First Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

This continues the series of posts on our expatriate life in Saudi Arabia (from late 2000 to mid-2004) through a compilation of e-mails and notes.  With Ramadan likely starting this Friday, July 20th, this e-mail recounts my first Ramadan in Saudi Arabia in December 2000.

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E-Mail:  December 20, 2000

Hello Everybody!!

Bishara and I continue to have a wonderful time here in the Kingdom!  To start with, the weather could not be more beautiful; it has been sunny with highs in the 70’s and lows in the lower 60’s for the last several weeks – and this is the end of December. Now, of course we’ll pay for this magnificent weather in the summer when it can reach 120 plus.  But, remember, it’s a dry heat, as they say.

We finalized the purchase of a Jeep Cherokee last week, and have very much enjoyed the additional freedom and flexibility it has provided. We plan to join a caravan of other interested parties in early January and make a trek out to the desert to a place called “the edge of the world.” We understand that at this site there is a massive cliff from which there are stupendous views of the desert. We can’t wait!

It is currently Ramadan, which is one of the holiest times for Muslims. Ramadan started on 11/27/00 and will end on 12/26/00.  Ramadan occurs during the ninth month of the Hijri (Islamic calendar), and begins when the crescent moon is first sighted.  (Since the Hijri calendar is lunar-based, the month of Ramadan shifts by 10 or 11 days each year.)  During Ramadan, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and expatriates, (like ourselves), are asked to respect this holy time by not eating or drinking in public during the fasting hours. (At King Faisal Specialist Hospital where we work, however, there are two cafeterias that are open for expatriates who comprise a significant portion of the hospital staff.)  Ramadan is not only a time to refrain from eating during daylight hours, but is also an occasion to exercise self-restraint and sacrifice, and to purify body and soul.

Atop the Sahara Hotel for Iftar Meal (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

The daily fast during Ramadan is broken at sundown with an Iftar feast. The feast, enjoyed by gatherings of family members and friends, traditionally begins with cardamom coffee and dates and moves on to sumptuous Arabic dishes. We were lucky enough to attend an Iftar feast recently atop the Sahara Airport Hotel in a restaurant with a panoramic view of the surrounding desert. The views were breathtaking and the meal was unbelievable. There was no end to the food being served, much of which was Lebanese-style, actually, including hommous, babaghanoush, tabouli, fattoush, ful medames (fava bean dish), and so much more.  Absolutely delicious!

There was a massive platter of lamb, “mandi,” originating from the Yemen and now popular in the Arab Gulf, and broader region, which is prepared by first digging a hole in the ground, or building a mud cone, and then burning wood within the enclosure.  When the fire turns to embers the meat is hung over the hot ashes and the hole is sealed.  The oxygen is consumed within 30 minutes, however, the residual heat continues to cook the meat for around 90 minutes.  We had never tasted such tender lamb!

. . . And Bishara, the Lebanese culinary expert, says that the tabouli was the best he had ever had!

Time to eat!

After dinner, we entered a large tent (majless) adjacent to the restaurant where diners enjoyed sheesha, a fruit flavored tobacco smoked from a Middle Eastern water pipe.  During Ramadan, day turns to night and night to day! Several nights ago, for example, we were at a mall after 1:00 AM. Most malls are open until 2:00 or 3:00 AM during Ramadan. We plan to attend another Iftar feast this weekend at the home of a very gracious Saudi couple who work at the hospital.

Smoking sheesha after Iftar meal.

For the holidays we will be attending a Christmas dinner with some wonderful Polish and Canadian “expats” we have met.  We can’t tell you how nice the people are here; there is an extra special closeness that develops among expatriates who are all so far away from home! We are also working on putting together a small New Year’s Eve “get together” with our newly formed friends. For those of you who know our “darling pooches,” Mish Mish and Callie, they are very much enjoying the attention of the “expats” here who had to leave their pups at home. “Our girls” were recently groomed and are looking gorgeous. Mish Mish and Callie will soon be even happier when we move to a location called the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ). The DQ is where the embassies are located along with residences, restaurants, and retail stores for the occupants of the area. It is an approximately five mile by five mile area that has palm tree lined streets, lovely gardens at every turn, and trails where we can walk our “little ones.” We have brought Mish Mish and Callie to the DQ often for walks and they love it!

Me & Pups in Diplomatic Quarter (Riyadh)

Happy, happy holidays!! Please stay in touch and let us know how you’re doing!!

Best regards,

Michele, Bishara, Mish Mish, and Callie

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3 comments on “First Ramadan in Saudi Arabia

  1. Pingback: How I Found Something Beautiful Out of the Mundane | Stories of My Wandering Feet (& Mind)

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