RIYADH: GHAZANFAR ALI KHAN, ARAB NEWS STAFF
The advent of the holy month of Ramadan in Saudi Arabia provides a unique experience felt nowhere else in the world. This is where the Ramadan flavor is in evidence everywhere: on the roads — no one is seen eating or drinking; shops deserted during the day, crowded at night; mosques filled with worshippers; and homes where recitation of the Holy Qur’an reaches its peak.
It is here where the night turns into day with mosques, shopping complexes and other establishments brimming with activities, both spiritual and mundane. A large number of commercial houses, mainly dealing with groceries, fashion wear and automobiles announce promotions and discounts on this occasion.
This year is not an exception. The Lulu Hypermarkets in Riyadh and Dammam, for instance, are giving BMW cars and shopping vouchers as prizes. In addition, Lulu has teamed up with SABB Bank to offer a unique campaign titled "Buy now and pay later," under which a customer can buy any item and pay in easy installments over a period of six months. Balsharaf, Panda and Othaim hypermarkets are also not far behind in terms of new promotions and discounted prices in the holy month.
This year, Electro, a company that deals with home appliances, has come with a customer loyalty program. It has asked its customers to exchange old appliances with new ones, with the offer open until July 21.
The luxury hotels, including Four Seasons, Marriott, Al-Faisaliah and Ritz-Carlton, have set up special Ramadan tents.
The local automobile dealers are not lagging behind. Abdul Latif Jameel, dealer of Toyota brands, has announced plans to sell a range of cars and vehicles in installments and without any down payment or guarantor. According to an ALJ statement, it is valid for Saudis and expatriates alike. Next on the line is Alissa Auto, which is offering Japanese cars in monthly installments, starting from SR 999.
Asked about the arrangements made for pilgrims who will flock for Umrah in Makkah, Habib A. Siddiqui, a local travel agent, said the number of flights to Makkah and Madinah from Riyadh had been substantially increased. This is in addition to a large number of private buses hired by local agents to operate from Riyadh to Makkah and Madinah.
No wonder many pilgrims choose this holy month for the performance of Umrah. “The number of pilgrims coming for Umrah this year will be 700,000 more than last year's figure,” predicted a travel agent who was quoting an official source. He did not want his name to be published. "A large number of men, women and children from Riyadh has already been booked by our agency," said the agent. Referring to the rewards a Muslim earns from praying in the holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah, he quoted a hadith from Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “Praying in the Grand Mosque is equivalent to a 100,000 prayers’ reward while praying in my mosque is equivalent to a 1,000 prayers’ reward.”
Accordingly, many Umrah packages have been organized during Ramadan, when the faithful wish to visit the Two Holy Mosques. After performing Umrah in Makkah, many visit the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah before leaving for home.
Most pilgrims look for hotels near the Prophet’s Mosque, because they provide them with a clear view of the imposing mosque, and they can hear the call to prayer. The prayer itself is broadcast live for the benefit of the millions in the congregation. Others can watch them on the TV channels and learn from the sermons.
Aside from the learning aspect, many traditions are revived during Ramadan, especially on the culinary front. One of these traditional dishes that are popular among the local residents of Makkah is baleelah, a cumin chickpeas dish. Makkawis, who inherited this popular dish from their ancestors, are keen to have it on their dining table throughout the holy month. Baleelah is sold in almost all districts of the holy city.
The sale begins after Isha prayers and continues until the time of suhoor. Baleelah vendor Saeed Barashi, reportedly the most popular salesman in the holy city, sells more than four tons of baleelah during Ramadan. Barashi launched his outfit 33 years ago and continues the tradition every year during Ramadan. Besides baleelah, buying dates from Madinah is regarded a “must” for every pilgrim.
Residents in the Kingdom point out that each time they visit Makkah, they are accommodated in hotels further away from the Holy Mosque than the previous year. On average, hotel rooms cost from SR 100 to SR 550 a day, which can go up to SR 5,000 during the peak season. There has not been much change in the prices for the last six years, but what has changed tremendously is the distance.
Numerous projects have been coming up, as a result of which the central area is all occupied by the elite, leaving the others to fend for themselves at far-flung places, complained Naeem and Faisal, two Umrah pilgrims from Riyadh.
The Ramadan spirit also has a positive impact on non-Muslim expatriates who have no such exposure back home. Some use the time they get off from work to read an English translation of the Holy Qur’an.