Jiddah — It begins with roaring cannon shots all over town. The new moon has been sighted, the great Muslim fast called Ramadan has begun.
For the next month, the lives of all believers in Islam, estimated to be more than half a billion worldwide, are turned literally upside down. And nowhere is Ramadan celebrated more intensely or more strictly than in Saudi Arabia.
The observation of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim calendar, is the third of five pillars of Islam, as dictated by the prophet Muhammad in Islam's holy book, the Koran. The other pillars are: bearing testimony to the oneness of God and to Muhammad as his messenger; prayer five times a day; annual alms giving; and a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime.
The month of fasting and celebration started on June 21 this year. It will continue until the next new moon is sighted.
The rule regarding Ramadan, simply put: all Muslims over 18 years old should abstain from food and drink (including water) from dawn until dusk. Carrying this out in the hot, summer months is often quite a challenge.
''It is a difficult task,'' says Zuhair Hamid, a Jiddah businessman, ''particularly during the first few days as we have to adjust to a completely different schedule.'' Mr. Hamid's eyes are half closed; it's the first day of the fast, and he has not been to sleep the previous night.
According to Mr. Hamid, a light breakfast is served just after sunset followed by prayer and then a much larger meal. Most families then spend the rest of the night visiting relatives and friends or traveling about the city. This goes on until about 3 a.m. when it's time for ''dinner.''
An early evening trip to the souk (market place) in the old city center confirms Jiddah's different habits during Ramadan. Shops are closed and the sidewalks are empty, save for meandering foreigners. The usual half-hour trek through the busy souk now takes only 10 minutes. It's like New Year's Day morning in the United States.
''Everyone's at home eating,'' said a short, wrinkled shopkeeper, when asked about the lack of activity at the normally packed souk.
''But wait until after prayer,'' he said, lifting his eyebrows and looking very much the old sage.
Sure enough, the 9 p.m. prayer ended and a small rumbling began. Merchants suddenly appeared clanging up their metal gate doors. Horns began blaring - a normal sound here - and people streamed into the area. The souk came to life.
The men barter for watches, stereos, and video cassette recorders, taking time out for a cup or two of sugar-laced tea. Meanwhile, the women, veiled in black and always in groups of three or four, shop for the next day's dinner, and look at diamonds and electrical appliances. Five hours later, the streets are still jammed.
''Why go home,'' said one boisterous young man. ''We rest all day.''
But go home they eventually do, for yet another meal.
Says Mr. Hamid: ''It's important to eat as close to dawn as possible, as you must last the entire day.''
Finally, as first light skims the blue-black sky, chanters wail from mosque minarets throughout the city. They are calling the faithful to prayer.
And then Jiddah sleeps. . . . And sleeps.
''Yes it's true, we don't work very much during Ramadan,'' said Saeed Qahtani , a clerk. ''But we're not supposed to.'' Working hours are said to be 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. . Many work much less. This can be trying on Americans and Europeans, who number in the thousands here, and who are conditioned to business-as-usual lifestyles back home.
''You just have to accept the fact that you're not going to get a lot done at this time,'' said one American businessman.
Ramadan is especially difficult when it falls in summer. (The Muslim calendar is based on the lunar month and is 11 days shorter than the Gregorian, so the holiday comes earlier each year). With daytime temperatures often topping 125 degrees Fahrenheit, fasting can be particularly trying on the poor, most of whom live without air conditioning.
But do they really fast? ''Some, of course, don't,'' says Ali, ''but they'll never tell, not even their parents.''
As with Christmas, Ramadan is supposed to be a time for goodwill. ''We give gifts and we should show compassion for our fellow man,'' said S. K. Dawood, a translator originally from Jordan.
The compassion often translates into money for the poor as most Muslims decide to give their alms during the holy season.
''People will come to your house, ones you don't even know, but you are obliged to provide them with something,'' said Mr. Dawood. Often the example comes from high above. King Fahd recently announced his Ramadan gift to his people: $20 million to all philanthropic societies and the poor.
As with holidays celebrated in the West, Ramadan tradition is everything. One of the most sacred is the firing of cannons - situated all over town - twice each day. They are fired once at sunset and again at the end of the night to announce the time to begin fasting.
Another tradition is the ''special gift'' which is given to the poor at the end of Ramadan.
''When the new moon is sighted we celebrate for four days,'' said Mr. Hamid. ''So the poor can enjoy this occasion, everyone provides dates or wheat or the money equivalent to the less fortunate. There are special places in the souk where they (the poor) gather to receive their gifts.''
For some, however, Ramadan is no longer like it was, no longer how it ''should be.''
''Pray more, eat less,'' said Mahmoud Masoud, also a translator. ''That's what Ramadan means to me. But most of the people today - they eat too much and celebrate all night. That's wrong.''