Ramadan, Alcohol, and Life in a Muslim Country


It’s Saturday night in Nova (Northern Virginia) and I’m with my husband’s college buddies, although he has stayed behind in Doha to work while I travel to the US for work. I walk into the sports bar, my second in two nights, to say hello. This is my obligatory visit as much as my stay with his parents and my two nights in his childhood bed. His father and stepmother take me out for gossipy meals where we combine the known facts of the remaining son’s dating life. Tonight in the bar everyone is friendly and warm – especially those that came to our wedding in Florida. They are what I have affectionately named the Korean Mafia, the safe haven my husband had as a child of Lao-Thai immigrants found for his Asian identity. They are a close group and I’ve never felt as loved as I have by their embraces.
            “Can I get you a drink?” one friend asks.
            “I’m okay,” I say and return the hug.
            “You don’t drink— that’s right,” he responds, suddenly remembering.
            This is the litany that I’ve repeated since I turned 21. But this group, hard drinkers every one, gets right to the point: “Why?” It isn’t belligerent like in high school or awkward like in college, bemused in graduate school. It is curious, like most of their other questions about me – non-Korean, South Asian.
            “I never started,” I explain, “So I got old enough that I would only be doing it became I care what other people think.”
            This really is the reason – also religious conviction that life is already mesmerizing enough I don’t need enhancers. Its also one of the reasons I love living in the Middle East. I know it sounds silly but its true – the Muslim alcohol prohibition has freed me in the 18 months I’ve lived there. I no longer have drinks with coworkers where someone might embarrass himself and roam the office with woebegone eyes for the next few days. I don’t have to endure the raised eyebrows and quick stammers of “do you want seltzer? Or soda?” as hosts retreat into their kitchens trying to please me. Instead, I’m respected. It’s an odd thing, respect for something I’m marked as an oddity for in the US. And then by people depicted as war mongering and hate filled.
            Muslims do drink, of course, the world over and Doha is no exception. But even those who imbibe admire me ruefully with their raised glasses. Respect aside, there is a safety in socializing with me which increases my value as a friend in the expat community. I am the permanent DD. With a zero tolerance policy, expats of all stripes shudder at being deported for quenching their thirst. There is a requisite four days you must spend in jail if you are pulled over intoxicated and then, urban legend says, extraction, shame, termination. As a law with religious roots, there is little even the most powerful companies can do on this one. So I cart people around from homes to the theater or from parties to homes. Liquor isn’t sold in all the Gulf countries, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are two notable exceptions. Tales drift across of home made wine, fermented in bathrooms, and sales of rubbing alcohol. Not all Arab countries have the same stance on this issue – Lebanon, Egypt, and even tiny Bahrain are more open to drink as a form of modern socialization.
            But we are in Doha and I’m snapping at my husband: he doesn’t get to tell me how to drive if he’s been drinking. His recommendations for lane changes and please for me to brake earlier are more worrying than usual at 2am. I, no night owl, get us safely home, my poor night vision and fatigued reflexes are my own altered state.
            Alcoholism is a known factor for those in the expat community as they struggle with long work hours and distance from things familiar. Many are here to stockpile for their future and then return home debt free, worry free, financially stable, maybe for the first time in familial history. The days, months, years, are a stopping point on the way to somewhere else and alcohol the best filler point they have.
            So how do you buy alcohol in a country where you are not allowed to bring it in with you? In Qatar there is one major distribution center and only those licensed can purchase. The rule is 10% of one’s salary is the maximum anyone can buy at one time. High ranking employees usually make fast friends. It’s overpriced and the days before Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, long lines portend the closing of all bars in the country until the fasting season is over. This causes an imposed fast of sorts whereby whole communities turn inward to party. The restaurants are closed during the day and most places of business finish at one pm so that exhausted and hungry employees can go home to wait for sundown when they will break their fast with community prayer and feasting. The Muslim fast diverges from Protestant notions of suffering in secret and stoic daily routines. Ramadan is observed by the whole community. Everyone shares their fatigue, heads own at desks, productivity slowing while expats exchange knowing glances that nothing will get done until the Eid, the festival season of reward when families take long holidays and all businesses close for three days. The open acknowledgement of fasting and the enforcement even on non-Muslims is an adjustment. I watch as a car of expat teens are pulled over by law enforcement for eating in daylight – they stammer apologies for causing others to stumble – they drive off quickly. This is different from the secular tolerance of the day touted in most other nations. Yet community enforcement is comforting in an odd way that the lonely martyrdom of Protestantism is not. Shouldering your cross seems easier when others are regulating the weight of it; when others share concern for your burden and lessen it, you feel supported.
            You can eat during Ramadan if you are not Muslim, of course, behind closed doors, same as drinking alcohol. There are a few bold restaurants, long established and frequented by nationals and expats alike, which remain
discreetly open only to those with discerning knocks like the speakeasies of the Prohibition. I eat my breakfast bar at my desk quietly, with the door closed, no one sees me. I sip water, also forbidden during Muslim fasting, furtively in my car, knowing I’m courting disaster. My husband and I meet at home in the middle of the day for lunch – a luxury we never make time for outside of Ramadan. We eat profusely, standing up in the kitchen, sharing our battle stories and voluptuously stuffing bread, rice, water into our starved palates. We gorge and then each head back to work, fortified for the next few hours until sundown.
            Iftar, or footor in the Gulf, is the mini meal that breaks the fast at sundown, the time determined by the religious council in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The sun goes down, prayers said, and in traditional families, the fast is broken with dates and laban, drinkable yogurt. People don’t lose weight in this season, though, because the feast added after the small provision of dates and laban rivals many wedding receptions. This is the time families gather among their extended communities and eat until the dawn prayer. The night passes for those less festive and day starts with a meal before the sun rises – the children left sleeping while adults rise to get sustenance for the day ahead. Female Muslim employees look peaked for this month because of the long hours of fasting are accompanied by long hours in the kitchen preparing delicacies that are popular this season.
            “I was up until 5 a.m.,” my co worker tells me. I know she gets in at 7 a.m. so she can leave by 1pm. This means no sleep for her for three weeks, except in snatches. There is an official decree from the Emir – in observance of Ramadan the workday is reduced to six hours for everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Many ex-pat companies look away, the idea of losing two-three hours of productivity an anathema to the Protestant work ethic. Others resist this saying “Because I’m not fasting, I have to work?” My husband, the admitted workhorse, leaves at 4pm instead of 7pm or 8pm during Ramadan because no one else is around and he can’t accomplish many of his team driven tasks. What about those lost hours, the lost money, the infernal equation drilled into every American? When gas is above $70 a barrel, it’s easy to make choices based on other priorities like religion, family, culture, tradition. I welcome Ramadan because I may not lose any weight, visiting the tents at all the hotels, constructed once in a year, filled with simulated feasts in Qatari homes. Live entertainment and late night shisha make this one of the best seasons to live in the Middle East. It’s a time of year when I don’t have to worry about explaining my non-drinking philosophy and when I know I’ll spend time with my overworked friends and husband.