Saturday, September 30, 2006

To Africa: Day 78 (Ramadan Day 2)

Hello again world. I thought it past time that I revelled you with something interesting from Africa. Since I find myself unable to do so, you'll simply have to bear with the real story. Lol. Today, September 24th, 2006 is my 78th day in Africa, somewhere beyond day 90 for April, and the second day of Ramadan. For those of you who might think you know what Ramadan is like, such as me before I came to Libya, I'll use this time to dutifully dispel you of your misgivings and errances of rumor.

Ramadan is actually a month in the arabic calendar, not the arabic word for "fasting" which is what most people often think it means in english. I forget the Arabic word for fasting, but that's not important at the moment. One little fact about Ramadan that makes it different each year is the fact that it moves slowly backwards down the greco-roman calendar each year. Every year, Ramadan is 13 days earlier than the year before. While 20 years ago, Ramadan was a winter holiday, this year makes it a summer holiday, though it's actually closer to early Autumn here now. The temperature has dropped out of the hundreds and averages about 95 degrees at this time of the year. Three months ago, we couldn't stand that. By now we have pretty much acclimated fully. It's going to be miserable to go home and get used to 50 degree nights when we've become accustomed to wearing jeans and long sleeve shirts in the dead of summer.

During the month of Ramadan, the libyan people practice fasting, which in case you didn't know, means they abstain from all forms of personal pleasure during the daylight hours. This means no one eats, drinks, smokes, has intimate relations, or does much of anythinng considered "fun" from sunrise to sunset each day. Again, this is particularly difficult at this time of year because Ramadan falls during summer. Instead of 8 hours of sunlight, as in winter months, they have 14 hours of sunlight right now during the day. So, you can imagine that going to work is quite a miserable experience when you can't eat or drink the entire day and most of the people work outside in some manner or another.

Ideally speaking, the celebration of Ramadan is a time when Muslims are supposed to try to be "more" muslim than at other times of the year. There is a community focus on being friendly, understanding, compassionate, and polite towards others. Individually, the month celebration is supposed to be a time when you strive to be closer to god, much like our Christian beliefs centered around easter and christmas. Now, for those of you who think that midnight Mass celebrations are inconvenient events during the christian holidays, I suggest you to be happy that you don't have to go to church 5 times every day this month. Nadir, a young man we have befriended who acts as our personal driver and taxi, wakes up in the morning during Ramadan, wolfs down what ever breakfast can be made at 4 Am, goes to the Mosque at 5 AM for prayer, then goes off to work. However, he also has to go to church at 1 PM, 5 PM, 7:15, and 9 PM every day. This is what muslims do EVERY day... but the traditions are especially encouraged during Ramadan.

Now, let me tell you how it REALLY is during Ramadan. After experiencing it for only two days, I can tell you that it's nothing like you would imagine. The libyan people are a VERY VERY lazy people comared to the rush-rush-rush lifestyles we have in the United States. It took me months to understand that I just can not possibly get the amount of work out of three libyans that I can one american in any given day. They are NOT going to rush, not going to work late, and not going to really care what that means to your deadlines, or their own deadlines for that matter. Culturally, they are on slow-motion and you can't change that. So, forget the american concept of getting up and rushing to work in the morning to get things done. They begin their days much more congenially. Often, a trip to work might mean taking a cab across town and stopping once or maybe even twice for a coffee or tea with someone you know. Time is spent outside, leaning against the building, eating fruit and talking amongts each other, waving to passing people they know, and making slow progress towards their eventual goal of getting started on work. Usually, when they DO arrive to work, they repeat this process. Most every business office in this country has their own coffee bar on every floor of every office. This is how ingrained this practice is to them.

Now, during Ramadan, none of that. None. Getting in a cab this morning to go to work was akin to stepping into a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome car scene. The phrase "Two Men Enter, One Man Leave" kept running through my head as angry, tired, thirsty drivers bumped and nudged for dominance on the cramped dirty city streets, all the while trying to dodge citizens who they honk angrily at and make gestures that even I can't figure out (and I know most all of 'em). They go to work, can't drink, can't eat, etc. In general, tempers run hot and anger flares. Overall, the general custom is that they slow down their lives even more just to compensate. You can forget seeing a construction worker RUSH to do ANYTHING. It's almost as if they are communally trying to conserve energy.

With no food, no water, no smoking, and generally speaking No Fun of any kind, they have absolutely nothing to look forward to during the work day.

Being an American here means you are pretty much completely out of resources. While the women are home each day, the entire day is spent working to prepare for the HUGE meal they are going to prepare that night. You can pretty much consider each night equivalent to an American Thanksgiving dinner. Families bring other families over for dinner and have huge meals, followed by hours and hours of talking and spending time together. (By the way, if you are here on Ramadan, you can fully expect to be invited to dinner at someone's home. This is something that most certainly do NOT decline during this time of year. That is their way of opening up to you and trying to share their culture with you and a declination of the offer is pretty much a slap in the face. They won't understand a polite "no" the way you intend it. Additionally, when you DO get invited it is customary for you to bring a dish, again very similar to Thanksgiving dinner at home. )

What all of this means is two things. 1.) Every store in the COUNTRY is closed most all day. They are tired, grumpy, and really don't want to deal with customers. Additionally, they are not a capitalist economy so they're not going to be open just to earn that extra dollar or two. 2.) When they DO finally open at night, usually after 9 PM or so, there isn't anytihng left. Keep in mind that there are approximatel 36 million people in Libya (I think that's right). Of those 36 million, 70% of the country lives IN TRIPOLI! That's like squeezing all of California, Texas, and Washington D.C, into downtown Manhattan, New York. When dark finally comes, the food comes out and then they leave again to go shopping for the next day.

However, nighttime here is another story altogether. I left for dinner last night at 7:10 PM to go to the Corinthia, correctly assuming that since it cater's to european customers, then it will have open restaurants. When we walked out onto the road, there was no one. I don't mean it was kinda empty... I mean not a living soul for as far as the eye could see. We luckily got a cab within a minute or two. During the ride to the restaurant we passed Green Square. Green Square is almost one half mile of open gardens and streets where people are ALWAYS TEEMING in the streets. You usually can't see anything more than 200 feet away from you through the throngs of people. Last night, you would have thought you were standing in a city that has just been evacuated due a nuclear holocaust. There was NO ONE to be seen. Millions of people and NO one is one the streets.

Where were they? Where do you THINK they were? They were sitting at home waiting for the "official" sunset at 7:20 PM so they could eat for the first time in 14 hours. Dinner will last them an hour or so, after which they will usually go to church one more time that evening around 9 PM. Only then do the stores open up and the people come out. And when they come out, the city transforms from desert-city-nowhere to Las Vegas casinos.... They're everywhere. Entire families meet up on the grasses throughout the city and talk in groups. Children are eveywhere at midnight, running up and down the streets, cars are bumper to bumper again. It's like the whole country performs a 12-hour shift and goes into night-time-mode. Most people won't even come home to go to bed until around 2 or 3 AM in the morning.

So, THAT in a nutshell is Ramadan. Hopefully when Chip Bradly gets here on Tuesday with my new camera I will be able to take some pictures of the city to send back to all of you.

So, now that you all know what we're up to, how about someone write me from home! Shak, Sassenach, Culligan, Marisa, someone! Oh yeah, did gas really drop to less than two dollars a gallon? That's awesome! I can't WAIT to get back in my jeep again.


  1. Hi again,

    Libya only has a population of approx.
    5.6 million I don't know were you got the 36 million from ( check the CIA fact book ) and tripoli has from 1.5 to 2 million with foreigners and Benghazi the second largest city has from 1 to 1.5 million so it would make since for tripoli to have 70% of the population? actually it only has less than 20%.

  2. I meant "wouldn't make since" sorry

  3. salam Tommy..

    my man my man.. wow.. it seems like u did have a great experience in Libya, minus of course the so-many misgivings u have about our culture, which I completely understand ur rejection of. I wished that I was arounf you to explain to you some of the causes and dynamics behinde such a culture, and maybe given u a conceptual and methodological toolkit that would have gotten u a lot (and I mean A LOT) more out of our country. I hope to one day have that honour.




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