By Mohammad Ali Salih
For more than 30 years in Washington, DC, as a full-time correspondent for major Arabic newspapers and magazines in the Middle East, I haven’t fasted Ramadan in a Muslim country. Before, I observed the holy month in many Muslim countries and mostly in Sudan, my native country. I have missed some of the rituals and traditions, but recently, thanks to modern technology, I feel a little close.
I just saw on TV a date shop in Cairo selling a new type: Obama; appropriately, dark, tall and thin. A pound was equivalent to two dollars, surpassing by about 50 cents a type named after Egyptian Mohamed Elbradei, an expected candidate for next year presidential elections. The shop owner repeated that Prophet Mohammed used to break his Ramadan fast with a date and a sip of water.
The shop owner, because the Egyptians were facing high meat prices, advised that eating date with milk provided enough calories and proteins to balance out.
A friend in Cairo e-mailed me that he bought his children a couple of “Fanoos Ramadan,” traditional kerosene lamps carried by children as they celebrated in the evenings in the streets. He noticed that the lamps were made in China, and joked that next Ramadan people might break their fast with Chinese dates.
On the first day of Ramadan, Saudi Arabia inaugurated Mecca Clock, said to be six times as big as Big Ben clock in London, with a 140-ft diameter and located on the top of the world’s second tallest building. During the night, the clock’s bright hands could be seen from miles away, and, located next to the Ka’aba (towards which Muslims all over the world look whenever they stand up to pray) it added to the majesty of the place. And it established a worldwide “Mecca Time.”
Before coming to Washington, I spent few years in Saudi Arabia and many times during Ramadan, I went to Mecca where, with hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world sitting down at sunset facing the Ka’aba, each one broke the fasting with a date and a sip of water. Then, quickly, we all stood up for the “Maghreb’ (sunset) prayer, after which we started the real eating.
On the other side of the Arabian Peninsula, in Dubai, at the top of the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa, sunset was seen from a sweeping 360-degree view of the city, the ocean and the desert.
Recently opened, the observation deck, on the 124th level, expects more than a million visitors by the end of the year. Later in the year, the world’s highest lounge and grill will open on the 122nd level to provide guests with a “meal in the sky.”
To add some spiritual values to the top opulence, visitors, during Ramadan, were offered free premium dates, La Ronda brand, and mineral water, Masafi brand.
About Water, A TV show about Ramadan in Tunisia, showed natives putting a lot of efforts to find “pure” water to break their fast with. Tunis, on the Mediterranean Sea, depends on desalinization and water from streams. Since the days of Carthage (founded by the Phoenicians in the 9th. Century BC, and destroyed by the Romans seven centuries later) the Tunisians mastered the art of building canals to collect fresh water. Now during Ramadan, some of them took jeeps and SUV’s towards the mountains, looking for water sources, in competitions to see which group brought the “purest” of waters to break the fast with.
There is plenty of water in Iraq, especially in the swampy region of Alahwar, south of Baghdad. At sunset during Ramadan, people rowed their boats towards the tribal chief’s big island to break their fast together. As they ate a meal of plenty of fish, and with Iraq’s mounting problems, a TV report showed the sheikh mediating among some opposing factions.
What used to be the largest wetland ecosystem in the Middle East, Alahwar was partially drained in the 1950’s to reclaim land for agriculture and oil exploration. Later, President Saddam Hussein ordered more drainage so that his security forces would be able to chase the rebelling Shiites. After the fall of Saddam, the water started coming back.
Apparently not depending on electricity in their simple life, Alahwar’s fasting people were clearly calmer than their fasting brothers in Baghdad who demonstrated almost daily because of power cuts as the temperature soured to 120 degrees.
TV reports from Beirut, Lebanon, also showed demonstrations during Ramadan because of frequent power cuts. As if Lebanon needed another problem, Hezbollah chief and pro-Iran, Hassan Nasrallah, suggested building a nuclear power plant, similar to the one that was opened at the beginning of Ramadan in Iran.
Ramadan or not, the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear facility was not welcomed by the major Western powers that are worried that Iran is building nuclear weapons.
When I talked to my brothers and sisters in the village where I was born and grew-up until I went to the city for high school (Wadi Haj, near the town of Argo, on the Nile River, in Northern Sudan, south of the borders with Egypt), they teased me for missing Ramadan’s traditions and rituals.
A farmer brother, on a cell phone from his farm, said he and his children had just picked vegetables and salad items and milked the cows as they were getting ready to return home before sunset.
I joked that I was going to break my fast with the new MacDonald’s Angus
Deluxe third-pounder – and my explanation was lost in the translation.