Memories of observing Ramadan abroad


Saudis are accustomed to receiving Ramadan in a special way that is not seen elsewhere in the Muslim world. In Ramadan, we Saudis virtually turn the nighttime into daytime and vice versa at least in major cities. In the past in the countryside, Ramadan was not received in the same way as it was in cities. But after electricity came to small villages, people in those regions, especially youngsters, started celebrating Ramadan just those living in urban areas.

When I asked my non-Saudi friends about the Ramadan switchover, most of them said that they were content with the Saudi style of celebrating the holy month. At the same time, others said that they had some reservations about the way that Saudis observed Ramadan.

Going down memory lane, I recall my Ramadan experience as a diplomat in Pakistan. When I was transferred to work at the Saudi embassy in Karachi, I felt a bit worried and isolated. This was mainly because of the fact that at that time I did not have proficiency in any language other than Arabic.

Perhaps because of my absentmindedness, I had forgotten to inform the Saudi embassy about the time of my arrival. I realized this mistake when I entered the departure longue at Dhahran Airport where I heard passengers talking in languages that were incomprehensible to me. I asked myself what I would do when I landed at Karachi. Fortunately, I found a Pakistani doctor who spoke Arabic and was willing to help me until I reached my destination.

When we entered the airport in Karachi, the doctor helped me fill out the necessary entry papers. Then we moved to the customs section to collect our baggage. At that time, I heard a voice calling me: “Oh Ali, Ali.” When I turned, I saw my colleague who was going to leave Karachi for Khartoum and whom I was going to replace.

I then thanked the doctor who had helped me throughout the travel and asked him to keep my name for future reference. My colleague assisted me in quickly completing the customs procedures, as he knew some of the customs officers. He asked me where I intended to go and I told him about a hotel that had been suggested by one of our colleagues in the ministry. However, he said: “I will take you to the house of my colleague Mustafa Abu Khudair.” I told him that I did not know him, but he replied: “Abu Khudair knows you.”

We then went to the house of Abu Khudair and I found that he had arranged a room for me with an attached bathroom in a villa in which he was living. He treated me as if I were a member of his family.

I stayed with him for two weeks. Although he asked me to stay with him until I found a suitable residence, I was ashamed of remaining as his guest for a longer period of time. I rented a house but found that it was not suitable one and planned to move to another place. It was then that the ambassador entrusted me with a job at the embassy for which I needed to contact him at any time. He asked me to stay in the embassy until I was acquainted with the work.

In my first Ramadan in Pakistan, I lived in the embassy building. During those days, I was keen to perform Taraweeh special night prayers, and therefore looked for a mosque with an imam, who was almost perfect and melodious in his recitation of the Holy Qur’an. After performing prayer at a nearby mosque, I waited for my turn to meet the imam in order to learn whether or not he spoke Arabic. After meeting him I realized that he could not speak Arabic or even English but only Urdu.

I continued my search for an imam with proficiency in Arabic. I found in another mosque an imam whose voice was beautiful and whose recitation was melodious. I said to myself that at last I had found the one I was searching for. I waited until all the people had left the mosque so that I could meet him.

I introduced myself, and he replied with a few words of broken Arabic. I learned that he had a good relationship with the previous Saudi Ambassador Sheikh Mohammed Al-Shubaili. I was not surprised because I knew that Sheikh Al-Shubaili had maintained very good rapport with many people from a cross section of society, from senior officials to gatekeepers and janitors, as well as from leading businessmen to the owners of small grocery stores. He did not distinguish between big people and small people and gave respect to all and behaved in a decent and dignified manner with everyone. All this was evident from the praise showered by the imam on Sheikh Al-Shibaili.

During my stay at the embassy, I faced another problem and that was in preparing suhoor (pre-dawn meal) before starting the fast. There was an old man working at the embassy and his main duty was to prepare Arabic coffee and serve it to guests. He was outstanding in his work. I asked him whether he could prepare suhoor for me and he readily agreed to do so. He did a good job cooking as well as in preparing Arabic coffee.

However, one night in Ramadan during the preparation of suhoor, I opened the refrigerator to get some water to drink and was shocked to see a set of artificial teeth inside the refrigerator. After seeing this, I could no longer eat the suhoor prepared by the man, but I did not stop drinking his Arabic coffee.

Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at