Prayer, Shopping Mark Saudi Ramadan
Nov. 21, 2002
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JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) _ The sound of Quranic chanting fills the empty streets of Jiddah and the capital, Riyadh, every evening during the fasting month of Ramadan.
Saudis pack mosques to perform special Ramadan prayers, called taraweeh, that follow the fifth and usually last prayer of the day. Then, after an hour of worship, they hit the souqs _ marketplaces open until 2 a.m. during the holy month that entice shoppers with raffles for cars or mobile phones.
Ramadan in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, may not be as festive as it is in other Arab countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon. But even here, Islam's holiest month has turned into a lucrative industry.
``Ramadan has been commercialized,'' said Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of the English-language Arab News. ``It used to be the essence of prayer and worship.''
While Ramadan, which began Nov. 6, marks God's revelation of the Quran, Islam's holy book, to the Prophet Muhammad nearly 1,400 years ago. Muslims abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight hours in an act of sacrifice and purification.
Each day of fasting ends at sunset with family and friends gathering, sometimes in tents in the desert or on the beach, to share a rich meal called iftar.
An hour before the fasting ends, old souqs with serpentine alleys are jammed with mostly male shoppers who haggle with vendors over the price of round loaves of bread, parsley, tomatoes and lettuce. They also buy special Ramadan sweets _ small, crunchy balls dipped in syrup, crescent-shaped pastries filled with ground walnuts or peanuts, and cream-filled baklava.
Numerous articles and TV programs warn against engaging in an eating marathon between sunset and sunrise.
As is the case every year, the Interior Ministry warned non-Muslim residents not to eat, drink or smoke in public during the day, saying violators could lose their jobs or be deported. Non-Muslims can eat at home. Most hotels offer guests room service dining only during the day.
After taraweeh prayers, men and women throng sprawling malls decorated with Ramadan themes.
The shoppers are drawn by promises of special offers, gifts and raffles _ win-yourself-a-car, win-yourself-a-mobile phone _ that appear in newspaper ads and on TV. Shops stay open until 2 a.m., when preparations for the sohour meal that precedes dawn prayers begin.
Another Ramadan pastime is watching Egyptian or Syrian serials, dramas featuring greedy relatives, unscrupulous tycoons and love stories that almost always end happily.
Because people stay up late, work and school begin a couple of hours later than usual to allow Saudis to sleep in.
For others, work is a chore. ``Work and Ramadan don't mix,'' is a refrain that's often heard.
``The prophet was the most active of men during Ramadan, but what I see here is sloth and people's productivity growing less and less and they blame it all on Ramadan,'' said al-Maeena.
Ramadan also brings out the differences between Riyadh, a conservative, tribal, insular city and the more open Red Sea port city of Jiddah, which has for hundreds of years received Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. Saudi Arabia is the home of Islam's holiest shrines in Mecca _ an hour's drive from Jiddah _ and Medina.
Public interaction between the sexes is frowned upon in Riyadh, and couples out for a coffee or a meal are seated in cell-like rooms with closed doors or behind accordion-like partitions.
If agents from Muttawa, the religious police force, see smoke curling up from behind the partitions, they push them aside to make sure no woman is smoking. Water pipes are banned.
In Jiddah, women go out in groups, sit in large, unpartitioned family sections and freely smoke cigarettes or water pipes.
Nahla Kurdi, 31, curled up on a bench at an outdoor restaurant in Jiddah, enjoying a midnight water pipe and tea with her husband, Sharif Ahmad, 31, and his relative, Mohammed Shahin, 30.
She had spent that day cooking and watching a couple of serials. But she said she had been trying to teach her children that Ramadan is not only about fasting, shopping and sweets _ but also about worship.
``I always long for this month,'' she said.