Ramadan for newbies

Ramadan started this week across the Muslim world – so what’s it all about, and what does it mean for non-Muslims?

Yes, really.

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.

Ramadan offers
Roll up, roll up

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.

Sadly, judging from horrific incidents like this, and this, those claims aren’t exaggerated.

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.

Bad news
Save yourself the money; it tastes like medicine

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:

Time Out
Free with the July issue. Lovely with a bit of jam

Season’s eatings

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.

Ramadan Mubarak!


10 thoughts on “Ramadan for newbies

  1. Violet July 13, 2013 / 3:46 pm

    Great post! Loved the descriptiveness 🙂

    • littlecity July 14, 2013 / 3:52 pm

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment – it’s appreciated.

  2. Rach July 13, 2013 / 4:03 pm

    You’ve ALL done brilliantly, you’ve adjusted to a new place, a new year and a new set of customs in record time, take a break, reflect on how far you’ve come and see how proud you all are of the achievements you’ve made in such a short space of time! Enjoy Ramadan, for different reasons, you’ve earned it, you deserve it, make it break in others ways too! Xx

    • littlecity July 14, 2013 / 3:58 pm

      Thanks, as always, Rach. You are sherpas leading the way in this crazy expat adventure. Actual break (with trees, birdsong, hills etc) looming in two weeks, so lots to look forward to! x

  3. flipthinks July 14, 2013 / 2:18 am

    Good post that lays out the pros and the cons. It’s interesting that in countries like Egypt eating in public is not forbidden, but most people not fasting choose to show respect by limiting their public consumption. part of me feels this would be a better way, as you are choosing to respect the country, but I can understand why the ban is in place as there are far more expats in the Gulf who might not be aware of, or choose to ignore, the rules of Ramadan.

    • littlecity July 14, 2013 / 3:50 pm

      Yep, would be great if we could show our respect voluntarily, but I think you’re right on the need for some sort of rule, sadly. Still, observance – as far as I’ve seen so far – has been impeccable. So maybe things will change over time.

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