I think I was about nine years old. Every Friday, Koreans gathered at their community centers to break bread, catch up on gossip, brag about their children, and play ping-pong. It was just another hot summer Friday in Riyadh for me and my brother. After the center visits, my brother and I loved going with our parents to this run down hole-in-the-wall shop near our community center to get ice cream.
Me: “Appa (dad in Korean), please buy us some ice cream. My brother wants ice cream too.”
Father: “It’s Ramadan, we can’t eat in public and the shop is probably closed.”
Brother: “Umma (mom in Korean), how about if we duck very, very low and eat?”
Me: “Yeah, nobody can see us like this!”
To demonstrate, my brother and I ducked to the floor of the car, not realizing that my limbs were too awkwardly long to hide completely.
We eventually convinced our parents and headed to our favorite shop to find that it was closed.
Father: ”Don’t worry, we will find one that’s open!”
My father was a man on a mission and we helped him by stretching our necks and squinting our eyes to focus left and right to spot any open shop. The Riyadh streets were completely empty. We passed the Naseem neighborhood with an abandoned dirt plot with two trash bins. There, we usually spotted Saudi boys running around barefoot on the dirt in between the two trashcans that seemed like their soccer goals. This day it was empty, like a ghost town. I wondered if everyone was taking a long vacation to somewhere cooler like my expat friends. What I didn’t know then was that the Muslim communities were all asleep during those daylight hours.
It’s like a nationwide switch goes off that flips day and night activities. In this heated summery desert, and especially during Ramadan when daylight dictates fasting, it makes sense that day and night simply flip. My Muslim friends would start their ‘day’ with iftar breakfast right at sunset and enjoy visiting one another, watching TV, staying active all throughout the evening. Many catch their sleep during the day.
By contrast, my parents come from farming families where daylight dictates working hours. They wake up with the dawn and go to bed with dusk. So what continues as business-as-usual in the entire Kingdom might be: schools for children and non-Muslim expats, like our family. The most similar holiday in the Western world would probably be a combination of Thanksgiving holidays and Christmas celebrations, where people slow down from work, cook up a storm and binge-eat, share gifts and time with loved ones, except that their day and night stays day and night.
That afternoon, as our ice cream search continued, we finally found a shop that was open but that looked like it was trying to hide. All four of us walked in in anticipation of choosing our own favorite ice cream. The shopkeeper looked like a withered plant leaning against the walled in shelf with Marlboros and Miswak (traditional chewing stick for cleaning teeth). I found my sandwich ice cream and started to run up to the counter to ask if the one in my hand was both vanilla and chocolate. But then I stopped and hesitated because I knew I wanted to avoid his breath, which unlike all other times might be stinky. I didn’t understand why then, but learned later that many Muslims adhere so strictly to the Ramadan rules of fasting from food and water that they don’t wash or brush their teeth.
Back in my father’s car, I was so content: quietly squeezing into the small floor space of the car, rolling up the sleeves of my abaya and entering my chocolate-vanilla sandwich ice cream heaven. My brother looked content, instantly getting his red fruit popsicle all over his nose and mouth. We passed several police cars, each time trying to duck down lower in fear of getting caught. My mom told us not to worry. She said they too looked hungry and depleted to do anything today. I remember my back getting stiff and my neck hurting a little from ducking too hard, but I was happy. We were so fearful of these rules, not realizing there are exceptions for children, elderly, sick, pregnant, and travelers.
We are currently in the month of Ramadan. Millions of Muslims around the world are praying, fasting, and giving charity to their communities. Coming soon is my favorite memory of Ramadan: Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end with a three-day holiday and I call this final breakfast “the biggest and the most delicious breakfast you will ever have.”
My heart also warms seeing free food everywhere throughout the holiday. Many places offer free bottled water, sweet dates, freshly brewed Arabic coffee, and quality meals for anyone. Those who can’t afford food on their own will are invited to the table. Mosques and aid organizations set up tents for these free iftar meals. Check out this video of iftar being served in a “Ramadan tent:”
Sa-Eun Park is a Korean Saudi woman who lives in Washington D.C. She is head of MagpieVenture, a company she founded to advance the capacity of microfinance institutions globally through consulting, executive coaching, and workshop facilitation. To date, she has worked with twenty-five financial institutions in fifteen countries.