From 2002-2004, I was living and working in Saudi Arabia. During that time, I traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia and kept a fairly detailed journal of my experiences. As my web site attracted less than 10 visitors a month, it was more effective to spam my friends with long emails about my life in the Middle East. Dubbed ‘Notes from an Ethnic Land’, I sent out countless posts to unsuspecting recipients over the years. This is one such email, originally sent out in November, 2002.
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Ramadan – the 9th month of the Islamic calendar in which all Muslims must fast from sunrise till sunset.
Soohoor – the understandably massive meal that takes place at sunrise
Iftar – the understandably massive meal that takes place at sunset
Fajr – the first prayer of the day
Isha – the final prayer of the day.
Maseehi – of the Christian faith, masculine
Miskeen – pitiable bastard
Ramadan in Jeddah is like Rio. Only not at all.
Although, for the miskeen expat, it can become the symbolic apex of the calendar year, much like Christmas (for those who are allowed to believe in it). It is a month so unlike any other out here that it needs to be treated with anthropological reverence, like a jubilee, a festival, a carnival.
A carnival on valium but a carnival nonetheless.
It is a paradoxical month for the first-timer. You see, we – the expats – are here for money. Not hugs or blowjobs. Money. And it is troubling for us to have plenty of it but be so hungry that we look at stray cats with culinary interest. Due to the fact that no one is allowed to eat, drink or smoke in public for the entire day (and by no-one, I really do mean notabloodyperson), our daily lives are forced to shift somewhat.
During Ramadan, it is customary for the work day to be shortened. Instead of working the usual 8-5, we work from 9-3. In fact, the average Ramadan day is much like discount trans-Atlantic flight (replete with the face rape that comes from breathing the same air that has been filtered through the lungs of filthy foreigners and not being allowed to drink water for 6 hours).
Productivity is low. Very low.
Because I once decided that I wanted to better myself, I have to haul my frail self to training sessions that typically extend until 5:30. It is frustrating as all the other maseehi get to go home and send me photos of lit cigarettes in their filthy, moustachioed faces. School usually lets out early due to the fact that irrational arguments with inanimate objects distract me.
Now, the journey home. I haven’t been here long enough yet to not want to drive. But I also haven’t been here long enough to be allowed. But this just makes me want to all the more. Fuck.
So I take taxis everywhere.
The days are deceptively short here so the fasting can end as early at 6pm (depending on the season in which Ramadan falls). It is, of course, particularly enjoyable being on the road just minutes before the cannon goes off (a huge canon is fired that can be heard throughout the city signifying sundown and the beginning of Iftar). Scores of crazed starving, nicotine-deprived maniacs race home to break their fast – you have never before seen such lunacy on the streets. It is not a comforting sight when the cabbie who is driving you home is trying to eat his own arm. (As a side bar, I think I can make a fortune by sponsoring one of these hunger-induced psychos to a deal with NASCAR.)
Anyway, now that I have my own car (a 2001 Volvo s40; silver, power everything, remote key etc), I am apprehensive about driving home at this time of day. Understandably so. (As another side bar, for those of you who missed out on the whole ‘Joe has been forced to attend Saudi driving school for a week and listen to a daily 5-hour lecture in Arabic’ episode, I am in the process of writing it out in a journal for the amusement of all. )
After Iftar, we rest , smoke and wait for the Isha prayer to end – usually around 9pm. It is at this time that the city comes to life. Most commercial stores and retail businesses are closed throughout the day during Ramadan. Once the Isha prayer is over, all these stores open up and stay open until about 3am. There is something quite surreal about getting a haircut at midnight and walking through a lively shopping mall at 1am.
The general behaviour of Saudis during Ramadan is to stay up all night and wait for Soohoor. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to a Saudi’s house for Soohoor, you will be expected to show up at around midnight and hang around until you eat at 2am. The meal lasts until Fajr (which is at around 5:30am). After Fajr, you nap for an hour or two and then head off to work. I haven’t had the chance to go to a Soohoor yet – I’m usually in a coma by about 2am, dreaming of cigarettes and boobies and pork. Needless to say, the Saudis at the office are like the walking dead. Not only are they fasting, they are also shattered physically. Combine that with the heat…..
It is now about 11am and I am willing to donate my paycheque for a cup of tea.
Although not as long as I would have liked, I must end this letter and get back to ‘work’.
I hope that this letter finds everyone well.