It’s that lovely time of the year when family and spirituality become the focal point of life as we know it. Preparations are made in the days leading up to the awaited new moon: mint is dried and minced, pantries are stocked with ingredients of the most favoured Ramadan recipes, and when it finally arrives friends and family congratulate each other on the arrival of Ramadan.
Ramadan is a welcomed visitor in Libya, and as our guest we adapt our daily schedules to it. Life in Libya during Ramadan is drastically different than the average day in every other month, and this becomes tacit by keeping a close eye on the streets.
Usually bustling with traffic, the routine of street life in Libya is unique to any other month. Traffic surges at different points in the day, and rush hour begins after midnight.
Traffic also heightens in the minutes leading up to sundown with those who are out shopping for last minute items on grocery lists or those rushing home from work in what is also known as the soup race or the final moments of fasting standing between the drivers and their bowl of soup.
Sleeping schedules experience a spin, allowing life to squeeze itself in Ramadan’s busy schedule. Despite the lack of food throughout the day, people find hours in the night to do everything from exercise, to visiting family and friends, to going holiday shopping for the upcoming Eid celebrations.
And while people have found a relatively smooth transition in adapting to the ‘Ramadan schedule’, the number one Ramadan challenge on people’s list has been the electricity cuts that, among many things, interrupt the flow of Ramadan life.
Losing power is a shared experience throughout the country. In Tripoli, districts take turns in losing electricity for an average 2- 4 hours each day. Though the term speaks for itself, it is important to note the duality of meaning – as the systematic loss of power has a way of making people feel power-less.
Housewives rush in cooking their meals hours before sundown fearing that any minute, the leg of lamb slowly roasting in the oven will stop turning and soon turn cold, or that the washer now rinsing the t-shirt that the husband likes to wear to prayers will remain lathered and wet, or that the kids who are watching television will soon have to resort to playing outside while the sun is at its strongest.
This article is not to analyse the effects that the regular electricity cuts has on the flow of life in Libya. We all have experienced this frustration first-hand.
However, there is something to say about patience in Libya, or is it people’s innate ability to adapt to their living conditions? Whichever it is, it is what helps life move on in Libya. And, sometimes that is all we can do, is look forward.
The Soup Race
I have been warned, time and time again about Libyan driving during the month of Ramadan. While the holy month is a time of heightened spirituality; a time designated for family and friends, what happens prior to gathering round the dinner table are often situations that can be referred to Ramadan temper.
During Ramadan each year, Muslims refrain from more than just food. The month is a time designated to reflection and worship, but can often be interrupted by an individual’s addiction to nicotine. The number of Libyan smokers in Libya should not to be overlooked, as they are required to refrain from smoking while fasting.
It is the opinion of many that this group has it the hardest in Ramadan, experiencing not only hunger like the rest of society but nicotine withdrawal, as well. This temporary smoking cessation that smokers experience while fasting translates differently in each person. For some people it means heightened tempers.
Last week in the Bifocal, I mentioned the routine of street life in Libya, and how it is unique to any other day out of the year. Traffic surges at different points in the day, and rush hour begins after midnight. This late at night, Libyan consumers are no longer fasting for the day and like to take the opportunity to go holiday shopping for the upcoming Eid celebrations.
However, there is another time of day that Tripoli’s streets experience a surge. The minutes before the call to Maghreb prayer, or dusk are the final moments of the fasting day. The streets call this last half hour “Soup Race” – an amusing and probably accurate reference to the bowl of soup that Libyans like to enjoy as the first course of their meal.
The traditional Libyan soup which was described perfectly by my colleague Gada Mahfud in her series on Ramadan is considered a must-have when breaking a long day’s fast. It is what most Libyans look forward to most.
The rush to get home at exactly the same moment raises tensions on the streets in the city. For some, the final moments standing between them and food or a smoke are intolerable. And situations that occur on the street like small accidents or altercations are not handled with as much patience as any other day.
Anything seems to fly under the radar in these final moments, including driving on the opposite side of road. What was most fascinating when I witnessed one such occasion was not the nerve of the driver driving opposite traffic, but the reaction of the other drivers who manoeuvred around the driver’s random act like it was to be expected.
In my car, the verbal reaction was one of initial shock, and then quickly followed by the explanation of “Soup Race”; almost as if an excuse was being given for the driver.
Ramadan is known to bring out the best, and sometimes worst out of a people. And yet in both types of situations in Libya, I am happy to say that I have found one similarity. People convey a level of understanding for each other’s actions in ways that are both admiring and surprising.
This is something that I love about the city of Tripoli; that it can possess the feel of city-life while maintaining the degree of rural influence that the term “stranger” never really qualifies for the person passing in the street.
Ramadan on Screen
As the country, along with the rest of the Muslim world, settle comfortably in their fasting seats, it is easier for someone who is experiencing Ramadan in Libya for the first time to identify what’s unique about fasting in this part of the world. One of those things is the soap opera culture.
The days nestled in the middle of the Holy month of Ramadan are the quieter days of the month – after the hype of Ramadan’s arrival but before the hype rises again in the days leading up to Eid celebrations. These days in Libya, you can find the streets significantly less crowded (so much so that city hotspots are hard to recognize at first glance).
Contrasting to the quieter days, are the bustling nights in Tripoli. By midnight, traffic halts movement at round-a-bouts; and parks and cafes are jam-packed with families enjoying each other’s company.
It seems that movement in the country is reserved for after taraweeh, or the special prayers conducted at the end of each fasting day during the month of Ramadan. Men and women pray in separate prayer halls in their neighboring mosque; and children wait patiently in the back of congregation, reading Quran and whispering in small voices. After that, families like to enjoy city life.
However, what people in Libya do in the long fasting hours leading up taraweeh is representative of the real fasting culture in the country. The fasting routine is astonishing in its popularity. With schools out, teachers, who likely contribute to the largest demographic of females in the workforce, are also free and at home. Other jobs accommodate their working hours to the convenience of their fasting employees – a privilege of living in a Muslim country.
The result is longer mornings. This is true with every Libyan family I have had the privilege of spending time with. The average rise-and-shine time in Libya is extended. Most people sleep in after enjoying every non-fasting minute the night before. It is like Libyans are playing a relay race with the sun, turning in when the others’ duties begin.
After waking up later, reading some Quran and preparing the day’s meal are common practices. Of course, fasting days in Libya are long and usually feel longer in the last hours standing before the time of breaking fast.
The tendency of people to tune in for soap operas is a common practice shared throughout the Arab world. This I recognized even before the start of Ramadan. Catchy advertising phrases announced the premiere of television programs to coincide with the beginning date of Ramadan.
Ramadan is considered prime time in the Arab world, and is often when the year’s most popular television series are introduced to the public. Famous actors’ newest work usually airs in Ramadan, and only the work of the best directors find air-time.
Interestingly, and contrary to popular assumption, the basis of the story-lines are not often religiously based. In fact, a television program inspired by characters and historical events from an early Islamic period that premiered this year has stirred controversy over the Islamic law that prevents the depiction of historical Islamic figures in the physical form.
Instead, story-lines often explore modern conflict, and real issues that people currently face in the Arab and neighboring world.
Ramadan is also the time that Libyan state television broadcasts comedies, like the famous candid camera, and other programs that many families like to enjoy during the time of breaking fast.
While families share the much-awaited meal, television programs with different regional influences throughout the country play in the background. In this sense, soap opera culture supports the Ramadan sentiment of bringing family together.
Huda A. Ahmed, a full-blooded Libyan who is experiencing what it means to live in Libya for the first time.