Ramadan is a holy month observed by Muslims which involves a number of lifestyle changes. The aim is to bring oneself closer to God through behaviour.
Qatar is just 1 of the 50 countries where Islam is the religion of the majority. Here, the Muslim faith is everywhere. People live and breathe it, so when Ramadan arrives, the habits of the whole country are affected.
Many People who observe Ramadan go without pleasures such as food, drink and sexual activity from sunrise to sunset for a whole month. Nothing passes their lips – the really devout don’t even brush their teeth!
Just to give you an idea of what a commitment this is: in 2012 in Qatar, Ramadan will start around 18 July. The average temperature at this time will be 45°C. The sun will rise at 4.30 am and set at about 6.00 pm. That means many are going 14 hours in the searing heat without a drop of water for an entire month.
And while it might sound dreary and demanding, those living in the Arab world see it as an auspicious time of great celebration. It’s a happy time. Sure, during the day it’s all very solemn, but come sunset it’s all about eating, drinking and generally being merry! Families pray and eat together every night and gifts are given.
Ramadan in Qatar: Expat Challenges
As if moving from Australia to live in Qatar wasn’t a big enough culture shock, I experienced my first Ramadan less than a month after my arrival in Doha. The idea of it filled me with trepidation.
Other expats merely shrugged it off – it seems that 1 Ramadan is enough to prepare you for all future ones. But I had so many questions: When will I be able to buy my groceries? What do I have to wear? Will everyone still be working? How can anyone go a WHOLE DAY without eating?!
So, how does all this affect the non-Muslim visitor and expat?
To be honest, it can be pretty tense. Non-Muslims are expected to follow many of the customs of Ramadan. Our clothing must cover us from wrists to ankles, we’re not allowed to touch in public and we’re expected to tone down our general demeanour.
Maintaining these standards can be slightly arduous, but then again, Ramadan in Qatar is a great experience and fantastic reminder of where we are. For 1 month our lives are turned upside down.
Highlights and lowlights of Ramadan in Qatar
No eating or drinking during Ramadan
The good news is that non-Muslims are allowed to eat and drink but just not in public. If we’re eating at home we are urged to close the windows and not cook anything too fragrant, so we save the curries for another time!
Many restaurants close during the daylight hours and any that stay open keep curtains drawn so that food cannot be seen from the outside. At my work they use hospital screens at the entrance to the staff cafeteria to hide all the coffee addicts! In times of desperation I may or may not have been known to hide out in the bathroom for a cheeky sip of water!
Hospital screens hiding my work cafe during Ramadan
During Ramadan, Qatar dries up. The single alcohol shop in Doha closes for the month, as do all hotel and restaurant bars.
If you want to drink, you need to have stocked up in the months before. Absolutely do not even think of leaving your house or hotel if you are intoxicated. I just hate to think what would happen if someone found out!
Work hours/business hours
Ramadan is a time for contemplating your relationship with God. It is NOT a time for working! Plus everyone’s just exhausted and cranky from hunger. So, official work hours are reduced, even for non-Muslim expats. For an entire month we work just 5 hours a day, usually from 10 am – 2 pm. Not a bad deal, really!
Since many people try to restrict their activity during the day, businesses also switch up their hours during Ramadan. Many supermarkets, malls and banks are only open from the late afternoon until 1 am – it’s as if night has become day.
This is definitely a big factor for any visitor contemplating a trip to Qatar during this time but it’s not necessarily a bad thing – a bit of midnight banking never hurt anyone!
The first rule of Ramadan: stay off the roads between 5.30 and 6.30 pm. Why? Low blood sugar and driving do not mix!
Picture this: it’s 5.45 pm. It’s been over 12 hours since your last meal. Your stomach is hollow. Your mouth is dry and stale. The sun will set any moment which means that you are minutes away from food and water. The only thing standing between you and a plate piled high with food is the 20-minute drive to the mosque. If traffic is good, you can do it in 15 minutes. If you speed, 10.
This is the mentality that fuels the infamous Ramadan road rage. It’s statistically proven that there are more road accidents during Ramadan than any other month which means that we expats stay housebound at sunset.
Iftar in Qatar
One of the traditions that makes Ramadan a treat is the nightly Iftar that marks the breaking of the fast. Every restaurant in the city host a decadent buffet with serving stations offering unlimited quantities of food from all over the world.
Often these feasts are set up in special tents, lavishly decorated with lanterns and carpets where traditional Arabic music and dancing is performed. Anyone is welcome to attend and all 30 nights are big events on the Doha social calendar so bookings should be made well in advance.
No singing, dancing or music
In order to preserve the piousness of Ramadan, music is forbidden during the day which means expats need to be sure to turn down the speakers in their cars and homes. Even in the malls the music is turned off, leaving us with nothing but the dulcet sounds of children crying!
As if to fill the silence, the call to prayer is amped up during Ramadan, often playing throughout the night. There is a mosque on nearly every block in Doha so when the chanting starts, the air is filled with a cacophony of voices from every direction. Those who do not want to be woken by the nasal resonations of their local Imam at 3 am get used to wearing earplugs pretty quickly.
So now you’re prepared for Ramadan in Qatar, but how do you know if these new rules have actually kicked in? Well, it’s tricky. The start of Ramadan is dictated by the appearance of the crescent moon. It must be physically seen before Ramadan is officially ‘on’.
The news is then announced by a viewing committee. So, basically there’s about a week where we are all left guessing. Plus, as Qatar expats, we don’t tune in to many of the Arabic communication channels so we’re usually the last to know!
All in all, Ramadan is a great time in Qatar. There are a few extra rules and some can be a bit of an inconvenience but in the end it’s all part of the adventure of being in the Middle East.
Bio: Velvet is an Australian writer and editor who gave up Bondi Beach for the sand dunes of Qatar. She offers observations and newbie tips on her blog Must Love Dust and never leaves home without a scarf.
Craig Makepeace is the co-founder of yTravel Blog. He's been traveling and living around the world since 2002 and believes that life is all about accumulating memories and moments with his family, not just possessions.
He's a travel addict, sports fanatic, beach lover, and passionate craft beer drinker!