One of the most exciting aspects of living in a new culture is getting to participate in events, holidays, and traditions that you’ve never experienced before. This can take many forms: unique wedding traditions, different customs to celebrate a new baby, eating new foods, wearing different clothes, learning a new dance, and this even includes learning what phrases to use when wishing someone a happy holiday.
Due to a month-long holiday currently in progress, we’ve had a few of these kinds of experiences over the last couple of weeks. If you aren’t familiar with Islamic holidays, you might not know that we are in the middle of a month of fasting called Ramadan. Now, before I proceed, I think it’s important to clear up some misconceptions one might have about Ramadan. I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about it prior to living in Saudi Arabia, so I’ll give you a little background to help you understand what I’ve learned in the time we’ve been here.
This is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, which are the foundations of what Muslims believe (including things like a pilgrimage to Mecca, praying 5 times a day, etc). I’ve heard a couple of different explanations as to the motivations behind fasting during Ramadan, but from what I understand, this is a time for denying the body the physical pleasures of things like food, drink, smoking, etc. in order to pursue a healthy, refocused mindset on God and living a good life that is pleasing to God. Essentially, it is a special time for spiritual renewal.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I thought the fast took place for literally the entire month…no food or drink for a full 30 days – morning, noon, and night. What I’ve come to learn is that though the time of the fast goes for an entire lunar cycle (about 30 days), the fas doesn’t take place 24 hours a day for a month. It only lasts for the daylight hours of those 30 days! Which brings me to the celebration in which we’ve been able to participate…
At the time when the sun sets for the day, there is a celebration called Iftar where those who have been fasting break their fast – usually with a date and water (or with Arabic coffee as has become tradition in this area). Then comes a time of feasting with family and friends. I asked one of our friends if this is usually viewed as a time to be with family (similar to Thanksgiving or Christmas), and she explained that this is a hugely family oriented holiday. She explained that her mom was really sad that she and her family weren’t at home during this time because there are special foods and traditions that make this time so special for each family.
We’ve been fortunate to be able to participate in two Iftar dinners with friends so far, and we’re supposed to be doing another one this week. So, what does that look like for those of us who are not fasting? It’s just like going to any restaurant to eat, so we are basically along for the ride. And when the announcement is made that the fast is over, everyone digs in! Out of respect, we simply don’t start eating until everyone else eats, too.
There are a few places at KAUST that have Iftar buffets, but the two we’ve been to so far have been off campus. First, we went to an amazing fish restaurant called Al Sayed in Thuwal (the fishing village next to KAUST), and last week, we went to the city just north of KAUST (King Abdullah Economic City aka KAEC – pronounced “cake”) to the Bay La Sun Hotel for their Iftar buffet.
Al Sayed in Thuwal is quite well known despite being in a small fishing village seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It’s not very far from the KAUST gate, so it’s a wonder we haven’t been there before. From what we could tell, there were lots of places to sit to eat – both indoor and outdoor seating. The food was incredible. We had a couple different kinds of fish, shrimp, hummus, rice, and bread. The food comes out on huge platters, and we sat around a table on the floor and ate family style.
The Iftar experience in KAEC was probably as different from the one in Thuwal as it could be. This was a buffet of 25-30 different dishes – meats, pastas, soups, salads, desserts, rice, bread, etc in the middle of the ballroom at the Bay La Sun Hotel. The tables were decorated with tablecloths, lanterns, dates and big carafes of Arabic coffee, and the buffet displays were beautiful. One of the things that surprised us the most was the fact that everyone started loading down their plates with food about 10 minutes before the proper sunset time, not eating it of course, but they certainly weren’t wasting any time once the fast was broken! Probably my favorite food of that meal was the cheese samosas (think mozzarella stick…I mean, come on…who doesn’t love fried cheese?)
This has been such a fun experience getting to share in this special celebration with friends and co-workers, and I’m already looking forward to the next one!
Ramadan Kareem to all my friends who celebrate!