Ramadan Stories: Hospitality, Faith, and False Gods in Saudi Arabia
By Isaac Thomas*
The night before Ramadan started, I went out to dinner with a few local men to grab burgers, fries, and some surprisingly good banana pudding. They were asking if I’d ever experienced a Ramadan in Saudi Arabia before, and I told them I didn’t know anything about it other than it was a big Muslim holiday. The response was, “Well get ready, because everything changes.”
That couldn’t have been truer.
Usually, in this rather large city, traffic is crazy in the morning. There are many shops selling fresh bread straight out of an oversized round clay oven with some mysterious salsa to go with it. You can always pick out the best bread shop in the area by the large crowd of men at the window doing their best to get the cook’s attention to exchange the steaming bread with the 3 Riyals in their hand.
Not this morning.
Desolate. It was oddly quiet. Many people had stayed up all night, eaten their last meal before the sunrise prayer, and now were in a deep sleep in order to avoid the hot day ahead where they couldn’t drink water or eat until after the sun went down behind the edge of the Red Sea.
In this country, whether or not you are Muslim, it is illegal to drink water or eat out in public. The U.S. Embassy wrote us an email telling us that, and it is true, but the people here are ashamed of that. They told me that we are welcome to do as we please here and to not worry about getting arrested for choosing to eat or drink in public. Isn’t that interesting? I have found this to be the case with many forceful laws and traditions here, that the locals have a different opinion about their strict monarchy when confronted by an outsider in person versus when they are in an indigenous group.
On the other hand, the most surprising aspect of Ramadan has been the hospitality of our Egyptian neighbors. A week before Ramadan began, they insisted on picking us up from the airport and bringing us home. They brought my wife flowers the next day. Then they brought us food that evening minutes before the sun went down. The next day they brought an entire meal consisting of homemade pizza, pastries, and a kind of tea that has dates and other seasonings mixed in. A few days later they brought a traditional hot dessert, kunafa, which could make you obese overnight if you aren’t careful.
It is a cultural norm for the sporadic gifting of food or dessert on a dish, and there is also a general expectation that when you return a dish, it better have food on it if you want to show your appreciation. Well, with our neighbors, we kept trying to come up with enough homemade cookies or meals to return their dishes on, but that is about impossible. After the third dish we returned with freshly made food on it, I got reprimanded for thinking we needed to return the dish with food. They considered us like family. They also continued giving us food but served it on disposable saucers.
One difficulty we have faced thus far in Ramadan is disillusionment.
How can a people so lost be so kind, welcoming, hospitable, thoughtful, and able to make such delicious food? If they don’t worship the same God we do, who do they worship? Does the call to prayer at sunset that breaks their fast, saying that God is Almighty, really an evil song? How do so many of these people discipline themselves so well to go without food and water every day during daytime for a whole month? Christians don’t even do that…
The answer I have found is that no matter how much discipline and good works one does, you can never be in a relationship with the One True God apart from the Man, Jesus Christ. Living in a place like Saudi Arabia, you must preach this to yourself quite frequently.
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*Names changed to protect workers and national believers.