By Kevin Davis
Having lived in Yemen for nearly a year, I thought I was getting the hang of Yemeni culture. I knew my way around Sana’a, my Arabic had improved tenfold, and I had finally begun to enjoy my weekly qat chews. However, Ramadan is proving to be something entirely different. My first shock came on what was supposed to be the first day of the month. In fact, my friends and I had planned out our first night of Ramadan with a big iftar and qat chew in our home. That evening, we realized that in fact, we would have to wit another day for Ramadan, because the moon’s position was not correct. That the biggest holiday in Islamic culture was so unpredictable came as quite a surprise.
Many foreigners, though they are not Muslim, have chosen to fast during Ramadan in Yemen. It is not for religious reasons, but as part of an immersion into Yemeni culture. And in fact, unlike many other Muslim countries around the world, it is quite difficult in Yemen to not fast. The social taboo around any visible eating or drinking (or smoking, something else that many find quite trying) is extremely strong here. For those of us who work or study in Yemen, it would be incredibly impolite to drink water in front of teachers or co-workers. I witnessed the stigma first hand a few days into the month. I was walking in Bab al-Sabah, a large market near Old Sana’a where I witnessed an old, ill-looking man smoking a cigarette in the middle of the market midday. Yemenis walking past in the market gave the man the dirtiest of looks, and some even began shouting at him. It was enough to convince me of the strictness of the fast.
Ramadan holds many challenges for both Yemenis and foreigners alike. The main challenge is the qat, the local plant that Yemenis chew on a regular basis which provides a mild stimulant effect. Where most other countries adapt to the iftar and suhoor schedules, learning to take naps and sleep at regular intervals, Yemenis chew qat more during Ramadan than any other month. Being a foreigner here usually yields frequent invitations by Yemenis to come to their homes for a meal and a qat chew, but during Ramadan the number of invitations skyrockets. Therefore, many of us have found ourselves chewing qat nearly every night after iftar.
While the experience of sitting with friends, watching Ramadan sitcom specials on tv, and chatting the night away is one to remember, it also comes at a cost. First, qat is known to give insomnia to the user. Therefore, when chewing until 2 or 3 in the morning, it is often impossible to sleep afterwards. Many mornings I find myself awake staring at the ceiling, knowing that I have work or class in only a few hours time. This is made worse by the constant noise of fireworks from the kids down the street, who never seem to go to bed before 5am. Second, qat is an appetite reducer. Therefore, not only does it destroy any hope of a sleep schedule, it usually makes iftar the only meal of the day. The combination of not sleeping and not eating makes Ramadan that much more of a challenge, though the experience is worth it.
In Yemen, one quickly finds that shopping is best done at night. In the mornings, everything is closed, and only around 1 or 2 do shops begin to open for the day. By 5, shops (especially food shops) are packed with Yemenis buying ingredients for the evenings iftar, which happens around 6:45. However, not only are the crowds testing, but in those final hours of the fast, people tend to be tired and angry, making the shopping experience that much more stressful. However, heading out around 8pm is slightly less crowded, and everyone has just enjoyed a massively sized meal, making their general attitudes much more pleasant.
Despite the obstacles, Ramadan is truly a special month. The time spent with friends and family dwarfs a normal month, and the pace of life just slows down. Furthermore, the food is amazing. The iftars I have had with friends usually consist of at least ten different dishes, ranging from a spead of light dishes to being with, large plates of meat and rice, and often a number of different sweets. Being the main meal of the day, iftar can last a couple of hours at a time. Furthermore, special dishes are often prepared only during this holy month. That first bite of sambusa (similar to the Indian samosa) is the most satisfying and delicious thing, and coupled with some sweet juice, suddenly the hunger pains of the day vanish. I have also gotten used to the absence of water during the day. Fortunately, Sana’a has mild weather. I cannot imagine surviving without water somewhere on Yemen’s sweltering hot and humid coastline.
Ramadan is also a time for foreigners to try new things. After settling into the pattern of celebration, some friends and I decided to buy a large lamb. We’re feeding it well for the next few days, and on Thursday we will prepare a large lamb meal for all of our friends, Yemeni and foreign alike. Such a grand meal and celebration could only be made possible during this special month.
With still ten days to go of Ramadan, I am simply exhausted and it feels like every day I am about to get sick. However, each evening, after a big meal and a bag of qat, my struggles and worries disappear, and the unique experience of having Ramadan in Yemen distracts me from the negative. Yemen is an experience for foreigners no matter the time of year, but Ramadan makes the country even more beneficial and forces you into a state of cultural immersion that can be missed during other times. I cannot think of anywhere in the world I would rather be for Ramadan.