Traditions come alive in Jeddah’s Ramadan festival

Sunday 19/06/2016
A woman tries on a mask at a shop during a festival to celebrate Ramadan in the Saudi coastal city of Jeddah.

Jeddah - Yusef Ashri did not seem to mind the sweltering heat late one night recently as he sipped tea. His eyes were focused on children running through the streets with their mothers chasing them at the Ramadan festival in the historic Al- Balad section of Jeddah.

Ashri, 61, was among a handful of men at a booth that provided infor­mation on Hejazi customs and tra­ditions. There was no printed litera­ture and only one mural-size photo erected behind them of a building depicting Hejazi architecture with decidedly Jordanian and Syrian in­fluences.

Ashri and his companions were there to provide an oral history of sorts of Jeddah, which more than a century ago teemed with Egyptians, Jordanian and Syrians who flowed into Jeddah on their way to perform haj or umrah in Mecca.

“The Hejazis were way ahead of the Nadjis and other cultures in how they lived their lives,” Ashri said in a voice barely audible above the din of street sellers hawking traditional dishes under festive lights. “There was no formal education back then but the Hejazis set a standard to educate women that others would soon follow.”

Ahmed al-Saggaf, 35, the young­est member of the team provid­ing history lessons to the curious, said Jeddah, being a port city from its earliest days and drawing Mus­lims from throughout North Africa, the Levant and neighbouring Arab countries, made the region liberal by Arab standards.

“There is no place, not even Egypt during its best years, that was as cosmopolitan as the western re­gion of the Arabian peninsula,” Sag­gaf said.

While the region is a mixture of cultures, it was historically set apart from the Najdis to the east and the Asir area to the south. In 1916, Sharif Hussein bin Ali declared the Hejaz independent of the rest of the pen­insula. Tensions during the early formation of the present-day Saudi Arabia were significant between the Hejazis and Najdis but over the decades the relationship has trans­formed into a friendly rivalry.

Today, the Ramadan festival mix­es history, culture and tradition into one massive celebration. The fes­tival is one of Jeddah’s biggest an­nual attractions with a main focus on food, food and more food. Shop owners open their doors and spread their goods on the ground in front of century-old buildings with crum­bling lattice-panelling over unseen windows. Merchants are more than willing to bargain to move their in­ventory.

From one food booth to another, festival-goers sample Egyptian-style fowl or ruz bukhari, a rice dish, and Indo-Iranian fried pastries stuffed with vegetables, cheese or minced meat. Mediterranean and Turkish dishes, often cooked with spiced tomatoes, peppers and zuc­chini, are in abundance.

Dina, 21, a native of Medina who did not want her surname pub­lished, said she found it appropriate that Jeddah would want to celebrate Hejazi culture during Ramadan.

“What better way to break fast than to first have some Medina dates then break off a piece of date bread as the first part of the meal?” Dina asked.

Perhaps the most important part of the festival, she said, was how it brought the Jeddah community together. “The festival brings men, women and children together in the same place where they mix and so­cialise and learn about their past,” she said. “The artificial red lines are gone when people come here.”

Huwaida al-Yousef, 26, a universi­ty student who is leaving in August to study child psychology abroad, said the Hejazi customs and tradi­tions are infused with Islamic her­itage. “Jeddah is so close to Mecca, just 20 minutes by car. It’s been part of our family’s habit to celebrate our culture here at the festival and then drive down to Mecca to perform umrah,” he said.

For Ashri, who as a child made regular trips to Al-Balad with his father, the red, Islamic-designed banners with brightly lighted lan­terns hanging from trees and the easy conversation among strangers made him nostalgic.

“This,” he said as he swept his gaze around the crowded street, “was the way it used to be.”