, in case you don't know what it's all about.

Ramadan starts on the night that the first new moon is visible (or on the night before, if you are a Shiite - thanks, Muffadel). Because the Muslim calendar is lunar, the beginning of Ramadan comes earlier by a few days every year. It lasts for a moon cycle and remembers the time when the Prophet Mohammed received the first verses of the Koran from Allah. For Muslins this is a time of prayer and fasting, charity and family gatherings. It ends with the two-day celebration of Eid al Fitr.

I have been trying to find an equivalent in the Western (Christian) year for this and there really isn't one. Lent comes closest, where Christians are supposed to live simply and donate money to charity for 40 days. Not that many people still do this... Fasting during Ramadan really means eating, drinking, smoking nothing, not even water, during daylight hours. The newspaper publishes sunrise and sunset as well as prayer times daily on the front page so that everyone can get home in time to break fast.

This has major implications to the daily routine here. Shop and office opening hours are changed to give people shorter hours, but also to allow customers to attend to business late in the evening after they have broken their fast. The vehicle inspection office, for example, is open until 1am in the morning. Rush hour is at totally different times now, and the town is even emptier during daylight hours that it was already during the hot summer months. During Ramadan workers are entitled to a 6 hour workday, although this doesn't always work out in practice.

The first meal of the evening is called Iftar and all the hotels and restaurants provide Iftar buffets, often setting up tents on the beach with barbecues and shisha (water pipes). It is a big event at the mosques, of course, where charitable organisations serve food after prayer. Ramadan is also a time for charitable work, donations and neighbourliness. In that way it is a little like the Christmas spirit, families coming together in the evenings, helping each other cook for Iftar and such-like. At the same time businesses are taking the opportunity to make as much money out oft the event as they possibly can. Because of the restricted opening hours shops try to lure customers by offering raffles and competitions. One chain of petrol stations is even hoping to increase business by offering dates and water free to customers during the first hour after Iftar.

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