- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — In an echo of religious Americans at Christmastime, devout Muslims are bemoaning the commercialization of Ramadan, when many Saudis sleep through the daytime fasting hours only to feast and watch television all night.

Ramadan, which started in Saudi Arabia and most of the Arab world this year on Oct. 15, originally was a month of prayers, denial and cleansing of one’s sins.

Virtually all Saudis still go without food during daylight hours, breaking their fast only at sunset with a traditional meal known as iftar. But with modernization, the advent of 24-hour satellite television and indolence bred from years of petrodollar wealth, many Saudis have become slack in their religious duties, sleeping the whole day if possible, and staying up the whole night eating and watching television.

It is a far cry from what the prophet Muhammad had envisioned more than 1,400 years ago when he retired to a cave near Mecca for fasting and spiritual reflection and the angel Gabriel is said to have revealed the verses of the Koran, the Muslim holy book.

Many commentators have lamented the trend, which has accelerated in the past decade, but they seem to be waging a losing battle.

For two weeks before the start of what is supposed to be a holy month of abstinence and spiritual renewal, supermarkets are jammed with shoppers pushing carts groaning under the weight of bottles of cooking oil, pasta, frozen chicken, beef, boxes of Dream Whip and pudding mixes.

Each year, the major Arabic-language satellite television stations offer an ever-expanding array of Ramadan programming, ranging from historical soap operas to music extravaganzas and game shows.

“If most Saudis are sleeping off their hunger pains during the day and staying up all night enjoying themselves, how can any of them feel the real meaning of sacrifice of this holy month?” asked one middle-aged Saudi, who requested that his name not be used.

Many Muslims still attend Taraweeh prayers each evening at their local mosques, where the entire Koran is recited during the course of the month. But for many, it has become a social event.

“My daughter goes to the Taraweeh prayers with her girlfriends. For them, it’s a social outing, which I guess is better than going out with boys,” Sahar Saleh said of her 14-year-old.

Fasting is strictly enforced by the religious police in public areas, such as offices and shopping centers, so little business is conducted during the month. Foreign businessmen avoid the kingdom, and schools and government offices shut down for the last two weeks of the month.

Those who must work during Ramadan often turn into short-tempered grumps. Indeed, the number of traffic accidents rises sharply during the month, when starved, impatient Saudis rush to get home from work, and often end up ramming their vehicles into other people’s cars.

“I never go out around iftar time,” said one American teacher who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years. “It’s just too dangerous.”

“I saw three accidents today while driving home before iftar,” said an Indian driver who has lived in the kingdom for the past three years.

The lavish food spreads prepared every evening are mind-boggling.

“We had three types of sambousak, two types of soup and four different types of juice,” said Sarah Shaaban, 25, a Saudi woman. Sambousak is a fried, savory pastry filled with meat, cheese or vegetables.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, Saudi Arabia imported 90,000 tons of meat for Ramadan, valued at more than $133 million; 6,000 tons of lamb from Australia, Sudan and Pakistan; 10,000 tons of beef; 7,000 tons of minced beef for sambousak; and 60,000 tons of poultry products worth $93 million.

The business newspaper Al-Iktisadiah estimates that the average Saudi spends 30 percent of his income on food during Ramadan.

“We used to go to school at an early hour when we were children,” says Abdulhameed, remembering what Ramadan was like 40 years ago. “Then it was better: You felt hunger just like poor people. If you sleep all day and stay up all night, it’s obvious that you’re missing the point of Ramadan.”

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