Let's meet for tea, at 3 o'clock - in the morning

Saudis drastically alter their daily schedules during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month.

'Meet me at 11," the businesswoman said, so I arrived five minutes early.

An hour later, I was still there, the only person in the hotel lobby apart from a cleaner nudging his broom across the marble expanse like a reluctant dance partner. I phoned her assistant. "Oh," said her secretary, giggling at the idea of an 11 a.m. appointment. "She meant eleven at night."

Welcome to Saudi Arabia during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month and time of topsy-turvy schedules. In a country where the workday usually starts at 7 a.m., Ramadan means meetings begin at 10 p.m., malls stay open until 2 a.m., and travel agents think nothing of calling at midnight to confirm a flight.

"Our lives turn upside down during Ramadan," says Fatin Bundagji, of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. "It's exhausting, but we love it."

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, commemorates God's revelation of the Koran to the prophet Mohammed. Muslims celebrate by abstaining from food, drink, tobacco, and sex during the day. The ultra-conservative even avoid swallowing or "drinking" their saliva.

The idea, says Saleh Mubarak, a former professor writing in the magazine Islamic Horizons, is "to abandon some material enjoyment to please Allah," and reflect on moderation and thankfulness.

Ramadan days have a tempo all their own. In the morning, streets stand silent, more like empty airport runways than urban thoroughfares. Traffic picks up in the afternoon, when most offices open, but stores and restaurants stay closed until 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. By 5:30 p.m., the roads empty again as the country stops to eat.

The fast is supposed to last until it is so dark that you can't distinguish white thread from black. But in many countries, Muslims break their fast just before 6 p.m. This large evening meal, called an iftar, marks the real start of the day. Families visit one another, and businessmen talk late into the night, fueled by tiny cups of scented coffee.

Between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., people stop for another meal, the sohour.

There are prayers, and then it's back to bed, sometimes until the early afternoon. While people commonly stay home for their sohour, many flock to hotels for lavish iftar parties.

These are raucous family affairs, with children and waiters weaving between the tables and chefs working behind buffet tables groaning with delicacies. Musicians serenade diners, stopping only when the maitre d' announces the nightly lottery winner.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia's second-largest city, the grand prize at most hotels is an aerodynamic 4x4 vehicle, fresh off the assembly line.

Since Ramadan is also about sharing wealth, lottery proceeds benefit the poor. Some Muslims give directly. In downtown Jeddah, wealthy men in their traditional snowy white gowns often dispense coins to poor women, black-clad and hunched along the sidewalks like crows on a telephone wire.

For some, the hotel merrymaking is a bit much for a holiday devoted to abstinence. "The Prophet said, 'Eat and drink, but don't indulge to excess because Allah doesn't love those who waste', " says a tart-tongued young woman at one splashy iftar. "I don't think this is quite what he had in mind."

But with Islam's global adherents numbering some 1.2 billion, there will be differences of opinion. Indeed, even the way Ramadan should begin is the subject of debate.

The month-long fast starts with the sighting of the crescent moon, but Muslims don't agree on whether it should be seen with the naked eye or if astronomical aids are acceptable.

Other aspects of Ramadan are exhaustively debated in newspaper columns. Question: Does fasting affect soccer players? Answer: Maybe, but Saudi Arabian players only compete at night, so who knows. Question: Are asthma inhalers OK? Answer: That depends on whom you talk to.

There are exceptions to the fasting rule. In many places, airline pilots are not allowed to fast. Pregnant, menstruating, and nursing women - as well as travelers - can eat. Instead of fasting, the elderly and the unwell can give a meal or a donation to the poor.

But if you are healthy and over the age of 9, there's no excuse for avoiding the fast, and in Saudi Arabia they take that responsibility very seriously.

After speaking with the businesswoman's assistant, I left the hotel, got into a taxi, and slipped a bottle of water out of my purse.

The driver's head snapped up in the rearview mirror as he asked me to put the water away. In the birthplace of Islam, he said, those caught publicly breaking the fast often find themselves in jail.

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