The social impact of Ramadan — past and present

The social impact of Ramadan — past and present

WHILE standing in a queue at the checkout of a major supermarket, there was a neatly dressed Saudi man standing next to me with a black dyed goatee beard and mustache. He appeared to be a middle-level retired government employee.
With eyes that lacked luster, the man looked at me and remarked: “You have got a lot of stuff, this could last three months. You must be out of food.”
I replied I was anticipating a lot of guests during the month of Ramadan.
His jaw dropped: “Nobody visits anyone nowadays.”
Although the encounter with this seasoned man was brief, the conversation validated and confirmed an existing social reality — the way we celebrate the holy month of Ramadan has changed poignantly. Ramadan used to be a time when people met and entertained friends and family. However, this has changed and so has the way we celebrate Eid Al-Fitr.
It could be argued that this allegation is based on a nostalgic sentiment rather than an actual reality, as Ramadan and Eid are the most joyous events that people experience in their childhoods. The Eid of bygone days had a special meaning with lasting memories for all.
As a result, this claim can only be verified by comparing the practical observance of these two religious events in the past and present. How far can we go in the past?
Three decades ago is enough to examine Saudi society before the oil boom of the 1970s. Before this era, most people had little financial wealth. Despite that, they had a little of everything — they enjoyed and shared with their neighbors and relatives whatever they had.
An hour before iftar, neighbors and relatives would sample each other’s food. Children would be seen walking in streets and alleyways holding large trays in their hands or carrying them on top of their heads and knocking on doors to deliver food and to exchange them with their neighbors. Neighbors, friends, and relatives would take turns in inviting each other for iftar or dinner during the month of Ramadan. Women would especially enjoy these occasions to exhibit their expertise in cooking and show hospitality to their female friends by serving the best food they could cook.
Today, in spite of the modest wealth we have, we hardly see children walking in our neighborhoods with food-trays in their hands. Our children arrive at the dinner table very late; they taste the food and leave very quickly. Visits from friends and guests have receded and for many the month of Ramadan will come and go without a visitor. Most people now live in solitary enclaves.
The difference between the Ramadan of the past and the present, which is measured by the actual observance of the month, points to wealth as the primary cause of this social transformation. In the past, people had limited financial resources, which in turn limited their possibilities to look and examine beyond their communities. All were almost economically equal and socially similar.
The oil boom totally restructured our community economically and socially. The government facilitated different possibilities to access various financial resources, for example home, industrial, agricultural loans.
Tremendous wealth became available in the hands of people, something that has expanded their possibilities beyond their communities and beyond their limited needs which was mainly focused on making ends meet and has now shifted to building a palace for the weekend.
These new material goals to own more things have awakened dormant sentiments of jealousy from those who have more. Without the spirit of Ramadan, specifically those communal values, our society may drift into spiritual disintegration.

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