My fasting experiment: Ramadan in Saudi Arabia
I’ve been fasting to try and catch a glimpse of what this month is like for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims
Heads turn as we walk into the room. Rows upon rows of men and boys, sitting cross-legged on the floor, look at the Westerner who’s just walked into one of the largest mosques in Riyadh, in one of the most conservative areas of the city. I’m here to share iftar, the breaking of the fast, and I’m not sure how people will react to my unexpected visit.
We’re one week into Ramadan, and I’ve been fasting to try and catch a glimpse of what this month is like for the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Saudi Arabia is an easy place to try it for the first time, because the majority of people living there are Muslims – and after all, eating, drinking or smoking in public during fasting hours are punishable.
Although it’s not obligatory for non-Muslims to fast in Saudi Arabia (eating in private is fine), supermarkets, cafes and restaurants are closed during daylight hours, so everyone has to plan a bit differently. Ramadan here is both a time of renunciation and celebration, a month-long national holiday when families spend more time together and Muslims make resolutions.
For the first few days I’ve been fasting privately, breaking my fast alone or with friends. But I wanted to get as close as possible to the Saudi experience of Ramadan, which meant a trip to the mosque to break my fast with the Muslim community.
Thankfully I have a Saudi friend with me, and we walk in to join a long line of men sitting cross-legged in front of a spread of food. Women are also invited to break their fast together in the mosque, but they do so in a separate room.
Everyone sits in silence, stock still, waiting for the call to prayer. When we hear a sound, it isn’t by one voice, but ten, twenty, fifty - it’s the sound of everyones’ smartphone apps telling their owners it’s time to pray. These are 21st-century Muslims. But no one moves, they’re waiting for the official call from the muezzin.
When we hear it, the room erupts into motion. One man opposite me cracks open a bottle of water and chugs it down in one. Most are more reserved, taking maybe a date or a small piece of bread to break their fast. We dig into the modest spread for the next five minutes - miniature pizza bites, pastries, buttermilk, juice, spiced Arabic coffee - and then move on, refreshed, into the main hall.
Common practice is to eat a small meal when the sun sets, a larger meal later in the evening, and a final meal (suhoor) some time before the dawn prayer, which begins the next fast. To make sure you get through the day safely it’s important to drink lots of water and avoid salty foods at suhoor - especially important when you’re fasting in the Arabian summer!
The traditional way to break one's fast is with water, dates, and Vimto, a drink which will be familiar to all Brits. Originally developed in Britain in 1908 as a responsible alternative to alcohol, the fruit cordial has since become synonymous with Ramadan throughout the Middle East. Vimto is popular partly because it gives your blood sugar a much-needed boost after a day of fasting, and is loved by young and old alike, as evidenced by this Game of Thrones-inspired meme which circulated on social media last year.
During Ramadan, Saudi life slows down and many people become nocturnal. School hours are reduced and work schedules change, usually either being reduced to about five or six hours per day, or people sleep during the day or work through the night. Many people take time off work but few travel abroad, preferring to spend time with their families nearby.
This is the month of the year when kids are allowed to stay up late, and those who don’t have work often stay up all night celebrating. “We mostly get through the day by praying and sleeping," says a recent Saudi high-school graduate. Indeed, the two don’t seem to be mutually exclusive - in the Grand Mosque I found a guy spread-eagled in the prayer hall while waiting for the sunset prayer.
“Shops, malls, restaurants and sheesha places are open all night. We also have more frequent and bigger gatherings with friends and family at night,” says Naif, a 20-something Saudi.
“All night there are TV shows about Islam, history, health, comedy and competitions”.
Saudis love poking fun at themselves and have a particular fondness for the self-deprecating humour of MBC’s hit show ‘Selfie’, which satirises aspects of Saudi society.
The malls, a central pillar of Saudi social life, stay open through the night during Ramadan. Walking through Nakheel mall, one of the biggest in Riyadh, at 2 a.m., the place had a festival atmosphere, with groups of women cloaked in their black abayas browsing the stores or stopping for a coffee, married couples with their children running rings around them, and the occasional single man lucky enough to be let through security (in Riyadh a lot of the most popular hangouts are reserved for women and families only, making for a tough life as a bachelor).
The signs that Ramadan is approaching begin to appear a couple of weeks beforehand. Red decorations appear in shops and restaurants, and the supermarkets begin to swell with food, culminating in sales and mad dashes to stock up on supplies before the holy month begins.
Ironically, most people eat more during the holy month, as every night is seen as an opportunity to feast on a large meal with family and friends. This is a time when the loose, beltless thobe (the white robe worn by Saudi men) really comes into its own.
Although feasting after fasting has now become the norm in Saudi, one of the chief purposes of Ramadan is to help Muslims empathise with the poor, and to incline them towards charitable deeds.
Ramadan is also meant to help you gain control over your desires. The reward for a successful month of fasting is the three-day holiday of Eid al-Fitr: the only days in the Islamic calendar when fasting is actually prohibited, they are usually celebrated in Saudi with more family get-togethers and meals, TV-watching, and fireworks.
Unfortunately, an empty stomach also often means a short temper. Self-control is part of the challenge, and some go so far as to say that losing your temper equates to breaking your fast. Unfortunately, human fallibility makes for plenty of Ramadan road rage as the fasting furious make their way home from work. One day while driving home an hour before the iftar, a car came screeching through and spun to a 180-degree halt right next to my Uber. The driver then sped alongside us and made a few animated hand gestures presumably intended to convey his heartfelt apology and regret.
I found the first few days pretty tough, with a lot of time spent sitting around trying to distract myself from the gnawing sensation in my stomach. Matters weren’t helped by my housemate who kept ‘forgetting’ that I was fasting and offering me snacks.
After a few days, however, my body did seem to adjust; I wasn’t thinking about food as much, and I had more energy. I realised how normal it is for us to grab food whenever we feel hungry (and often when we don’t), but by doing this we don’t get any of the benefits of fasting, for example when the body starts burning fat instead of sugar for energy.
Wherever in the world you are, there will probably be Muslims nearby observing Ramadan, and this month is a great opportunity to learn a bit more about them and their faith. If you’re interested, you could ask a Muslim acquaintance to take you along to the iftar meal. The mosque in Saudi had its doors and arms open wide – chances are others will too.