The pleasure of Ramadan

No food, no drink, no sex, no work - observing Ramadan brings liberation in unexpected guises

We're right in the middle of Ramadan, during which Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the hours between sunrise and sunset.

We're right in the middle of Ramadan, during which Muslims are supposed to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex during the hours between sunrise and sunset.

A shocking time to take a break in the Middle East, then, you must be thinking. Any chance of a glass of water during one's desert outing under the hot midday sun? Sorry.

Well, that's as maybe. But I once spent Ramadan in Riyadh, the none-too-festive capital of Saudi Arabia, and my memories of that time, I have to point out, are almost exclusively of merry-making and jollification.

For the entire month, all work went onto the back-burner. People did short hours, if any, on the grounds that it is not easy to concentrate when you have got a stomach full of nothing. A few bleary-eyed tellers continued counting money in the banks, and the odd grumpy traffic policeman could occasionally be seen waving cars through broken traffic lights in 100C, but the general rule was that life during Ramadan should be different.

The basic idea was to expend as little energy as possible during the daylight hours, then, at the moment the sun set, you broke your fast with a meal of dates before moving on to the harder stuff, if appropriate. Having spent the day sluggish and semi-comatose, it was quite normal to put in a few hours of work after your sunset meal, and then to spend the rest of the night feasting until dawn. And the best thing was that you knew everybody else was on short working hours as well, so there was no need to feel guilty.

A whole month every year, to put aside! It struck me even then, that this was at least as good as a month on the beach every August.

Inevitably there were a few people who took things to extremes: gloomy types, who went around in fear of accidentally swallowing their own spittle, for example, or who spent time checking that other people weren't sneaking a quick fag in the office toilet.

But most people were having the time of their lives, relishing the anomaly of sleeping late under the air-conditioners, enjoying not doing their jobs properly, savouring the possibility of catching up on old friends at four o'clock in the morning. Petty-spirited expatriates, I noticed, used to deride the evidence of people actually enjoying themselves as contrary to the spirit of Ramadan, but this usually meant two things: first, that they were bitter about their favourite cafés keeping unusual hours, and second, that their notion of Ramadan involved suffering and penance.

What would happen if we tried to inaugurate a Ramadan-style month of fasting and reflection in this country? Some, I suspect, would look at their diaries and think : "Oh no! What is the point of living if I am not working efficiently?". They would then lock themselves in their offices with piles of illicit sandwiches and coffee and pretend to sleep, while doing their utmost to exploit the temporary absence from work of the rest.

Worried that you might be one of these people? A short holiday in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan might be just the thing for you.

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