(Stories of Daily Life in Saudi Arabia)

by Unda DeVeil

A short introduction. Stories of every day life in Saudi Arabia, as seen through the eyes of a British woman living there, may interest some of you. I hope so, as it is my intention to write something witty and amusing as well as to give an idea of daily life in a totally different culture and lifestyle.

So, what exactly do you find to do all day? A continuation of "Week in the life'' day five.

Wednesday. Ramadan, I mentioned it very briefly yesterday, so I thought today I'd explain something about what it means in the way I see it anyway. Not that it has anything specifically to do with it being Wednesday, but I am somewhat restricted and pretty well stuck indoors today. There's nothing much going on out there as the whole country just about grinds to a halt. Muslim or not, Ramadan affects all who live here.

Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. The month of fasting. The time to prove that you are a good Muslim, you are strong, have faith your religion, can resist temptation, and have the willpower to fast from sunrise to sunset. It's like paying a penance. A time to reflect, to vow you're going to be a better and more disciplined person. A rather strict version of the Christian Lent, I suppose. You know, the forty days and forty nights thing in the wilderness. The faithful in Islam solicit solace and retribution the world over, and for Saudi Arabia, being the very heart of Islam, it is taken to the extreme.

Fasting means that between sunrise and sunset nothing, absolutely nothing, can pass the lips and into the mouth. No food, no drink, no cigarettes, no brushing of teeth. But this fasting business is to be observed by all who live here, Muslim or not. So for me it is a penance too. It is a time when I cannot eat or drink during the day (unless at home), as one cannot be seen to consume anything in public. Nothing. Zero. Starve, faint, or die. No restaurants, cafes, or coffee bars are open until sundown, when the fast is broken with 'Iftar', literally meaning 'breaking of fast'.

It's also a time when I must be vigilant, as during this month there will be extra Muttawa around, ready to shout and scream as they love to exercise their authority. I always make sure I have my headscarf with me, and often voluntarily wear it before I'm shouted at. They don't like to see the hair uncovered. They don't like to see groups of women together. They don't like to see an ankle showing. They don't like to see any hint of jewellery, or any make-up. A friend of mine was recently ordered to wash her face, she was wearing barely any make-up, but this is what we must endure. The Muttawa just love Ramadan.


Ramadan also means I get little sleep, as prayers are heard from the mosques all night long'just as the weather is cool enough to sleep with the windows open.

As for shopping, as if they don't shut often enough during a normal day, during Ramadan they remain closed nearly all day and open most of the night. Business hours go out of the window as rules for attendance and punctuality are ignored. Phones aren't answered, offices appear closed even if they're half open, and reason disappears altogether. Getting anything done is an impossibility as 'Come back after Ramadan' is the stock phrase. Need an exit visa? Oooh, no, y'ou'll have to come back after Ramadan. Need the car fixed? No chance, not til after Ramadan. Hair appointment? Hmmmm, not a chance now, try after Ramadan. The whole country shuts down (except for the mosques).

But for some reason, it is during this very month when drivers are expected to tolerate others' behaviour, disciplining themselves by not getting angry at the bad driving and stupid antics they see in front of them. Yet road deaths hit their maximum numbers for the year, as Ramadan seems to empower drivers with a sense of rage known to no other. Traffic lights suddenly become invisible. Parking spaces don't exist, as drivers leave the car wherever they choose, and if this means triple or quadruple parking in the city centre, then that's what they'll do. The average speed rises by an extra 10 or 20 mph, as some extremely dangerous manoeuvres are seen, left turns and u-turns made from the extreme right hand lane is a common sight, shrill horns and tailgating becoming the norm, and no pedestrian in their right mind attempts to cross the road. Even if no car is seen, you can bet the minute your foot is off the pavement some lunatic will come screeching out from nowhere aiming right at you as though he's in a Grand Prix.

Of course, this means that come 4.30pm when whoever has bothered to go to work leaves to make their way home for Iftar, the roads are at their worst. Having starved all day, these drivers will kill anything that gets in their way as they rush to get home and eat. And once they've stuffed themselves silly (literally) the massive adrenalin rush gets a hold of them and the driving and traffic hazards are worse than ever as they seem intent on crashing into each other at breakneck speed during the whole night. We see accident after accident. It's like being at the fairground dodgems. The most interesting and mangled bits of wreckage you've ever seen litter the roadsides when you go out the next morning, not one of them any longer resembling the car it once was.

Shopping becomes more interesting as, during Ramadan, all packaging, boxes, labels and any product item showing a female body or face must be censored. This is done as a matter of course anyway, but quite often a whole batch or container finds its way through and onto the shelves without having seen the famous black marker pen. NOT during Ramadan. For during this month the powers that be get very excited, extra vigilant, and nothing gets past the black marker pen, in fact I'm sure they are issued with brand new bigger and better black marker pens especially for the occasion. It is especially obvious on the boxes of ladies hair dye, and facial skincare products, where every single female has had her face blacked out, or at least the eyes and mouth (they were unveiled) and the blonde ones were given the whole black veil!! Blonde is obviously not good. And when 'the powers that be' get tired of blacking in whole faces, and let's face it, this has got to be one of the most boring jobs on earth, they just to do the eyes and mouth which actually looks totally ridiculous. They don't like blue eyes either, by the way. You'll never see so much as a hint of blue eye staring out at you from a poster, package or box. But another strange thing is, and there are plenty of strange things about this whole Ramadan scene, many of the, how shall I put this, more modern 'feminine hygeine' products disappear off the shelves. Now, work that one out if you can ' because I sure can't!! Also, about 2 days ago, in the big supermarket where we go for our groceries, that provocative little madam 'Barbie' was being scooped off the toy shelf as fast as possible. You've got to laugh. It's crazy. It's Saudi.