Ramadan Revelry: Holy Fasting Days and Wild Mall Nights

Snacking Before Sundown Prohibited By Prophet But Nighttime Noshing OK
Banks, Souqs, Mosques & Malls Make a Medley of Old & New In the Modern Muslim World

Philadelphia Independent, front page, Late Winter 2004 (approx. 2,100 words)

MANAMA, Bahrain — It’s the height of the holiday season and I’m hiding in the men’s room in the executive suite of a big steel-and-glass bank building, scarfing a Snickers bar and stealing sips of bottled water while no one’s looking because I don’t want to offend anyone. The problem is, it’s Ramadan and I’m in Manama, the capital city of the island nation of Bahrain off the Saudi Arabian coast south of Kuwait, and by religious bent and in some cases by law the secretaries and executives I encounter in the day-long series of meetings I’ve been stuck in for two and a half weeks aren’t able to offer me coffee or even a glass of water. Everyone is fasting from sun-up to sun-down, suffering the ever more gnawing stomach burn and squirm of uncomfortability that comes from not eating or drinking all day.

So I’m locked in a men’s room huffing chocolate. It seems outlandish, but really it’s a mild inconvenience, given the good fortune of finding myself on a magazine assignment in Bahrain. Although it’s Ramadan everywhere else, at least I can get room service whenever I get back to my hotel.

While the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is more like Easter than Christmas (or maybe more like Lent), it shares some characteristics with both Christian and Jewish holidays. (All three religions are based on the same text, after all.) At the end of the month there’s a great three-day party, called Eid Al-Fitr, when everyone dresses their houses in fairy lights, goes visiting and sits through an endless string of dinners with the relatives.

During Ramadan itself, as during Hanukkah, it’s sunset that determines when the fun begins. Only instead of lighting candles and giving out gelt, Muslims make the infinitely wiser move of gorging themselves on as much food as possible, keeping almost Spanish hours, and doing as little as possible during the day before closing up shop around 2 p.m. to head home and wait for the sun to set and the food fest to begin again. The restaurants are closed all day, and it’s illegal for even Westerners like myself to eat, drink or smoke outside.

Far be it from me, a non-denominational American in a Muslim nation at a time of unprecedented tension, another bombing next door in Saudi Arabia, and scary-sounding security warnings—stuff like “avoid places where Westerners might congregate”—far be it from me to step on my hosts’ highly inconvenient religious practices by inconsiderately indulging my hunger pangs in public. Hence the clandestine chocolate bar.

When I get a call from Moniem, an enthusiastic young stockbroker I’ve met at a Ramadan supper given by the stock exchange (their Christmas party, more or less), I’m ambivalent about going out. But it’s only in New York that I’ve ever been actually assaulted, and hey, how many times am I going to be in Manama on a Saturday night? So at 9:30 I meet him in the lobby of my hotel and we pile into his cousin Najeeb’s Suzuki Vitara and head downtown for what sounds to me like a gallery opening. “We can go see some paintings,” Najeeb, a back-office accountant, tells me. And all I can think is how fitting it is, somehow, that I should find Manhattan culture being imitated so far from New York.

It takes about two minutes to drive to downtown Manama from my hotel. It takes about two minutes to drive pretty much anywhere in Bahrain, an island about thirty miles long and only ten across. Most of the country’s 750,000 citizens live in Manama, at the northeast tip, but a few towns are sprinkled further down the dusty island, as are a U.S. naval base, a lushly irrigated golf course, and, weirdly, the Middle East’s first Formula 1 racing circuit.

The city itself is a mix of Financial District Modern and two- and three-story Colonial Stucco buildings of the kind found from Manila to Mozambique. Aspiring boulevards emanate from honking traffic circles only to bog down in one-lane back streets that wind around mosques, souqs, tea shops and grill restaurants. It’s a mellow city with a happening nightlife (this is where the Saudis come to cut loose, after all), but even during Ramadan there’s the impression that business is getting done.

Tonight the streets are alive. It’s only a few blocks from our parking spot behind the stock exchange building to the warren of narrow alleys that constitutes the old souq, but we walk them in the company of dozens of other Arabs all headed in the same direction. I lope along behind Najeeb from square to square, followed by Moniem and a melismatic soundtrack of Arabic music. It’s as crowded as an American subway at rush hour and I have to dip my shoulder between passers-by to keep up. I am the only white guy in sight, but no one seems to notice.

We stop on a corner where a man is serving something Tang-like in little plastic cups, but when I try to pay the cousins laugh at me. The crowd is lighter here, but they are still coming and going in all directions as if headed to a rock concert maybe, stopping to greet each other in the street or not stopping but just smiling and waving as they go past. At the end of the street I can see a building that’s somehow grand and squat at the same time, its soaring face a brilliant aquamarine festooned with tall ornate Arabic writing in white and gold. Most of the people passing by are either women in black abaya or men in white dish-dasha, the heel-length robe that is the standard men’s uniform in the Arab Gulf (though both Moniem and Najeeb wear American-style clothes). A couple of girls go by in the long robes and headscarves that leave only their faces revealed. Najeeb stares after them hungrily and asks me if I think they look nice.

Moniem is otherwise occupied. “Not so many paintings,” he tells me, looking disappointed, and it takes me a moment to realize he’s referring not to art in a gallery but to paintings like the one on the banner being carried toward us by two young men, of a bearded Muslim preacher or prophet or maybe even an ayatollah. “Maybe we see some music,” Moniem says. And as if on cue, a little cart like a laundromat wagon comes trundling around the corner with a loudspeaker teetering on a pole sticking out of it, powered by a car battery and tended by two young men in black slacks and black button-down shirts, broadcasting the words of the bearded, black-robed man who leads them. A phalanx of clarinetists, also in black, follows along, joined here and there by a trumpet or two, all tootling the same dirge-like Arabic melody, and between them and the imam’s sermon—it’s enough to drown out all the other noise on the street and focus my attention completely on the scene.

The musicians march four abreast but the street is only eight or ten feet wide, and Najeeb’s would-be girlfriends scamper down a side alley to get out of the way. Everyone else stands to one side or another and as the marchers go past, I suddenly find myself pressed into a doorway, transfixed by the musicians’ clamor and then by the long double column of men who follow behind them. They come in a slow, leg-swinging pantomime of a march, all dressed in black (some in what could pass for business attire, some in jeans and AC/DC tour shirts), and all in their 20s and 30s and 40s, neither too young nor too old, the same solemn expression on each man’s face. Each one carries a short bundle of chains fixed to a wooden handle, and as he rotates his torso through each step, he throws one arm over the opposite shoulder to deliver himself a ceremonial blow.

Once I get the hang of Moniem’s English, I understand that we’re out on the night of the Muslim year that commemorates the martyrdom of Imam Ali, who founded the Shiite sect of Islam in the Seventh century and who is apparently buried in Iraq’s holy city, Najaf. The men performing the ceremonial self-flagellation known as latmiyaat are expressing the sect’s 1,350-year-old grief—much as Christians commemorate Christ’s death and resurrection at Easter (or did, until the vapid bunnies and painted eggs got the better of them).

The streets of Manama are a million miles away from Manhattan and art galleries and insipid wine-guzzling scenesters—though even crowded into the doorway with a strange religious procession swirling through the night streets in front of me, I can’t help feeling momentarily like a five o’clock-shadowed Brad Pitt in the second act of a multi-million-dollar filmed-on-location epic of love, loss and bad line readings. When the procession passes, my co-stars and I wander on through the rough hodge-podge of three- and four-story whitewashed buildings. Thin short alleys let onto small rectangles of open space where kids run around and kick balls while the adults chat like friendly neighbors on the sidelines of a Fourth of July parade. Where five streets meet and somehow form a square, more than a hundred women dressed in black are seated on the ground, listening to the story of Imam Ali’s life. A more vitriolic sermon emerges from a mosque that appears suddenly, recessed between two buildings across the street from a row of storefronts. Amid the rapid-fire Arabic, one semi-familiar word surfaces from time to time: Amreeka. America. The security warnings return to my mind, but in this crowd I somehow feel more safe than threatened. This is not a place where Westerners might congregate, after all. “Don’t worry,” Moniem tells me. “It is George Bush they do not like, not you.”

Without my noticing, we’ve wandered back toward the car. The crowds have thinned out a bit, the procession has broken up. The breeze coming off the Manama waterfront, a block away, is downright cool. “What do you want to do now?” Moniem asks me. I hardly have an answer. Najeeb breaks in: “Let’s go to the mall.”

Seef Mall, about a mile away, strikes me as—well, it’s a mall. A vast multi-level indoor air-conditioned mall as up-to-date as any in America, filled with name brands, screaming children and teenage girls—much to Najeeb’s distraction. At the Dairy Queen I have a falafel-burger and marvel at how far down the fast-food chain Bahrain reaches: there’s DQ and Burger King, but there’s also Cinnabon, Bennigan’s, Ponderosa Steakhouse, and even, weirdly, a Seattle’s Best Coffee. I’m a bit shell-shocked by the transition from centuries-old ceremony to 21st century commerce, but it’s soon clear we’re here mostly for Najeeb’s benefit. He ducks into a cosmetics store to flirt with the girl at the register. He has a “girlfriend,” whom he’ll most likely marry, he tells me, but she’s still a teenager and he sees her only about a half dozen times a year. He prefers the idea of love American-style. Despite his frustration, the impression I have is that he gets to try his hand at it often enough.

It’s getting late. The cousins suggest we take in a movie at the mall’s 16-plex. “Johnny Depp,” Najeeb nods approvingly at a Pirates of the Caribbean poster. But the last thing I want to do in Bahrain is sit through an American movie.

Not that an American movie is at all out of place here. The Gulf has its share of American restaurants, American products, American attitudes and ambition (while I am in Bahrain, Najeeb is head-hunted away to a new job after only two days at his old one) and American institutions like the mall, the gigaplex movie theater and the AC/DC t-shirt. Perhaps that’s part of the problem, but not everyone sees it that way.

On the ride back to my hotel, Backstreet Boys blaring from the Vitara’s speakers, I thank the cousins for showing me a slice of Islam I probably never would have found on my own. This sparks a discussion of “living the Muslim way,” which Moniem and Najeeb describe as a life in harmony with one’s fellows—something they find lacking in the Arab world. “Here is violence, discrimination, bad feeling between Shia and Sunni,” Najeeb says. Moniem agrees.

“Here we are not living the Muslim way,” Najeeb tells me. “Only in America do you find people living like true Muslims.”