and it is early Saturday evening, about 6:15 p.m. I walk into Carrefours’ Supermarket to do my weekly shopping. Along the way, I noticed that many shops and stores are shuttered and closed. I didn’t think too much of it; after all, it is Ramadan, and people have odd hours this time of year. So, I grab a shopping cart in the supermarket and proceed to leisurely shop. But, something is wrong. There are no children running and screaming up and down the aisles, no husbands and wives slowly picking out food, and the produce area is like a ghost town. In fact, the entire store is like a ghost town. It feels a little creepy, but I continue my shopping. “Halas.” A guard is staring at me scowling. Again he barks “halas.” He speaks no English. I speak no Arabic. I just nod, okay, okay, and continue shopping. Another employee approaches me: “The store is closing, you have to get in line and checkout.” What! I just started shopping. “Well, come back at 9:00 p.m. when we reopen.” I sneakily try to grab a few more items, until the guard catches up with me. “Halas.” Which means, “enough” or “go” or “finished,” depending on the underlying message. So, I reluctantly get in line, and resolve to finish my shopping another day. Ah, Ramadan.
We’re about at the halfway mark, and the going for me gets tougher. The department stores have huge discount sales, and people are still fasting – at least in the daytime. The real day begins after the evening prayer. At that time, people wake up for prayer, and prepare the evening feast. Students have told me that people eat, and shop, until 2 or 3 a.m. After shopping, they say the morning prayer and sleep most of the day.
How is this like Christmas? There is a general air of good will, and happiness. People are giving food, clothing and money to strangers. There are lights and lanterns hung in conspicuous doorways around the city. In the evening, people shop til they drop. And, at the end of Ramadan, which this year is July 27th, the next day is the first day of Eid al Fitr. On Eid, everyone dresses up in new clothes, eat and eat and eat, and exchange gifts. After Eid, which last for three days, there are numerous weddings, and many people go away on vacation.
How is it not like Christmas? There are no Ramadan trees, and no Santa Claus. There is daytime fasting. And it is hot. When I wake up, it is hot. When I go to bed, it is hot. The temperatures are reaching an average of 111 degrees F almost everyday. Thank goodness air conditioning is plentiful.
So there is Christmas in Saudi Arabia: Ramadan Mubarak!