Ramadan started this week across the Muslim world – so what’s it all about, and what does it mean for non-Muslims?
Confession time: my knowledge of Ramadan before moving to Qatar was pretty slim.
But because we’ll be in town for the majority of the month, I wanted to learn more about it and find some answers to questions I had, like…
- What should / must non-Muslims do?
- What effect does this have on driving?
- And what’s with all the Vimto?
For Mrs LC this will actually be her second Ramadan in Doha. She relocated a few weeks before it began last year.
The option of coming over at the same time was never on the cards for me and the kids. They were still in school, I was still working and all our worldly goods were a long way off being packed into a shipping container.
But even if it had been an option, we probably wouldn’t have gone for it.
The scalding summer and restrictions imposed by the period would have made for too big a cultural leap for us. So instead we arrived at the end of August, meaning we’ve had almost a year’s run up to get ready for what Ramadan will bring.
So what exactly is it all about? The best overview of what Ramadan is and what it means that I could find comes from I Love Qatar’s dedicated site.
As Qatari blogger, activist and metaphorical bridge-builder Mr Q says:
“This holy period requires all adult Muslims to abstain from food, drink and tobacco between sunrise and sunset, and to have a special focus on repentance, increased prayer and increased charity.
Essentially it is a month of training used to discipline and prepare oneself for the remainder of the year.”
Ramadan ends with the festival of Eid-al-Fitr, a day of celebration and gratitude. (You can read loads more on Mr Q’s blog here.)
Changes to daily life
But Muslim or not, Ramadan affects pretty much every aspect of daily life for the month. For example, eating and drinking in public is forbidden for everyone, Muslim or not. In the park or in your car, you can’t drink water or even chew gum.
(No word yet on what the penalty for transgression is, but I suspect it won’t be as extreme as our neighbours in Saudi are planning.)
It affects where you can go: cinemas, museums and shops all reduce or stop their daylight activities.
It even affects the working day. The traditional rush hours of early mornings and mid-afternoons have vanished, with the jams now later in the morning and earlier in the afternoon to reflect the reduced working hours during Ramadan for Muslims.
And it definitely affects the driving. I’ve heard a year’s worth of horror stories about how the driving takes a turn for the worse – yes, worse – during Ramadan. The late afternoon, with fasters low on blood sugar en route to an Iftar meal, sounds like a time to stay off the streets.
It’s also commercial. I’ve had Ramadan greetings from everyone from my mobile phone network to our electricity supplier. The supermarkets – never slow to spot an opportunity – have been gearing up for this for weeks.
And that’s where the Vimto comes in. Yes, Vimto.
Sales of this oldest-of-the-old-school fruit cordial go through the roof in Ramadan. Back in the UK, it’s something your grandparents’ drank which has failed to do a Lucozade and reinvent itself.
But here in the Gulf it has a generations-long association with Ramadan, which to a Brit is akin to pitching up in Sri Lanka, only to find that no Diwali party can kick off without a few cans of Dandelion and Burdock.
Its fruity sugariness is the perfect accompaniment at the breaking of the fast by all accounts.
What’s on, where to go and what to do
If you’re want to know more about Ramadan, what to do or how you can join in, check out any / all of these fine resources:
- Just Here’s dedicated site which features lots of great stuff, my pick of which is Brooke Reid’s “Why I’m fasting.”
- Doha News’ 8 things to know about Ramadan in Qatar
- Doha News’ essential Opening hours guide
- Time Out’s website has 21 things to do in Doha during Ramadan…
- …while their July issue comes with a nifty guide to the whole month and is well worth getting hold of
- Qatar Living has a dedicated What’s On page
- Christine Gerber Rutt’s Doha Mums post on Things to do for kids in Ramadan
- There’s a festival of events on at Katara
- And don’t forget that cycle-friendly MIA Park is closed until Eid (mid-August) as previously discussed.
- Expat websites have lots of helpful advice if you’ve moved to a Muslim country, like this.
One thing I’ve really been looking forward to is going out for an Iftar meal – literally the breaking of the fast.
We went to a hotel which didn’t require us to drive across town to see what the experience was like – and it was great. The hotel had really gone to town with every kind of drapes to create the effect of an indoor tent.
The meal itself began with some traditional nuts and fruit (to deliver a quick burst of energy) before moving onto what was essentially an evening brunch.
By the end, I couldn’t have eaten anything else for another day, so when they chucked us out to clear and set the tables for Suhour (the meal before sunrise), the prospect of sitting down to another meal of equal size within hours was literally the last thing on my mind.
Now imagine doing that every day for a month, and it’s not hard to see how things like this happen.
We even tried some Vimto. Maybe I’m missing something, but it just tasted like any other fruity cordial. I guess it’s a cultural you-had-to-be-there thing. Like watching a five-day cricket match that has every possibility of ending in a draw.
We moved to Doha for new experiences. From that perspective, Ramadan feels like a very appropriate way to bring our first year as expats to a close.
Just as we’ve become acclimatised to the heat, so we have to the rituals and ways of life that come with living in a Muslim country. There’s definitely a much more relaxed air in the city. It’s clearly a very special time to be here.
In a few weeks, we’ll be heading back to Europe for our summer holiday. But even whilst I will be revelling in all the simple things we can’t do here – walking outdoors for any length of time or drinking tap water, for example – I suspect I will miss the sound of the call to prayer.