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