Ramadan, the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, began on June 28 this year (2014) in Qatar. (Because it is based on sighting of the new moon, it can begin on different days throughout the world - this year it began on June 29 in the United States). It is a month observed by Muslims worldwide through fasting during daylight hours, and is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which are:
- declaring there is no god except God (Allah), and Muhammad as God's messenger;
- praying five times a day;
- giving 2.5% of one's savings to the poor and needy;
- fasting and self-control during the month of Ramadan;
- pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) at least once during one's lifetime if one is able to.
The month of Ramadan lasts 29-30 days based on the visual sightings of the crescent moon.
During the month of Ramadan, fasting is mandatory for adult Muslims except those who are suffering from an illness, travelling, pregnant, breastfeeding, diabetic or menstruating.
Work hours in Qatar are shortened to 5h a day, in recognition of the strains fasting places on the body and mind. Eating, drinking and smoking in public are strictly forbidden for all, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. Alcohol is not served in any establishment in Qatar, the Distribution Center (Booze Shop) is closed, and restaurants do not open until after evening prayer. All are asked to wear conservative attire, and during this month many Muslim women who do not normally wear the abaya will wear one.
Though fasting from dawn until sunset means refraining from food, beverages, smoking and engaging in sexual relations, these are allowed before sunrise and after sunset.
In Qatar, the hours following sunset involve many a feast, with breaking of the fast marked by Iftar (usually breaking fast with dates and/or water, sometimes soup), followed by Sohur (main meal eaten between midnight and dawn).
The streets become extremely crowded after the breaking of fast, and tents are set up throughout the country, on hotel grounds, in empty desert fields, in compounds, and outside private villas, to welcome visitors, Muslim and non, to partake in the meals that follow sunset.
You might think the grocery stores would be empty these days, what with everyone fasting, but the reality is, stores are never so full as during Ramadan. Families fill shopping carts to capacity at 2:00 p.m. in anticipation of the feast to come that evening. Since much of the premise of Ramadan is charity, tents and homes are open to the less fortunate, and as such, food is prepared in huge quantities in anticipation of many hungry mouths to feed.
As non-Muslim expats, we abide by the rules and avoid eating or drinking out in public, but in all honesty, we have our coffee and breakfast under cover of our homes after sunrise before making our way to the office. We may thirst a bit at work, but chances are there is a break room set aside for us to discretely go have tea, coffee, water, and a snack if we've brought one with us. We probably have a bottle of water stashed in our handbag or car, ready at the handy in case we get too parched on the ride. As soon as we get home, we head to the water cooler or coffee maker.
We are discrete, because anything less would warrant a reprimand, but we still manage to go about our lives in relatively 'normal' mode. Every once in a while we're jarred back to reality, like yesterday when I went to get Kiddo a Subway sandwich after work (her regular Thursday treat) and saw the 'Closed' sign on the door (restaurants don't open until after fast has broken, i.e. around 6:30 p.m.). While grocery stores are open throughout the day, restaurants are not. So yesterday we created our own Subway station at home.
Many of us tend to avoid venturing out into traffic at night during Ramadan. Fasting Muslims tend to sleep a lot during the day in Qatar and go out all night, every night, during Ramadan. Night becomes day, and streets, malls and restaurants are filled to capacity. The streets are full of revellers, and the traffic can be chaotic. So it is that we take advantage of the relative peace of the hours between working and waking (usually the quietest times are between 3:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.) to do our shopping and errands, before returning home and tucking in for the night.
Occasionally, we'll go on a Qatari-like spree, stocking up as if there were no tomorrow, in an effort to avoid having to take to the roads for the next week or two. Case in point, our trip to MegaMart today:
Kiddo's birthday will fall smack dab in the middle of Ramadan, and this means that there will be no opportunity to go buy her ice cream, bring her out to lunch or go see a movie during daylight hours. This is the second year this happens, and even though she doesn't yet get it, she accepts it. As doting parents, we celebrated her birthday two months early, before the Expat Exodus, when her friends were still in town and drinking and eating during daylight hours were no big deal. On her birthday, we'll have a cake, open gifts and bring her out for dinner after sunset, but we'll remain thankful we made the day magic in May.
But I'm actually grateful in many ways to be in Qatar during Ramadan. Traffic eases slightly, life slows down a bit, the office becomes less hectic, spring cleaning finally gets done, we get to hunker down and catch up on Survivor and Master Chef on Mac TV. The work days are short, family time is abundant, and life is generally easier.
And even though we don't fast beyond office hours, Ramadan is a good reminder to all of us to tip a little bit more to the gas station attendant, the grocery bagging boy, the compound maintenance staff, the delivery man. It's a reminder to give thanks for what we have. It's a slowing of time that reminds us to stop and say 'thanks', 'how are you', 'have a nice day' to the person in front of us, beside us, behind us.