Celebrating Ramadan: Keeping the age-old traditions alive in Hijaz

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Hijazis continue to revive age-old customs and traditions in various festivities across the region, a unique opportunity for street vendors and culinary-based businesses. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
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90 years of key making ... Anas Mohammed Rajab, a third generation keymaker in Jeddah’s Al-Balad district, tells the story of his family’s long time business. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)
Updated 18 May 2019

Celebrating Ramadan: Keeping the age-old traditions alive in Hijaz

  • The new generation continues to follow in the footsteps of their ancestors through its generosity
  • Families of Madinah were called “Muzawareen,” from the word “zeyara” — meaning visit in Arabic — as they welcomed visitors who would come to pay a visit to the Prophet’s grave and mosque

JEDDAH: For many Muslims, Ramadan is a special month of worship and celebrations. Of the many different regions of Saudi Arabia, Ramadan in Hijaz has a plethora of unique and significant customs and age-old traditions kept alive with each passing generation.

Known for their generosity and kind manners, residents of the cities of Makkah and Madinah welcomed pilgrims into their homes and provided them with housing all year round. 

Their homes were designed in a way to accommodate a housing unit specially for guests in their courtyards, an architectural feature adopted from Syria and the Levant.

Families of Madinah were called “Muzawareen,” from the word “zeyara” — meaning visit in Arabic — as they welcomed visitors who would come to pay a visit to the Prophet’s grave and mosque.

The “Mutawefeen” of Makkah — the word is derived from “tawaf,” one of the Islamic rituals of pilgrimage during Hajj and Umrah — had similarly designed homes to house their guests from far and wide.

Many pilgrims arriving by sea passed through the city of Jeddah before continuing their journeys to either Makkah or Madinah. Guest houses similar to those in the two holy cities were provided by the rich merchants of the city.

Families would prepare two sets of the same dishes for guests and the family home all year round, Ramadan is no exception, as generosity is a known characteristic of Hijaz.

Just before Maghreb prayers are called in Makkah and Madinah, the men head out to the Holy Mosques to break their fast taking bags of food along with them to give to pilgrims and worshippers. Many homes were in close proximity to the mosques, surrounding them from all sides.

The bags include Ottoman shouraik bread, dates and dugga, a spice made of cumin, lemon salt, salt, sesame seeds, coriander. It is customary in Madinah to break the fast by dipping the date in the dugga and eating it with a piece of bread and with either coffee or a cold yogurt drink. This traditional food is still found to this day.

Some families who have long accommodated pilgrims in both cities still house pilgrims to this day, founding companies to house them and provide the best services for Hajj and Umrah, just as their ancestors have done years ago.

Family elders recall how the young females used to gather and prepare for the month’s meals early on. 

They would send their husbands, brothers or sons off to markets to bring back ingredients for their special dishes and juices. The shopping list might include rosewater made with fresh rose petals, hibiscus flower juice to serve cold drinks after breaking their fast, new clay jugs to store Zamzam water infused with mastic gum, almonds and pistachios for deserts, wheat and grain for soups, fava beans and flour for the two most important dishes on a Ramadan table, and more.

Hijazis continue to revive  age-old customs and traditions in various festivities across the region, a unique opportunity for street vendors and culinary-based businesses.  (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

The month of Ramadan is celebrated not only with the finest of dishes prepared to relieve the body after a long day’s fasting; it is also celebrating tradition. Many of the dishes found then and now are adopted from other cultures, with a Hijazi touch added here and there.

Ful mudammas, a common and very important dish adopted from Egypt, is considered the king of the table. While ful is common in the Middle East, mudammas refers to the cooking method where fava beans are buried inside a pot, cooked slowly for hours, and then mashed.

The Hijazi way is smoking the ful and serving it on the side of Afghani bread, tameez, or traditional shouraik bread. 

After it’s been infused with spices and condiments such as cumin, garlic, tomato paste and olive oil or ghee, Hijazis smoke the ful just before it is served. 

They place a small piece of burning charcoal in a tiny pool of oil or ghee inside the serving dish and covering the ful for a few minutes to give it that added smoked flavor.

One of the common staple dishes found in Hijaz is samboosak buff, a fried puffed square-shaped samosa filled with minced meat or cheese. 

Many elders still prefer the traditional method of spreading a large round piece of dough on a large wooden board, placing small spoonfuls of minced meat in rows, and then folding the dough in half to cover the meat before cutting the dough into squares before frying.

Small children with sticky fingers are known to steal a samboosak or two before Maghreb prayers — a fair warning is given.

Another well-known staple is soobya, a cold drink made from barley or bread doused in water for a few days and sweetened with sugar, cinnamon and raisins, manto, shish barak, barley soup, buraik and more.

Let’s not forget Zamzam water, infused with mastic incense and served in clay jugs and small cups called tutuwah cups, also infused with the smell of mastic incense, an essential element of every Hijazi house.

Ramadan nights were calm and quiet, filled with the whispers of worshippers reading the Qur’an and prayers. Many young men and women today enjoy the long nights gathering with friends and families over a cup of hot mint tea and a hot dish of freshly fried lugaimat, small round pieces of fried dough drenched in syrup, as they gather over an intense game carrom.

Despite its Indian origins, Carrom has become a part of the Hijazi heritage. It consists of a wooden board with small pockets on each corner and a circle drawn in the center. The players must tightly pack black disks or coins in the circle, alternating them with one or two higher-scoring red ones.

With a flick of the finger, the players use a striker disk to try to knock the coins into the pockets until all disks are gone. The player with the most points wins. It is a game of strategy and skill that many young men and women still play today.

Hijazi families are known for their close ties and relations, with many members of the family spread across different cities nowadays, Ramadan brings them back together.

How Saudi Arabia’s air transport can overcome the coronavirus setback

Updated 23 min 53 sec ago

How Saudi Arabia’s air transport can overcome the coronavirus setback

  • Experts say financial relief measures from government can offset impact of COVID-19 pandemic
  • Air transport sector was estimated by IATA to have supported $20.2 billion of Saudi GDP in 2018

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s airline industry is stirring back to life as Gulf countries ease the restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The Kingdom has announced a timetable for the resumption of domestic flights through national carriers from Sunday.

About 100 flights are due to take off in a phased return to normal, Minister of Transport Eng. Saleh bin Nasser Al-Jasser said on Saturday.

The Kingdom’s General Authority for Civil Aviation (GACA), of which Al-Nasser is also chairman, earlier said it had completed operational preparations to gradually lift the suspension.

According to the Saudi Press Agency, GACA has issued a travelers’ guide that includes precautionary measures for airports and safety rules that passengers will have to follow.

However, experts caution that these developments should not be mistaken for full recovery, adding that the airline industry faces an uphill struggle to return to normal operations and sound financial health.

Saudi Arabia halted international flights from March 15 and domestic flights from March 21 in response to the outbreak of COVID-19 infections.


$7.2 billion

The revised 2020 KSA airline revenue, a 35% 2019-2020 revenue difference.

The suspension affected not only airlines but also airport operators, airport on-site enterprises such as restaurants and retail businesses, aircraft manufacturers, and air navigation service providers.

In the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, shutdowns have imperiled the livelihoods of thousands of nationals and expatriates.

Given the growing role that air travel and tourism was playing as part of Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification plans, the pandemic has proved a classic double whammy.

Predictably, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — the trade association for the world’s airlines — has called for industry-specific financial relief measures from the Saudi government.

IATA measures the economic impact of an event by looking at jobs, spending generated by airlines and their supply chain, trade flows, tourism and investment resulting from users of all airlines serving the country, as well as the connections to other cities through the same airline that make these flows possible.

People wait at a terminal at Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah on December 12, 2019. (AFP/File Photo)

“All provide a different but illuminating perspective on the importance of air transport,” the association stated in a report entitled “The Importance of Air Transport to Saudi Arabia.”

The Kingdom introduced relief measures for the private sector in the wake of the pandemic, but IATA estimates that revenues generated by airlines in the Saudi market will drop by $7.2 billion in 2020 — 35 percent below their 2019 levels.

“In response to the impact of COVID-19, the Saudi government has introduced broad economic relief measures in excess of $32 billion in financial support for the private sector,” IATA said in a statement.

“It has also provided support for air transport by suspending the airport slot use rules for the summer season and extending licenses and certifications for crew, trainers and examiners.”

IATA added: “We urge the government to build on this and implement specific financial relief measures for aviation to ensure that the sector will be capable of driving the recovery.”

A passenger walks past empty check in counters for Saudia airlines at Dulles International airport in Dulles, Virginia on March 12, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)

Some of the measures recommended for Saudi Arabia by IATA include direct financial support to passenger and cargo carriers; financial relief on airport and air traffic control charges and taxes; and the reduction, waiver or deferral of government-imposed taxes and fees.

Muhammad Al-Bakri, IATA’s regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, believes the urgency of airline industry-specific relief measures cannot be overemphasized.

“Given the industry’s role in social and economic development, it is important the government prioritizes aviation and provides urgent financial relief,” he said.

Muhammad Al-Bakri, IATA’s regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East. (Supplied)

“Before the crisis, Saudi Arabia was moving at full speed and achieving tangible results in modernization, infrastructure development and economic growth.

“Fully supporting the air-transport sector now means a stronger recovery for the Kingdom.”

A picture taken on June 6, 2017 shows a Saudi man walking past the Saudi Airlines headquarters in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)

Linus Bauer, aviation consultant and visiting lecturer at City University of London, said that the overall capacity in the Gulf region, including Saudi Arabia, has shrunk by 3.53 million weekly departure seats year-on-year.

In May 2019, there were 1.32 million weekly departure seats in the Kingdom. One year later, a very sharp decline was recorded, which touched 97,156.

“It clearly shows the severe impact of the current crisis on Saudi Arabia’s air-transport sector,” Bauer said.

“By the end of this year, a capacity loss of 25 percent is forecast. In a pessimistic scenario, the impact could be as high as 35 percent.”

The Kingdom has announced a timetable for the resumption of domestic flights through national carriers from Sunday. (AN Photo/Basheer Saleh)

Consequently, Saudi carriers are facing a shortage of liquidity, making it impossible for them to survive without stimulus packages from the government.

IATA figures from 2018 suggest that the Kingdom’s air-transport sector, including airlines and their supply chains, was supporting an estimated $20.2 billion share of Saudi Arabia’s GDP, with spending by foreign tourists accounting for an additional $16.2 billion.

In total, 5.6 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP was supported by revenues from the air-transport sector and foreign tourists arriving by air.

Also in 2018, based on IATA’s 20-year passenger forecast, the air transport market in Saudi Arabia was projected, under the “current trends” scenario, to grow by 126 percent in the following 20 years.

This would have resulted in an additional 54.8 million passenger journeys by 2037.

“If met, this increased demand would support approximately $82.3 billion of GDP and almost 1.2 million jobs,” IATA stated at the time.



As the global airline industry struggles with the shock of COVID-19, many Gulf carriers have resorted to job cuts and reduction in wages.

Kuwait Airways announced its decision to lay off as many as 1,500 expatriate employees as part of a “comprehensive plan” to deal with the pandemic’s economic impact. With a total of 6,925 employees and a fleet of 30 aircrafts, the airline has struggled amid the regional and worldwide downturn in air travel.

n this file photo taken on March 13, 2019 A Kuwait Airways Boeing B777 aircraft prepares to land at Kuwait International Airport in Kuwait City. (AFP/File Photo)

Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways laid off hundreds of employees in mid-May and warned staff to brace for further cuts, according to Reuters. The airline has grounded scheduled passenger flights and temporarily cut wages by as much as 50 percent, despite plans to restart flights from mid-June.

Air Arabia, the only listed carrier in the United Arab Emirates, laid off 57 employees in early May due to travel disruptions caused by the pandemic. The Sharjah-based airline, which has about 2,000 employees, has, along with other UAE carriers, suspended scheduled operations since March.

Qatar Airways announced last month it would cut close to a fifth of its workforce. The airline employs more than 46,000 staff, meaning the layoffs could impact about 9,200 workers.

As for Emirates, claims made that it is planning to cut around 30,000 jobs have not been confirmed. What is known is that the Dubai-owned flag carrier is planning to resume flights to over a dozen destinations between May 21 and June 30.


According to IATA Direct Data Solutions in the 2000s, an industry-sponsored global airline-market data initiative, the Middle East was the largest market for passenger flows to and from Saudi Arabia, followed by Asia-Pacific and Africa.

The recovery of a country’s airline industry, according to Bauer, will have a lot to do with the size of its domestic travel market.

Countries that lack large domestic travel markets, he said, are likely to recover more slowly from the crisis precipitated by the pandemic and may open up first to travelers from nearby countries in the Middle East.

The Kingdom has announced a timetable for the resumption of domestic flights through national carriers from Sunday. (AN Photo/Basheer Saleh)

“Having a large and diverse domestic market can be considered one of the competitive advantages for carriers,” he said.

In the post-COVID-19 era, Bauer said that “an increase in demand for domestic feeder services for long-haul flights can be expected, driven by the fast-changing customer behavior of health-conscious passengers and the economic advantages associated with flying efficient, twin-engine long-range aircraft with lower cabin density.”

He sees such factors potentially opening up new market opportunities for major competitors of Gulf carriers that have the advantage of large domestic markets.

“At the end of the day, the kick-off of regular long-haul services largely depends on the ongoing travel bans, restrictions and entry regulations imposed by countries or markets that Gulf carriers serve,” Bauer said.

The Kingdom has announced a timetable for the resumption of domestic flights through national carriers from Sunday. (AN Photo/Basheer Saleh)

That said, the airline industry’s pivotal role in keeping countries connected and economies flourishing is not likely to be diminished by the pandemic, say insiders.

“The shape and size of the industry may change as a result of this crisis. But aviation will remain a critical support for vast sectors of the economy,” Alexandre de Juniac, IATA director-general and CEO, said in a recent teleconference with journalists.

“The sooner we can safely reconnect the world, the more jobs can be saved. And, combined with economic stimulus packages, a reconnected world will be a solid foundation for economic recovery,” Juniac added.