When the lights are turned off

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You are in a department store or a restaurant when suddenly you find yourself amidst lights being dimmed and shutters being drawn. Left to grope for an exit and safety in the near dark, you notice that you are not alone. Other patrons are fumbling about towards the lit exterior, some with small children or bags of purchases.

If you are on the second or third floor of a commercial establishment, you quickly find that the escalators have been turned off. To navigate yourself in the dark, you may wish you were slightly more athletic. Sales attendants walk past you and whisper in menacing tones, “Salaat, Salaat” meaning that it is time for prayers or the unspoken term: Get out! But the first call for prayers hasn’t even begun!

The Ministry of Commerce should really look into this disturbing trend among commercial outlets that deal with large numbers of people. There is no uniform standard when it comes to closing at these times. Nor do consumers know whether they are to be locked in or shooed out. Some store and restaurant managers are quick to point out that they have to vacate the premises and shutter their businesses at these times.

The ironic thing is that people who are rudely booted out of these places end up loitering on the sidewalks in front of the stores impatiently waiting for them to reopen. Even sales attendants congregate in groups for their break of coffee and cigarettes. And all this before prayers have even started.

What is Islamic about leaving people in the dark, while amidst strangers, families, children, the young and the old are all left to fend for themselves? Is there anything spiritual in such an act, or is it that sales attendants find that it is a good excuse for longer breaks; notwithstanding the inconvenience, it causes their patrons?

It’s bad enough in Jeddah that one can hardly get any shopping done in the mornings. Many shops open at 10 or 11 am, only to close at noon. They reopen at 1 pm and close again around 1:30 in the afternoon.

In the evenings, the cycle starts again when they reopen at 5 pm, and close for prayers at sunset an hour or so later. Once re-opened, they stay for about an hour and a quarter before customers are shooed out again. This cycle of opening and closing stores at irregular hours is subtly forcing us to become a nation of night owls. Attendants of such establishments are abusing the normal times and periods for prayers without accountability.

Most of us prefer to avoid shopping during such hours and have started to leave such tasks to when all prayers for the day are finally over, which is usually about 8:30 pm. That provides an uninterrupted time without the hassle and bother of being thrust out onto unaccommodating sidewalks. Some women prefer the “one-stop” shopping mode, by which they take on one task in the morning, one in the early evening and one trip at night, which adds a lot of mileage on the car.

And when they are done, the family tends to go out for late dinners, children in tow if they are not fortunate enough to have someone at home looking after the little ones. The children are tired, the men have had a long day, and hardly any shopping has been done.

To observe school-age children staying up to the wee hours of the night because of the overzealousness of some staff trying to stretch their breaks is very annoying. But that still does not answer the question: Why are the lights turned off?

The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena


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