Surviving as a Middle East Spouse During Ramadan

My 18-month-old daughter loves green olives. Just a glimpse of the oily green ovals sparks a flurry of gleeful anticipation.

“Oliv-ah? Oliv-ah! Oliv-ah!”

This happens at home, restaurants and the supermarket deli counter. Here in Bahrain, where we are stationed with my husband at Naval Support Activity Bahrain, our local deli counter is lush with olives imported from Greece, Spain, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.

I ask to sample a Spanish olive. The deli man shoots me a disappointed look.

“Madam,” he says sharply, at the same time my eyes catch the sign.

“Please refrain from eating or drinking in the store during Ramadan.”

Ah, yes. Supermarkets are kind of like casinos, aren’t they? It’s easy to lose track of time, space and the fact that it’s my fourth Ramadan here in the Middle East. Thanks to my husband’s job as a foreign area officer, we are finishing our second two-year tour in the Middle East.

We experienced our first two Ramadan months in Cairo, Egypt, before our daughter was born. It was easier then to stay out late as the Muslim world flips its days and nights to cope with fasting. Egyptian people, known throughout the region for their humor and propensity for staying up late, decorate their country with festive lanterns. In some neighborhoods, dates or water are handed out to anyone in the street around sundown.

Now that we have a little one, it’s hard to participate in any society that comes alive only after sundown.

Further complicating life are the heat indices in Bahrain, which easily reached 130 degrees Fahrenheit during the pair of Ramadans we experienced here. It is far hotter than Egypt. Bahraini society is also a more private, conservative one. Its traditions seem more hidden, perhaps because fewer than half the people who reside here are native to the Gulf archipelago.

Also unlike Egypt, all adults in Bahrain must refrain from drinking or eating in public during daylight hours during Ramadan. It’s the law.

During our first Ramadan in Bahrain, I was advised to carry a note from my on-base doctor. It stated that I was a breastfeeding mother and as such must be allowed to consume water – even in public. Happily, I was never asked to show it.

This second time around, we chose to travel during Ramadan, one of several ways American military spouses can choose to survive – and try to thrive – being stationed in the Middle East during the month of fasting.

What is Ramadan? 
Ramadan is a month-long holiday during which Muslim people around the world refrain from eating, drinking, smoking and having sex from dawn to dusk. Fasting is seen as a way to purify oneself.

Because Islamic holidays follow the lunar calendar rather than the Gregorian one Westerners hang up at home, Ramadan takes place at a different time each year. It’s held 11 days earlier each year of the Gregorian calendar; it takes about 33 years for Ramadan to transverse the Gregorian calendar.

Feast or Fast?
Of course, Muslim people don’t go a month without eating, as I imagined before PCSing to the region. I’ve realized that Muslims essentially swap their days and nights during Ramadan.

And it’s actually a very food-oriented holiday, not unlike the American Thanksgiving season; many special celebrations and foods are associated with the month.

The first meal of the Ramadan day, Sohoor, is consumed about an hour before dawn. Iftar, which literally means “breakfast,” is eaten at sundown. The iftar meal traditionally begins with a glass of water and a handful of dates, as instructed by the Prophet Mohammad himself.

The third meal, ghabga, is a held a few hours after iftar, maybe around 11 p.m. It’s a very social affair and might be the heaviest of the three meals.

How much a person eats at these meals varies. Some Iftar and ghabga meals can be lavish buffets enjoyed at a restaurant or relative’s home. With a whole month of heavy, late meals, it’s not uncommon for folks to gain weight during Ramadan.

Yet other times these meals might be more austere, kept simple to honor the religious intention of the Holy Month.

An Iftar to Remember
Americans stationed in the Middle East will want to experience at least one iftar or ghabga meal during their stay. Hotels and popular restaurants offer massive all-you-can-eat buffets at special prices each night of Ramadan. They’re open to anyone willing to pay, not just Muslim customers. It’s a great way to sample lots of local dishes.

When arriving at an Iftar dinner before sunset, you will be asked to wait to eat or drink. How will you know when to dig in? You may hear the call to prayer from a local mosque. Also, many Muslim people have apps on their phone that alert them to the proper times to pray or to break their fasts.

Go Local
Ramadan traditions extend beyond food. When my husband and I lived in Cairo, we saw fanooz, or Ramadan lanterns, everywhere. The city lit up each night with colorful glowing lanterns.

In Bahrain, certain traditional neighborhoods mark Ramadan with a Garaoun celebration. Young children in traditional clothing go house-to-house singing holiday songs in exchange for small candies or clothes. Sometimes shopping malls host special Garaoun parties for children, too.

Other neighborhoods might be visited by a local man beating a traditional drum an hour or so before dawn to wake up sleeping Muslims so they can eat sohoor.

Learning about these local traditions has greatly helped us adjust to and appreciate life in the Middle East during Ramadan.

Surviving – and Thriving
Getting into the slow rhythms of Ramadan life requires patience. It’s frustrating to realize many favorite restaurants and shops will be closed during daylight hours for an entire month.

But traffic – an ongoing challenge for families stationed in the Middle East – is lighter during the day while fasting Muslims rest at home.

(That said, newcomers quickly learn to watch for erratic drivers with low blood sugar or nicotine cravings rushing home for Iftar around sunset!)

Grocery stores offer sales on popular holiday foods. Clothing stores often offer rare discounts as Eid approaches. If you understand Arabic, you can enjoy the special month-long miniseries that run on Arabic-language satellite channels during Ramadan.

While nearly every restaurant in Bahrain closes during daylight hours, the base food court on NSA Bahrain is open during daylight hours. Anyone with base access is permitted to eat there. With fewer than 700 families stationed in Bahrain, a trip to base becomes an even more homey, social affair during Ramadan.

Travel Time? Easy Trips from the Middle East

Need a break? Ramadan can be a good moment to take advantage of travel destinations more easily accessed from the Middle East – especially when it falls during school holidays.

This year, my husband and I our daughter on a tour of Andalucía during the first two weeks of Ramadan. Temperatures in the 80s felt cool to us. My sundresses finally enjoyed a break from their spot in the back of my Bahrain closet.

European destinations like Spain and Italy are available with Space A travel. Destinations like Turkey and Sri Lanka require only one four-to-five hour direct flight.

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