Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Ramadan 2011 -- the Finale

So the country had been waiting with anticipation as to whether Eid would be called tonight. Some Muslims would be watching the sky for the first light of the crescent moon, which indicates that the month of Ramadan has ended, and the Ministry of Islamic Affairs sent out a notice encouraging people who think they have seen the crescent Moon to report it to them immediately. A Muslim friend of mine suggested that after Iftar we go to a rooftop and look for ourselves if no announcement had been made yet.

At the café they had all of their televisions on an Arabic channel where reporters and scholars were following the event and reporting which countries had declared the spotting of the crescent Moon. My Arabic is still pretty poor but I do recognize the names of countries so was interesting to hear them updating the audience about Jordan, Egypt, Oman, Bahrain etc.

The crowd at the café suddenly got excited -- Saudi Arabia had announced the sighting of the crescent Moon! Surely that meant Qatar would soon announce it as well. A report then came in that Kuwait had also announced the sighting. And sure enough, a couple of minutes later, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs in Qatar announced the sighting of the crescent Moon -- the month of Ramadan had ended. You no longer had to fast.

In fact it is prohibited from fasting on the first day of Eid. “Eid” roughly translates as “festival” and Muslims are expected to celebrate the occasion. A Muslim does have the option to fast for six further days after Eid but those are optional and most Muslims do not do it. I don't think anyone I know is.

It wasn't long before I was receiving texts and phone calls from friends wishing me “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Eid). Work sent a text saying that Eid had been called so our three-day closure starts now (no work tomorrow!), and many Qataris were busy getting . . .

... haircuts.

It is traditional that on the first day of Eid you wear new clothes, wear a nice perfume, and generally look your best. So when Eid is called many Muslim men head to their barbers for shaves, haircuts, and beard trims. One of my Qatari friends called me from his barber; he said there was such a big lineup he would likely be waiting over two hours. His barber doesn't take reservations for Eid anymore as in previous years it was leading to arguments so it's now first come-first serve. This is the busiest time of year for barbers and most of them will be open well into the night, or maybe all night, to keep up with the demand. It is also the busiest time of year for tailors who in the 2 to 3 weeks leading up to Eid are flooded with orders for new thobes from customers.

For Qataris there is a special Eid prayer at dawn and otherwise most the day will be spent visiting relatives. Parents, uncles, aunts, and especially grandparents and elders, all expect to see their family today, and meals at your grandparent’s house is common. Given that Qataris tend to have large families that means there's a lot of relatives to see. One of my Qatari friends said he expects to be doing a lot of driving as he takes family members from house to house visiting relatives.

Not knowing what night Eid falls on can make planning vacations a little annoying. I booked my trip to Italy back in June and had to guess when Eid would start. I was off by a day and I'm flying out the night of the 31st, so my first day of Eid will be here. I'll be meeting up with friends.

But first I think I will go to the barber and get a shave. After breakfast.

Eid Mubarak everyone.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ramadan 2011 continued

So we are almost done, maybe two or three days to go.

I actually started to run into trouble with my sleep schedule. I found I wasn't sleeping well at night, which would make me tired throughout the day, which meant I napped longer, which meant I would have trouble sleeping at night, etc. I went through about three nights in a row where I couldn't get to sleep till around 3:00 or 3:30, yet I had to get up at 6:45 for work. Yesterday I soldiered through and didn't have a nap during the day and sure enough I slept fine last night. Decided since it was the weekend to sleep in a little and not have a nap today either. That should get me back on track, so to speak.

Fasting on the weekend really is tougher than weekdays. Work at least keeps you distracted or is on the weekend there isn't a lot to do so you have time to focus on that you're hungry. It's also too hot to go outside, and almost everything is closed, so to get out of the apartment and keep away from temptation I find I go to the malls and wander around. Gets a little eerie at times. Check out these photos:

This is what the malls are like at two in the afternoon on a Ramadan weekend. Almost entirely empty. If it wasn't for the supermarket being open the mall doors would likely have been locked.

Well I have got to start thinking about the ending of Ramadan as I have a trip to Italy planned for Eid. I'm leaving in four days and I haven't even started packing or figuring out what sites I want to see. Typical for me, I'm always a last-minute kind of guy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ramadan 2011 - The Last 10 Days

So we have about a week to go and everything is going fine. I haven't had any issues with fasting, and I had a whole bunch of people over for Iftar a few days ago (I made my homemade chili for the occasion). I also had a dentist appointment scheduled for midnight -- talk about odd hours for a teeth cleaning.

While Ramadan is a holy month the last 10 days are especially holy and Muslims are expected to do even more prayers than usual, most of which should be done in a mosque. At this time the mosques are busier than ever and some Muslims are in the mosques all night. This has to do with the concept of Laylat al-Qadr, an especially holy day which occurs sometime during the last 10 days of Ramadan. The trick is no one is quite sure what night it will fall on each year, only Allah knows. A Muslim who devoutly prays during Laylat al-Qadr will have the benefits of his prayer multiplied by thousands so many Muslims try to ensure that they are doing so.

Since no one knows what night during the last 10 days Laylat al-Qadr falls on, that means devout prayers for all of the last 10 nights is the best way to ensure you don’t miss it. Some Muslims put themselves into seclusion at a mosque during this period (this is called “Itikaf”, I think Qataris may also refer to it as “kiam” but that may just refer to the extra prayers on the last 10 days) and refrain from temptations even moreso than usual. I don't know of anyone performing Itikaf but many of my Muslim friends have less social time in the evenings as they are at extra prayers at the mosque.

Some hadiths mention some signs that may indicate Laylat al-Qadr but there is no surefire way to tell. As this website points out:

It is not essential for the one who “catches” Laylat al-Qadr to know that he has “caught” it. The point is to strive hard and to be sincere in worship, whether or not one knows that one has “caught” it. It may be that some of those who do not know that may be better with Allaah and higher in status than those who did know which night it was, because the former strove hard.

This website has a great discussion of it:


If you would like a more straightforward discussion of the last 10 days of Ramadan here is a quick article:


Now while I am fasting to be in tune with the Muslims here I think I will skip Itikaf, I don't have THAT much time. :-)


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Happy Birthday Karis!

It's my niece Karis's birthday today and since it's Sunday she doesn't even need to be in school so she can enjoy the entire day.

Let's reminisce...

Out on the town in style

Sharing some laughs

Princess Karis appears to be a little concerned about the nearby vampire

Oh no, I guess the vampire got her! She's now a ravenous undead! :-)

Oh well, I guess vampire princesses can have a birthday too.

Happy birthday Karis. *kiss*


Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ramadan 2011 -- Mosque Tour

A colleague of mine received an e-mail from FANAR
(the Islamic Cultural Centre) noting that they were going to have a Ramadan event. They asked participants to fast for the day and that afternoon they would give a tour of some mosques and the new Cultural Village, answer questions about Ramadan, followed by an Iftar meal. Since I was already fasting I figured why not sign up, it would be a pleasant enough way to spend a Friday afternoon.

I'm not sure why I hadn't received a notice about this given that my Arabic lessons are at FANAR. Whatever.

So we met up at FANAR. There was about 20 people and before we left for the mosques FANAR provided abayas for the ladies to wear.

We got on a bus and headed to the new Cultural Village, Katara. Our first stop was the large mosque in Katara, known as the Friday mosque. About another 20 people who were part of the tour joined us there. The mosque is very colorful and has both Persian and Turkish styles.

After a brief talk there we went on a tour of Katara, going past the amphitheater . . .

(No, we are not in Italy, honest)

. . . to a room where they had a model of what the finished Katara development would look like.

It's massive isn't it? The area we were in (the buildings around the amphitheater) made up less than 10% of what would eventually be finished.

The massive structure at the end is actually not a mosque. The plan is for those three "minarets" to be full-fledged office/residential/hotel towers connected to a convention centre at the base. Apparently this element of the plan is still a bit controversial, with some arguing that mosque-like buildings should be mosques, so it is possible that the plan will change.

We were also given a brief showing of the new Opera house before heading to the second mosque, the Golden Mosque.

We sat in the mosque for about 45 minutes and a gentleman told us about customs in Ramadan and answered questions from the group. Then we had Iftar in the mosque: three dates, some water, and some milk.

(my friend with his Iftar meal)

At this point a lot of Muslims were showing up for prayer so I wandered around outside and took a few pictures. After the prayers were finished our hosts took us all to a nearby Egyptian restaurant for a full-fledged meal! I wasn't expecting that.

I forgot to mention that the tour was free and yet we were treated to a full meal. That was very generous of them. We chatted with a British and a Russian couple and had a great time.

After eating dinner my friend and I wandered around Katara for about 15 minutes, bought some karak (look it up here) from a stand, then caught the bus back.


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shouting in the Dark

Earlier this month Al Jazeera showed a documentary about the protests in Bahrain. Titled “Shouting in the Dark” the documentary shows the crackdown by the Government on the protests that occurred earlier this year.

The documentary caused a bit of a diplomatic row, with writers in Bahrain attacking Qatar and Al Jazeera saying the documentary was biased. Al Jazeera pointed out that they made numerous requests to the Government for their side of the story and received no response.

The Bahrain Government does not want you to see this documentary. As soon as I heard that a Government (any Government) did not want a piece of media shown I want to see what the fuss is about. So I saw it.

You should too.

Shouting in the Dark


Ramadan 2011 – Garangao

A few days ago I was at the souq and couldn't believe how busy it was, in the section where the nuts and sweets are sold it was absolutely packed with people shopping. I didn't think much of it at the time, I assumed everyone likes going shopping for sweets and nuts during this month.

I completely forgot that the next day was the 14th day of Ramadan, which in the Gulf has special significance. On that day Qataris and other Gulf Arabs celebrate a festival called Garangao.

On Garangao children dress up in traditional clothing and go door-to-door asking people for sweets, which they put in bags that they bring with them. Sounds familiar, right? Yep, it has some similarities to Halloween in the West. However there are some distinct differences: no one dresses up in scary costumes, there is no underlying ghosts/spirits/witches theme to the festival, and children will traditionally sing songs as they go to houses to collect the candy. The songs reference Allah, generosity etc.

I wish I had remembered that it was Garangao as I would've had my camera with me and gone out in the evening to take some pictures. Unfortunately I only went to the souq late that evening and realized it was Garangao when I saw numerous Qatari women sitting on benches with huge bags of nuts and candy, giving handfuls out to eager children.

I spoke to a Qatari friend of mine the next day and he fondly remembered Garangao. When I asked him what would happen if someone didn't give treats he laughed and replied that they might sing the songs really loud for a minute or so (so that the people inside could feel guilty for not having any candy) and then they would move on to the next house. No pranks.

Garangao appears to be a cultural event in the Gulf and is not an Islamic requirement. I believe many other Muslim countries do not celebrate it. My Qatari friend was sure that it was cultural. I also did a search on Halloween to see if somehow the two are related but could find no connection. Most Halloween traditions seem to originate in Britain and Ireland in the Middle Ages and given that there were no similar traditions in the lands between Britain and Arabia it's unlikely that the two holidays are somehow connected.

Unfortunately I don't have pictures to post but there was a nice news article about Garangao with some photos. Enjoy.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ramadan 2011 - Quick Update

If you look back at my last blog post you'll see a picture of me having a shisha at the Al Bustan Hotel. With the bill came a raffle ticket for a weekly draw for either a Qatar Airways ticket or a Blackberry. My friend Fayez said I should fill it out.

Low and behold two days later I got a call -- I won the Blackberry! (Here's a picture of a smug winner with a Blackberry)

Now I have two phones. I was joking with my Qatari friends that I’m getting more and more like a Gulf Arab, now all I need is an iPhone as my third phone (and maybe switch my car to a Toyota Land Cruiser) and I'm practically a Qatari. ;)

After picking up the Blackberry I went straight to La Cigale Hotel for a Sohour dinner. Here's a few pictures:

I think I'll spend part of today trying to figure out my Blackberry and how to get it set up. I've never had one before, in fact until I came to Qatar I never owned a cell phone before. (I was never fond of the idea of people being able to call me 24 hours a day)


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Ramadan 2011 continued

Just a few updates. I forgot to mention that I've also been reading the Qur’an everyday. Traditionally during Ramadan there is a special set of prayers called the Tarawih and during those prayers when will typically read a section of the Qur’an or listen to a recitation of the Qur’an, eventually going through the entire book during the month.

I'm not planning to read the entire thing but am spending a bit of time each day reading it and re-familiarizing myself with some of the requirements. A friend of mine and I are probably going to attend a Tarawih at a mosque later this month just so I can listen to a recitation.

I also forgot to mention that, like last year, I haven't had any alcohol during Ramadan. While here in Qatar all the bars are closed throughout the month of Ramadan I could have a drink if I wanted to as I have plenty here at home; I think it's always a good thing to take a break from drinking just to make sure it's not becoming an issue. If you find yourself really desiring a drink after a few days then it may indicate a problem. I've never been a heavy drinker so thankfully going without alcohol has been fine.

Otherwise I've been either hosting Iftars at my apartment or going to a friend’s place. Here was the most recent one:

Last night I also went out to a nice shisha place in town to relax during the evening. This place needs reservations in advance but when we arrived at 9:30 it was practically empty, it didn't start filling up until 11.

I'm also managing to get exercise here and there, this evening I was out playing squash again. My Qatari friend Adel and I usually try to play at least once a week:

I’m sure I’ll have more exciting updates this weekend.


Monday, August 08, 2011

Ramadan 2011 – Meals

I've explained how the meal to break your fast is called an Iftar, and many restaurants and hotels offer Iftar menus or buffets, but there are other meals that go on throughout the night. During Ramadan all the hotels have big buffets at various times and it is common for companies and organizations to host clients or employees at these buffets, so despite the fact that Muslims are fasting during the day they usually more than make up for it at night.

The most common name for the meal that you have after Iftar is “Sohour” (pronounced so-hoor), which generally indicates any meal after Iftar. The hotels usually offer Sohour meals starting at 9 PM and going into the late hours but in Qatar that's actually not the name of the meal. Technically the Sohour is the meal right before the first light of dawn, before you start fasting. Qataris and other Gulf Arabs have a special name for the meal that takes place between an Iftar and Sohour, called “Ghabga”, though it is typically supposed to start around 11 PM. The name might be falling out of favor, I've attended many evening meals at hotels labeled as a Sohour but only once was it called a Ghabga. At least one Qatari friend of mine still refers to it as Ghabga though.

So here's how I think it works in the Islamic world:

Not in Gulf -- Iftar, then anything after is a Sohour
In the Gulf -- Iftar, then Ghabga, and a Sohour is the last meal before the first light of dawn

In the last three days I've been to two Sohour meals (actually Ghabga’s) at hotels and I have another one later this week. The hotels tend to go all out for Ramadan to make their displays as fancy as possible. Here are a few pictures from one of them that I attended at the Sharq Hotel (the pictures look very pink because that was the color of the lighting used at the event):

Nice spread, eh? Entertainment usually includes live musicians playing Arabic music and some hotels might have Whirling Dervishes. Shishas are also provided for guests. One entertainment you will not see is bellydancing. When I first arrived here five years ago hotels would also include bellydancing as part of the entertainment, usually flying in bellydancers from Egypt or Lebanon. The Qatari Government later decided that this was perhaps a little too provocative and not really keeping with the spirit of what is supposed to be the most religious month so they banned bellydancers. I have not seen one in Qatar since.

Next one is on Thursday night, I'll make sure I take some pictures.


Saturday, August 06, 2011

Ramadan 2011 -- the Artillery Shot to Signify the Sun Has Set

I was going to meet some friends for Iftar dinner but that got canceled, so I decided to head down to the Corniche area to find where they fire an artillery shell to tell everyone that the Sun has set (and that they can break their fast now).

It was pretty easy to find as a lot of cars were already there:

With a half-hour ago people were already crowding around the . . . what is it exactly? An artillery gun?

The police were there handing out Ramadan gift bags to children. There was also a Qatari reporter with a film crew wandering around doing some interviews and preparing to film the firing.

As the time approached more people arrived and more children immediately ran to the gun. Forget ice cream trucks, you want to attract kids in a hurry bring out the heavy artillery! (I swear, there's a gun under all those kids) :)

As the time approached they cleared everyone away

Prepared the gun


They fired the gun so quickly it totally caught me off guard and by the time I took the picture I was already enveloped in smoke.

Anyway the smoke cleared and everyone left to go have their Iftar meal

I walked across the street to the Corniche, ate some dates and a banana that I brought with me, and watched the skyline. I have a Sohour dinner that I'm attending tonight so I didn't want to eat too much.

That was pretty cool.


Thursday, August 04, 2011

How Do You Find out the Fasting Times for Ramadan?

One thing I've been asked occasionally by people from the West revolves around how I know the timings to start/stop fasting. Well here in Qatar there are five main ways:

1) listen to the announcement called from the mosques. Not too difficult as there is usually a mosque within hearing range wherever you are in Doha, but you still need to know approximately what time or else you might confuse it with a standard call to prayer.

2) listen to a local radio station, they will interrupt their programming for the announcement

3) get hold of timetables, like the one shown below, either online or available in booklets from various places.

Both of these were given to me by my Qatari friends. The times to start fasting and the times to stop fasting are the bolded columns.

You need to make sure that your timetable is for the area you live in as the sun sets at different times in different areas. For example in Kuwait the sun sets 10 minutes later than in Qatar because Kuwait is slightly further west and also further north.

4) On local television they will show a scene of some soldiers firing an artillery shell, which indicates the sun has set

5) Finally, you can listen for the artillery shell yourself, they really do fire one. I'm not sure where in Doha they do this but I think it's near the Corniche as I recall last year if we were breaking the fast in a restaurant near the Corniche we could hear the shell being fired. One of my Qatari friends said we might go there one evening to watch.

Firing an artillery shell to indicate that you can stop fasting seems to be a common thing in the Gulf. I watched the firing of the artillery shell on Kuwait television two days ago and there were dozens of citizens around watching. (Kuwait does a live broadcast of the firing of the artillery shell so many of the citizens wave Kuwaiti flags to the TV cameras).

5) websites like islamicfinder.org also list the prayer times.

Oh, and another question us Westerners ask is what would a Muslim do about fasting if they live far enough north that the sun doesn't set in the summer? Or if they were in outer space? It's pretty straightforward really, it's another place and align your fasting with the timing there. My understanding is that Mecca is a favorite choice, for obvious reasons, but I don't think it's a requirement. But many Muslims who live in northern countries just go by the local time and thus have an exceptionally long fast. I spoke wants to a Qatari who said that when he lived in France he would have to fast until the sunset at sometime after 9pm. Man, that would be tough. I'll settle for breaking the fast sometime after 6.


Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Ramadan 2011 – Day Three

I decided to go to work 15 minutes earlier than usual and leave 15 minutes earlier in the hopes that I would miss the traffic. Sure enough it made a big difference. Rather than gridlock the traffic was free-flowing. I think I'll stick to that schedule from now on. Had a nap in the afternoon for two hours, as usual.

For Iftar I thought about going to something I saw nearby:

An Iftar tent, one of many set up around the city to provide Iftar meals to people. Every day thousands of people in Qatar have free Iftar meals. Usually it's the Government or charities that sponsor the tents but in some cases it's a company or even a wealthy individual. The Qur’an even states that if an individual cannot fast (because they're sick, elderly, pregnant etc.) then they should feed other people to make up for the fast. Typically the meals in the tents consist of dates, rice, and a bit of meat and vegetables.

When I got there I had second thoughts about going in. Because this tent is clearly sponsored by a charity it is probably meant for the poor, and I'm certainly not that. I decided to go home instead and have a light meal (dates, laban, some bread and some beans).

After eating I got out of the apartment, one of my promises for Ramadan. I know that if I stay in my apartment I'm going to start reaching for snacks so the best thing to do is to get out and maybe get some exercise. Unfortunately because it's the middle of summer the only place one can go to get a good walk without being in 40+ degree heat is a mall. So far this week I've been to all the major malls in Doha, walking laps to get some exercise. It's not ideal but at least it gets me out of the apartment.

I also had a squash game at 10pm with the Qatari friend of mine. It was a good thing we booked a court ahead of time because the Squash Center was fully booked. All eight courts were busy, many of them with children getting lessons. Yep, during Ramadan kids have squash lessons at 10 in the evening! Many were still there when my friend and I left after 11.

Midnight, time for bed.


Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Ramadan 2011 continued

Today was much like yesterday, though the traffic was bad. I think most offices closed for Ramadan the same time I leave the office because the traffic is a lot heavier, yet I'm told that an hour later the roads are fairly empty.

A comment on my last post asked a few questions, I figure I’d deal with them here.

Are you planning to fast the whole month of Ramadan?

Yep, the whole month. Last year I did it for two weeks but then stopped because I had to travel to Canada. I have no trip planned this month so I should be fasting the entire month of Ramadan.

Without even any liquid intake for 15 hours in this hot weather? Seriously?!

Well, the trick is not being outside for any length of time. I'm not sure how Qataris dealt with it in the old days before air-conditioning, going through an entire day of 40+ degree weather without drinking any water, but nowadays thanks to air-conditioning it's not too bad.

I work in an office so I'm actually not outside much at all, just when going to and from the office in my air-conditioned car. My day typically goes like this:

wake up at 3am for my sohour snack, go back to sleep
wake up, get ready for work
drive to the office
work in the office for six hours
drive home
maybe do a couple of odds and ends in the apartment
have a nap for 1 1/2 to 2 hours
prepare for Iftar meal
start eating (at the appropriate time of course)

So I'm not really outside much. I don't think there's any way I could go without drinking water if I was outside for any length of time.

Besides the desire to integrate with the culture of your living country, are there anything else that's motivating you?

No, not really, this is motivated by a desire to experience things as the locals do.

The first three years I was here I did not fast and pretty much kept to my usual schedule but in the meantime the country had changed. People wouldn't even start going out until 8 or 9 in the evening and typically would stay out until 1am or later. Stores would open from 8pm onward. By the time things were starting to pick up in Qatar I was going to bed. I was clearly out-of-sync with the country. By fasting I am more in line with the country’s “clock” so to speak, napping when everyone else is napping, having meals the same time everyone else is, and staying up later. Also it provides me an opportunity to try to experience what fasting during Ramadan is like and share that experience with everyone else. You also get a better idea of many of the local customs. Lots of people have been chatting with me about how fasting is going, have recommendations for various foods and dates, and through those conversations you can get an idea of what they do for Ramadan.

So far fasting has been easier than I recall from last year. Still early in the month though.


Monday, August 01, 2011

Ramadan 2011 -- Day One

My alarm got me up at 3 in the morning so that I could have my morning meal before first light at around 3:20. I barely remember eating it, I think I kept my eyes shut and just reached for whatever food was on the nightstand, and drinking plenty of liquids. Once I was done eating went back to bed. Got up at 6:45 to go to work. I could sleep in a little later since I didn't have to eat breakfast.

Traffic was about the same as usual; I was kind of hoping it would be a bit lighter but no luck. Not a big deal though since it normally takes me 15 minutes to get to work.

Surprisingly I didn't have too difficult a time fasting at work. What I recall from last year was that my stomach would really start acting up around lunchtime but today nothing. Aside from some obvious tiredness in the afternoon it wasn't too bad. One of my Qatari colleagues had it a bit worse than I did because he's a smoker, and smoking during the day is a no-no as well. He wanted a cigarette more than something to eat or drink.

After work I cleaned the apartment a bit in preparation for a Kuwaiti friend of mine and his wife coming over for Iftar. At around 16:00 I went to have a nap and foolishly forgot to set an alarm. My Kuwaiti friend called around 17:30 to double-check what time to come over it was a good thing he did because that woke me up. Iftar was less than an hour away! Had my friend not called I might've been sleeping until he knocked on the door.

I woke up and started preparing soup and getting the table ready. My friends came by around 18:00 with some other food.

Here's the spread for my first Iftar of 2011!

After the meal we sat around a while with some tea and my friends went home and I had to go to the mall to pick up some stuff I had ordered. Surprisingly the mall was not crowded, I'd expected it to be busier than it was. I guess since this is the first day of Ramadan everyone was visiting friends and relatives. I did a few laps of the mall to get some exercise (too hot to exercise outside) before I headed home.

Ramadan makes it more difficult to fit some exercise in. Can’t do it during the day since I'm not drinking any liquids, and there is not a lot of time at night. That said I'm likely going to play squash with a Qatari friend of mine on Wednesday night -- from 10 PM to 11 PM. It wouldn't surprise me if during Ramadan the courts were open until 1 or 2am

Ramadan Kareem everyone.