Saudi Arabia is one of my favourite countries to report from. Unlike so many others on the Middle East beat, there’s no war. It’s a place that readers are constantly fascinated by, and it never fails to provide fodder for dinner-party stories. True, women get few advantages, but I find the regulation black abaya strangely liberating: you can wear any old outfit underneath, even for the most official of interviews.
There is, however, a time of the year when it’s not my favourite place to work: Ramadan. Reporters in the region generally see the Muslim month of fasting as a time to rest up at base. Working hours across the region are cut short. People are more reluctant to meet. When they do, the effect of fasting plus the heat (Ramadan has fallen in the summer months for the last few years) can make them a little languid to say the least.
I knew Ramadan was going to be difficult, given Saudi Arabia’s official adherence to the most puritanical form of Islam and the current temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade. Religion is not a matter of personal conscience, but of public enforcement – especially in Riyadh, the capital and the most devout part of the country. The vice police walk around telling people off for not wearing appropriate attire and checking men and women sitting together are related (it’s illegal not to be).
But I figured it would be an interesting cultural experience; another window into the country. That was until I landed and started to think through what it might really entail. A quick consultation with Google wasn’t comforting. All the restaurants would be shut, one website advised; others claimed that hotels stopped room service and that people were forbidden from consuming any food or drink in public.
Usually I can go without food, although water is another matter, but this trip I was four months pregnant. Carrying a child means you are exempted from the fast, along with the elderly and the sick, but that doesn’t count for much when restaurants are shut. So on the eve of Ramadan, off I went to a local supermarket to stock up on cereal bars, fruit and other things for makeshift meals.
The next day, it turned out that everything was indeed closed. I called the reception from my hotel room to ask, hopefully, if there was breakfast. “Room 302”, said the receptionist as if whispering a password. Down on the third floor, a couple of guest rooms had been turned into a temporary dining area. An airline crew and businessmen exchanged looks as if we were all part of a secret club. You wondered if the waiters were keeping the yoghurts cool in the bathtub.
Luckily, the hotel carried on doing room service (confounding the internet rumours). This meant lunch was sorted, although it also meant trekking back to base in the middle of the day, every day. While out and about between meetings, I ran to the toilets to take gulps of water (at least one Saudi friend admitted he did the same), and eat a dried apricot or two.
Meetings in Saudi are usually carried out in hotel lobbies bustling with people having tea and coffee. During Ramadan, hotels are much quieter: a solitary businessman might come in, open his laptop and start working; others just lounge on the plush couches. I noticed how, without refreshments, the few meetings we had during the day had no natural punctuation: no last sip of coffee signalling the end; no fight over the bill, usually ending in a win for Saudi hospitality.
Saudis are religious, but few appear to adhere to the strong creed of the official religious establishment which conflates tradition with religious practices. Privately, many Saudis criticise the rules against women driving and the mixing of unrelated men and women. None, however, grumbles about Ramadan. Despite it being more strictly enforced than in other countries in the region, it is seen as a time for celebration, for getting closer to God and family – as well as watching the year’s best new TV series and eating large meals after sunset. Most reckon that fasting is easy.
I did enjoy the festivity that came in the evenings. Many meetings started at 9pm, in time for iftar – the breaking of the fast. Malls were full of families shopping amid the decorations. Young people gathered to eat cakes at Paul and Ladurée, French patisseries.
But on my return to Beirut, the most laid-back, and religiously mixed country of the region, I couldn’t help feeling glad to spend the rest of Ramadan here. In Beirut, restaurants and cafés are open all day. Many people fast, but many – including Muslims – don’t. But the celebrations at the end of a long day are just as fun, and open to all.