Ramadan in Najd: Between the past and the present
Lojien Ben Gassem
RIYADH: The month of Ramadan brings spiritual joy to Saudi Arabia — different to anywhere else around the world.
The holy month has not changed since fasting was introduced, though different areas still have their own peculiarities and quirks that have evolved gradually over time, in tandem with other traditions. Najd is one of those.
According to the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA), in the early days of the Kingdom there were traditions that were practiced before and during the holy month, such as the crescent sighting ceremony in the final days of the month of Sha’aban.
Important members of the local government, as well as princes, sheikhs and judges, would gather alongside consultants atop a high, flat area before sunset to witness the crescent moon.
“Equipped with small mountains and plains, the Najd region was celebrated as a hub for astronomy, serving as the source of confirmation that the sighting of the moon had taken place,” the DGDA states. “The consultants, experts in the phases of the moon, would determine the visibility of the slight crescent (hilal) moon that marks the beginning of the next month. When the hilal crescent was witnessed, neighboring areas were informed either through a loud call or through signaling shots being fired.”
One of the main traditions that the people of Diriyah used to follow was to make sure that the mosques were well equipped for the holy month. According to the DGDA: “Cleaning and lighting the mosques was a priority for the community, and it was a tradition for residents to bring oil lamps to light the mosques through the night.”
Now, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance plays an essential role in preparing mosques throughout the country and abroad. During Ramadan, it makes requests for preachers to offer religious speeches and lectures, as well as to distribute copies of the Holy Qu’ran.
Restoration and refurbishment is also high on the agenda. According to the ministry’s website, this year the director general of its office in Riyadh, Sheikh Sami bin Sulaiman Al-Mashiqih, distributed 50,000 square meters of new carpets to mosques in the city alone.
Perhaps one of the most important Ramadan issues in the past was heat — considered a great suffering for previous generations who lived without electricity and air conditioners. According to the DGDA, the people of Diriyah used sheepskin or goatskin flasks to store water and keep it cool. The Najdi people during the holy month used to donate the skins of their sacrifices to the mosque to be made into flasks for the worshippers as a Ramadan tradition. They also donated palm trees and left dates at the door of the mosque, a practice known as “asha Ramadan.”
Now, the community donates water bottles instead, as well as appliances such as refrigerators, a variety of foods, and chairs for the disabled to use inside the mosques.
The DGDA states that Najdi people in the past were characterized by simplicity when it came to Ramadan dishes, with a range of traditional and simple foods. They used to drink a sweet date juice called “Merais” at iftar and suhoor, which was particularly popular among the elderly. It was believed that it provided people with strength and energy when they fasted during the day.
According to DGDA: “Merais is made by soaking dates in water, then filtering them into a thick juice. Some people in the region would enjoy Merais with ‘iqt,’ a dried and ground yogurt, to give the traditional drink a sour flavor. The most common and traditional Ramadan beverages among Najdi people were, and continue to be, camel milk and laban made from sheep milk.”
Nowadays, drinking laban is common at every Najdi table. People drink it while eating dates, others drink Arabic coffee with dates to break their fast.
“The Najdi region,” the DGDA continues, “is celebrated in the Arabian Peninsula for its local foods. Famous dishes originated in the region including ‘henaney,’ a sweet breakfast made from wheat dough, various type of dates and a thick date paste, known as ‘abet el tamer’. ‘Al-Hayes,’ a variation of ‘henaney’ made with ‘iqt,’ was attributed to the Sons of Hanifa and remains one of the most famous Najdi foods.”
During the early 1980s new dishes were introduced to the Najdi iftar table during Ramadan through importers, including samosas, pasta, luqiamat (a crunchy sweet dumpling) and other foreign foods.
Muneerah Al-Ajlan, a local Najdi, said: “Soup and samosas are necessary on our iftar table. The family gathers for dates and coffee; after that the men go to the mosque while women head to the kitchen to carry out the second part of the iftar.”
Recently, many people and neighborhoods in Riyadh began to celebrate Gargee’an, which is primarily observed in the Eastern Gulf area, and which takes place on the 15th night of Ramadan. Children usually dress in traditional costumes and go door-to-door to receive sweets and nuts from neighbors and sing traditional songs.
“On the second weekend of Ramadan, we celebrate Gargee’an in our house, where the whole family gathers and the children distribute candy,” added Al-Ajlan.
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