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August 2010

In Praise Of: Ramadan in Bahrain

The second in a continuing series exploring expat life in Bahrain.

Ramadan Bahrain, like most of the Muslim world, is currently celebrating the holy month of Ramadan. Mr. Crab has had previous brief experiences with Ramadan in Bosnia and Iraq, and Mrs. Crab previously worked in an East London school where the majority of pupils were Muslims. But Ramadan is a completely different experience when you are actually living and working in a Muslim country.

But first, a brief introduction of Ramadan from Wikipedia:

Ramadan is the Islamic month of fasting, in which participating Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and sexual relations from dawn until sunset.[1] Fasting is intended to teach Muslims about patience, humility, and spirituality. It is a time for Muslims to fast for the sake of God (Arabic: الله‎, trans: Allah) and to offer more prayer than usual. During Ramadan, Muslims ask forgiveness for past sins, pray for guidance and help in refraining from everyday evils, and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. As compared to the solar calendar, the dates of Ramadan vary, moving backwards about eleven days each year depending on the moon. Muslims believe Ramadan to be an auspicious month for the revelations of God to humankind, being the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

Ramadan is a busy time for US Embassy Manama, especially for POL, ECON and PD sections. Representational duties include escorting VIPs to Ramadan events. The first event after sundown is iftar, when Muslim Bahrainis break their fast with a small meal amongst friends and family. This is followed by majalis, which are gender-segregated gatherings over tea, coffee, dates and sweets. Finally comes the gabhga, a huge buffet meal that starts around 9pm and can last well past 1am.

Mr. Crab has been burning the candle at both ends. On a recent event, I escorted a certain prominent Muslim-American imam who has been in the news everyday for the past month. We attended several majalis and gabghas, returning home at 3am. At most of the events I served as note-taker, but the main purpose of representational and Ramadan events is to see old friends and make new ones. I played dominoes with some Sheikhs, discussed current events and politics with business leaders, and met contacts for my portfolio, and smiled a lot for photographs. My photo has appeared in several Bahraini English and Arabic newspapers; as a former long-time journalist, it's a strange feeling being on this side of the story!  It's these after-hour functions are where real public diplomacy takes place.

Ramadan Kareem (Blessed Ramadan) is a beautiful holiday at night. Many houses and mosques are decorated in brightly colored lights and streamers. And just like Christmas, every mall and shop features Ramadan special offers, or sales. Last night was the halfway point of Ramadan known as Garangao, a traditional children's festival that's very much like Halloween. Children dress up in bright traditional dress, carry felt bags and go from house to house collecting sweets and coins.

During Ramadan, many Bahrainis switch night and day. They will "party" well into dawn hours, and sleep during the day. Most Bahrain government offices are only open at most 4 hours a day. Many small mom & pop shops are closed all day but reopen at night. Grocery stores and shopping malls are usually business as usual, and during Ramadan will stay open until 1am or later. There are even 2am movie screenings at the local cinemas!

For non-Muslim residents and visitors to Bahrain, there are some changes that come with Ramadan. The majority of restaurants are closed during daylight hours. All alcohol sales are banned, so for 30 days of Ramadan, Bahrain becomes a dry country. Everyone is also expected to dress more modestly.

Ramadan culminates this year on or about Sept. 9, followed by a three-day festival called Eid Al-Fitr. Next year, Ramadan will be approximately Aug. 1-30.

Ramadan Kareem!

Foreign Service vs. The Families

The following letter appeared in today's Dear Abby:


DEAR ABBY: Last year I decided to pursue a career as a foreign diplomat. My wife and I weighed the pros and cons and concluded that the opportunity was worth the separation from family and friends. I'm proud that I'll be able to provide the kind of life for my family that we have always wanted, and I'm set to begin training soon.

We have begun spreading the news, and most of our relatives and friends share our excitement. My wife's sister, "Lucinda," however, is furious. Her objections started with snide little "jabs" but have grown into a full-blown assault. She is accusing me of ruining her life and threatening to cut off all contact unless we reconsider. My wife is distraught from the badgering and I'm afraid their relationship is on the verge of collapse.

Should I bow to Lucinda's threats or follow our dream and risk being disowned by a member of the family? I'm afraid I have inadvertently ruined my wife's relationship with her sister. -- SECOND THOUGHTS IN MINNESOTA

DEAR SECOND THOUGHTS: Unless you want the remainder of your marriage and your career to be dictated by your wife's sister, do not back down. Lucinda appears to be an insecure, and possibly troubled, woman who is trying to control you and your wife through emotional blackmail. You have a bright -- not to mention fascinating -- future ahead of you. So follow your chosen path and do not allow your sister-in-law to continue to interfere. To fold now would only be the beginning of your problems.

  First, it sounds like the husband/wife authors of the Dear Abby letter are 100% in this journey together so I hope they don't allow this selfish sister's guilt trips to sway their decision.   But sadly, "Second Thoughts in Minnesota" is not the first Foreign Service officer who has had to deal with family backlash to their career decision.

I recently heard a sad story about an FS candidate who passed every test and hurdle, got his security and medical clearance, got placed on the register with a very high score, and that's when his wife FREAKED OUT. You see, the wife never believed her husband would get that far in the process, so she never raised objections until the offer was sitting in their laps. Wife wants no part of living overseas or being separated from family. Husband is gutted, and has to decide between lifelong dream job with unhappy wife, or happy wife and husband with lifelong feelings of resentment. Either way, the conclusion won't be pretty.

 The moral of this story is this: If you are considering a life and career in the Foreign Service, you MUST talk to your family and close friends about this BEFORE you begin the long candidacy process. The Foreign Service is not just a job, it's a way of life. Not everyone is cut out for the life of a globetrotting diplomat. Are your immediate household family members prepared to live abroad for the better part of the next 20 years? Are your family, friends, significant others in the States prepared for you to be gone for 2-3 years at a time, knowing they may not be able to visit you due to financial or security constraints? Are you prepared for guilt trips from grandparents, parents, siblings? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask before you even complete the online application form for the FSOT. If your spouse/partner/kids are not 100% on board, the Foreign Service is probably not for you.