As I write this, I’m coming to the end of a 4 day trip to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It’s the Holiest Month in the Muslim calendar – Ramadan – and for many visitors to a Muslim country, it can be a source of curiosity, frustration and bewilderment. In many countries, like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, Muslims observe Ramadan by abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking or love making during the daylight hours. As you can imagine, some of these are perhaps a little more inconvenient than others. Muslims then break their fast at sunset and often feast and pray long into the night. It’s a time for contemplation, celebration and family get-togethers. To help cope with the strain that this lifestyle change puts upon its observers, Muslims are permitted to work reduced hours during the month. Many will sleep in the afternoon, making up the hours they’ve lost the night before and waking only for prayer. I guess it’s a little bit like working a month of night shifts where every day is Christmas.
Of course for non-Muslims, the abstinence applies purely to public areas. No picnics on the beach, beer gardens at lunchtime are out of the question and that post-coital cigarette in the park is an absolute no-no. With such restrictions in place it can be a frustrating time for non-Muslims going about their normal working day. In some countries, like Egypt for example, shops and restaurants remain open. Muslims observe Ramadan in exactly the same way however there is precious little in the way of enforcement for other religions. For me, this slightly more tolerant approach is perhaps more understandable but no more or less correct. I’m happy to observe local traditions and festivals when visiting a foreign country, and find much of the culture quite fascinating. Having said that however, I do find enforcing practices on people who are not merely visiting, but in fact working for the betterment of that country, a little dictatorial.
Of course, as with all things, there are work-arounds, compromises and occasionally benefits. In most offices, non-Muslim staff will head to the ‘room of sin’ for a cheeky coffee and biscuit if their throats are dry; safely out of sight of the less tolerant or weaker willed. It makes for quite a nice little social gathering, especially if you happen to work alone in an office. It’s also a fact that with a large portion of the population working reduced hours, there’s a natural slowing down of the wheels of industry. Expats can’t help but fall into a slightly more relaxed, holiday mode. Roads are quieter, queues are shorter and pressure is less. But perhaps the biggest benefit of this somewhat curious month comes at the end. Having spent thirty days enjoying the wonders of midnight feasts, family gatherings, and reduced office hours..... we all get a holiday. Just as it should be!