Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Long Overdue Ramadan Posting

Ramadan Kareem!

The Muslim holy month began on August 1st and will run until August 30th, when Eid al-Fitr is celebrated, a three day stretch celebrating the end of the fast.  Before coming to Qatar, I couldn't count any Muslims among my friends, so I really had only a limited idea what Ramadan is about.  Now that I've experienced it--in a Muslim country, no less--I'm really impressed by the depth of commitment I've seen from those of the Islamic faith.

For those in my former boat, this is what goes on--Muslims fast from sunup to sundown.  And when I say fast, I mean both food and water.  The idea is worshippers should practice discipline, that they should turn away from the everyday world and focus instead on their inner life, on trying to draw closer to God.  Because they'll be experiencing what it means to go without, they should be inspired to be more generous to those who live with need everyday.  Charity is encouraged, as is spending time with family.  There is much visiting and gifts are given to children.  Prayers are offered, as they are all year.  Though the intensity of the effort is greater still during this time.

Two meals are eaten each day, one just before sunrise (which in this part of the world takes place around 5:00am), Suhoor; the other after sundown (approximately 6:00pm), Iftar.  Because folks are dealing with such a restricted diet, the work day is shortened to six hours a day rather than eight (though GU is open normal hours--it's up to the individual how long they work).  With some rare exceptions, restaurants are closed until evening (mostly Western style hotels, catering to tourists and business people, remain open--but even those are shielded from general view).  It's illegal to eat or drink in public (that's including in your car).  Though the grocery stores are open.

Businesses and/or stores are open too, but they're typically open on a kind of split shift.  They tend to open a little early 7:00am or 7:30am, then close at midday (1:00ish).  They'll reopen after Iftar (8:00ish) and stay open rather late (2:00am is not unusual).

I'd figured (quite wrongly) that none of this would impact my life all that much.  At Georgetown, we'd been told our food service would remain open, but would be closed off to the rest of our central atrium.  That looks like this:

Inside looks like this:

It's a little cozier than we're used to, but it does the trick.

The first day of Ramadan, we were able to get our food to go, as we in HR normally do.

The second day, the head of catering told us that takeaway was no longer allowed.  My friend, David, and I pressed the point, and she allowed us to go sneaking up the back service elevator with our styrofoam containers of chicken and rice (our lunches are subsidized at GU-Q, so chicken and rice--which in one form or another is on the menu every day--runs me about $2.75 when I order it).

The third day, she said there was absolutely no more takeaway allowed at all, and that security had come and taken from her all her styrofoam containers.  We found this a bit much, particularly as the coffee shop that stands right next store to the cafeteria, is still open for business, and I'd just walked upstairs with my takeaway cup of latte that morning (unsubsidized, so it cost me the same $2.75 as lunch)--and they sell sandwiches to go.

Before Ramadan had started, we'd been told that as long as we were respectful (no eating or drinking during meetings with Muslim coworkers, no eating or drinking in the halls, etc.), there would be no problem and we could eat in our offices.  We couldn't figure out what was going on.

As it turns out, the problem wasn't a current coworker complaining.  The problem wasn't Westerners at all.  Apparently, last Ramadan there had been some Muslims who were ordering food to go, going out into the garage, and eating it in their cars.  Security had found out and reported them.  So to make sure that didn't happen again, they decided to eliminate takeout entirely.

Except for the coffee shop, which is still selling their entire menu in takeway form.  Sure, their sandwiches are $5.00 (for a sandwich alone--the horror!).  But I can eat it at my desk.  That makes life easier sometimes.

I hate that if people had been having problems with fasting, they felt they needed to resort to sneaking away to the garage to grab a bite.  I greatly admire the self-discipline I've seen my coworkers exercise.  But obviously that kind of thing comes easier for some people than others.  It's a shame the sacrifice Ramadan demands truly can be demanded rather than something given freely.

I'll report back on Suhoor and Iftar.  I've having the former on Friday (at a Western friendly time of 8:00pm--the hotels here do early meals for non-Muslims and later ones for those who are fasting) and the latter on Monday.  When I will attempt to fast beforehand.  Oy!

I know I can do the food, but going all day without drinking anything?  That's going to be danged hard.