The upside-down days of Ramadan

We're pleased to present another guest post by our contributor in San'a. This post explains how life during the holy month of Ramadan traditionally differs from the rest of the year for Yemenis.

The holy month of Ramadan is an occasion to live differently, in the full sense of the word. Thirty days of extraordinary nights and days. Everything about this month is exciting: receiving it, living it, and finally bidding farewell.

For a week at least, people start by celebrating the coming of Ramadan with social gatherings. Family, friends, and colleagues meet in festive gatherings bringing a variety of food and beverages in the so-called “ya nafs ma tishtahi” celebration. This habit used to be done as “the best last meal” before Ramadan fast. It has been developed to serve many purposes, though. Another reception ritual is to announce the beginning of Ramadan’s month by igniting small fires all over the cities and villages; as children are the ones to enjoy setting the fires on the top of houses’ roofs, streets or hills. It is a very old practice on the eve of Ramadan. This practice has different names throughout Yemen. It is called “hishal” or “al-tanseerah” in some places. Children used to sing while carrying a fire and walking around their neighborhoods; this practice used to happen throughout Yemen with only one difference, the songs vary. Nowadays, this practice lives on with a few innovations: children play with the fireworks, firecrackers and bangers starting from the eve of Ramadan to the third day of Eid al-Fitr.

Although many coastal cities enjoy long nights by staying up late at night because of the hot weather, it becomes the norm all over the country during the holy month of Ramadan. Business hours shift, starting at 11am and ending at 4pm, so people can sleep in. Ramadan’s days are upside down. People stay up until dawn, and sleep most of the day. Employees wake up at 10am to go to work, and leave the workplace in a few hours to go home and sleep a few more hours before breaking the fast at maghrib, or sunset.

The daily routine totally differs from that of the rest of the year. People abstain from eating during the day time, which in the summer is very long. After sunset, people break their fast with special dishes which are prepared only for Ramadan. It is very exhausting for women, who spend all day long in kitchen. Ramadan’s diet is distinguished. It seems that people do not stop eating from when they break the fast at sunset until they abstain again at dawn. Ramadan brings with it a special flavor. Its dishes taste different. Sambusak, samosas, falafel, and many other sorts of fried foods; besides the puddings, soups, pastries, special beverages like “moon juice,” are the main dishes for Ramadan. It takes the whole day long to prepare Ramadan’s special dishes, but just a few seconds to eat them.

Another distinctive custom in Ramadan is the pastimes and entertainments. In the past, people used to gather and play games such as Rummy; nowadays, TV shows are the new center for family gathering. Comedy shows, competition shows, and other TV series present their premieres in Ramadan. People receive Ramadan with different plans; some of them totally dedicate their time to enjoy the TV shows and programs, while others spend their time praying and reading the Qur’an. As for those who focus on religious endeavors, they pray all Ramadan’s special payers, al-taraweeh and al-qiam. The al-taraweeh prayer starts an hour after sunset and takes at least an hour and a half. Most people go to mosques to enjoy the prayers in a large group, at least five hundred people in some mosques. In regular months, women usually pray at home, but in Ramadan women prefer to go to mosques to enjoy the prayers. The second special prayer, al-qiam, starts only in the last ten days of Ramadan, which may last for two hours and end just an hour before dawn. According to Islamic tradition, every night after midnight, Allah descends to Earth’s sky to respond to the prayers of those who are awake and praying. However, in the last ten days of Ramadan, there is a night, only one night, in which Allah not only responds to the believers’ prayers, but also exceptionally and uniquely rewards people; this special night is called “laylat al-qadr” or “the night of destiny.” It is a blessed night because of the great virtue which Allah has promised believers; Allah said in the Qur’an that this night is better than a thousand months. People believe in this night, because it is mentioned in the Qur’an very clearly. They pray the last ten days in deep hope of winning this night and having their prayers answered one day.

People love Ramadan’s days, as they bring new routine and opportunities to get closer to Allah and be better people. However, Ramadan is received with less excitement in some parts of Yemen. In Aden, people are less familiar with Ramadan’s rituals. In the southern regions, especially Aden, the British occupation and the Socialist regime played a significant role in blurring and erasing the religious rituals, as well as the celebration habits of receiving Ramadan. However, Ramadan regained some of its flavor in Aden after unification in 1990, when some of the religious rituals were revived in these parts of Yemen. The media also played a role in spreading thoughts and mutual habits about Ramadan, not only as a religious occasion but also as a social one.

Ramadan is a good opportunity to strengthen social ties. Just before the maghrib prayer at sunset, you can see children carrying dishes for neighbors. Both rich and poor, there is no difference. All of them exchange dishes, and send back the dishes with special treats the next day. It is also normal to see people on streets, sitting around cloths featuring a variety of Ramadan’s cuisine, that each one has brought from home to share with the poor. 

Ramadan is a blessed month; people feel sad when its end gets closer. Muslims use the Lunar months; hence, they rely on the appearance of the crescent to announce the beginning and the end of the holy month of Ramadan. However, the end of Ramadan is the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the celebration of the breaking of the fast. During the last ten days of Ramadan, women start baking special kinds of biscuits and sweets to be served on the day of the Eid. On the eve of the Eid, people make sure they have bought new clothes for everyone, and also the Eid’s sweets or what is called in Yemen ja’alah, a mixture of the most delicious Yemeni raisins, almonds and various nuts and chocolates.

Ramadan is a chance for a change at all levels. Socially, you should be in peace and have good relationships with everyone. Personally, you should change the bad habits you have developed throughout the year; it is a chance to reflect on your behavior and relationships. “Ramadan Karim” is the greeting exchanged by people at the time of Ramadan; which means that generosity is Ramadan’s most prominent virtue: you should demonstrate this virtue in your behavior at the personal, and social levels.  Ramadan Kareem!