I know you've all been on the edge of your seats...just dying to know about Ramadan and all the ways it affects life here. Well, your patience has been rewarded. So here it is...the long-awaited Ramadan entry.
For those of you unfamiliar with Muslim holidays, here is a description of Ramadan (courtesy of wikipedia): It is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and indulging in anything that is in excess or ill-natured; from dawn until sunset. Fasting is meant to teach the Muslim patience, modesty and spirituality. Ramadan is a time for Muslims to fast for the sake of God, and to offer more prayer than usual. During Ramadan, Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds.
Ramadan is observed in different ways in different parts of the world. In my experience outside of Kuwait, the rules of the fast are observed by Muslims but not imposed upon non-Muslims. In Kuwait, things work a little differently. During the month of Ramadan, eating, drinking, smoking, and chewing gum are prohibited in public. Prohibited for EVERYONE. It doesn't matter if you are Muslim or Christian, Arab or Western. If you are caught eating, drinking, smoking, or chewing gum in public, you are subject to a fine and/or imprisonment. If you are taken to prison, you can be kept there for the remainder of Ramadan (up to 30 days!). Keep in mind that temperatures during the month of Ramadan can be above 125 degrees, and we cannot drink water from sun-up to sun-down. In the privacy of your homes you can do whatever you want, but don't try taking a swig from that water bottle sitting in the car!
The fast itself is observed from sun-up to sun-down (which is around 6:30pm every day). Once the sun goes down, Muslims celebrate with the Iftar meal (the breaking of the fast). This is a huge social activity, where families gather together or visit one another for a huge feast. Since restaurants are closed from sun-up to sun-down during Ramadan, the Iftar signals the opening of the food business (many of which will remain open all night during Ramadan). The reality in Kuwait is that observing Muslims often just shift their days and evenings. They don't work (or only work shorter hours) during Ramadan. They sleep all day and get up shortly before Iftar. They then stay up all night, eat huge meals, and watch tv for hours on end (apparently there are tv series specially created for Ramadan).
So how does all of this affect me? Well thanks for asking! First, there is the obvious discomfort of being forced to observe a month-long fast. Obviously, I don't have to stick to the exact fasting hours, since I'm home by 3:30pm and can do whatever I want in my own house. But whenever I am at work or out in the city, I still have to be very careful to observe all of the laws of fasting. Ramadan also has a huge impact on social life and the city/country of Kuwait. Basically, the month of Ramadan is exactly that- it's all about Ramadan. Social activities during the sunlight hours are basically nil since nothing is open (can't go to Starbucks or get lunch). As time gets closer to the Iftar, everything in life starts to revolve around traffic. Here's the breakdown:
1. 6-6:30pm This is the half-hour before Iftar (breaking of the fast). During this time, it is understood that if you're a westerner, you'd better stay off the roads. Ramadan is known to have the highest rate and most spectacular car crashes of the year (which is saying a lot in a country that already has the highest traffic fatality rate in the world!). Basically, everyone is rushing home to either make it before the prayer at the mosque, or to be home in time for the Iftar. So you have a bunch of people with very low blood-sugar and questionable driving skills drag racing through the streets to make it home. If you want to live, stay off the streets. The news has already had several stories of pedestrians getting hit at high speeds by these drivers.
2. 6:30-8pm This is the time of Iftar where most people are at home breaking their fast with a huge meal. So, it's prime westerner "get to where you need to be" time! Incidentally, I've also heard this is a great time to meet other western singles at the grocery store since it's the one time of day when we cautiously venture out into the world. Hah. I need to scope out that scene.
3. 8pm-?? Once 8pm hits, the city basically goes into traffic lockdown. It's a parking lot. The entire country suddenly decides it's time to get out there and celebrate at the open-all-night-restaurants or down by the water or at different houses. Combine that with the normal inability to drive and a general lethargy brought on by food-coma...and it's just not a time to be on the roads.
In conclusion, Ramadan is a very difficult time to be a foreigner. I think it would be more fun if we were sometimes invited to participate in the Iftar meal, but so far no luck in that regard. So for me, it's a month to relax and stay home. I've started going to big church on Friday mornings (I was going to a Thurs night service last year but it meets at 6:30pm so I can't drive there due to the aforementioned 6-6:30 no driving recommendation). I also picked up a couple work-out videos and have been trying to exercise on a regular basis (get those endorphins going to combat the mild but constant depression that seems to affect all of us living over here). And I've started cooking! I know...gasp. Don't get your hopes up...I don't know if it's going to stick. But last week I made broccoli-cheddar soup from scratch, and last night I made a vegetable fritatta (sp?). All of this forced down-time is a bit lonely, but not as bad as I had anticipated. I've survived one week of Ramadan...only 3 more to go!
One additional thought...according to many Muslims, "When Ramadan arrives, Heaven's gates are opened, Hell's gates are closed, and the demons are chained up" and who ever passes away will enter paradise. On a personal note, Ramadan seems to carry with it a heaviness that weighs even more than normal life here. My friend Hala's father passed away on the first day of Ramadan. My thoughts and prayers go out to her and her family. According to the above belief about Ramadan, Heaven's gates are opened and Hell's gates are closed for him. I had the privilege of attending the 'aza (the mourning) for him. My heart goes out to Hala and to her family. I will write more about the 'aza and explain some of the cultural aspects of mourning at a later date.
Thanks for reading, and Ramadan Kareem (official Ramadan greeting)!