A month of fasting, feasting, and gossip in Islamic Kuwait
Kuwait City — Ayad cast his eyes imploringly toward his father and then back down to the steaming bowl of soup in front of him. His father shared his frustration, noting it had been several minutes since the cannon boom had signaled sunset.
Moments later, the door burst open and the last guests literally ran into the room and plopped casseroles of food on the table as they sat down. In a matter of seconds, the diners were gobbling the first course.
Only after the soup was finished and a glass of laban, a watery yogurt drink, nearly quaffed did Abdul-Reda Assiri shake hands with the other guests.
No one was being rude by rushing at the food, because this is the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The Kuwaitis at the ''breakfast'' meal, called iftar, hadn't eaten or drunk since sunrise - about 4 a.m. Now it was just after 7 p.m. The temperature most of the day had been about 120 degrees F.
''This is the one time of the year that we eat as early as you Americans,'' Dr. Assiri, a professor of political science at Kuwait University, commented between mouthfuls.
Life is topsy-turvy during this month, which began this year on June 1. (The start is set by the Islamic calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle.) Work hours are abbreviated to a few hours in the morning. Afternoons are generally devoted to sleeping and the nights become day.
Those who must work at night have meals provided by their employers. Tea and coffee pots are set on stoves at sunset in preparation for the social gatherings that will last until about 3 a.m. when the last prayers are recited and the last meal is eaten before sunrise.
By 9 p.m., the city streets are clogged with traffic. Having broken their fast, the Kuwaitis move on to the second stage of their Ramadan ritual.
Prof. Shamlan Essa, the host of the aforementioned gathering, first drops in on his mother for a second dessert and the second of many cups of tea he will sip over the next several hours. Visiting and caring for parents is as much of a requirement of Islam as fasting or sharing the iftar with whomever knocks at the door.
His next step is the diwaniyah, a tradition dating back to when only tribes roamed Arabia. In those days, chieftains gathered their men to drink coffee and consult on everything from politics to gossip. That hasn't changed. Only the setting has been modernized. Before, only the rich had diwaniyahs, but now both rich and poor have them, Professor Essa said. About 50 such gatherings take place nightly during Ramadan in Kuwait.
''What makes a particular diwaniyah special is who comes to visit it,'' Essa said as he began shaking hands with the 30-odd men seated around the room.
''Your diwaniyah has really made it when the Emir (Kuwait's ruler, Sheikh Jabir Ahmad Jabir Sabah) comes to visit,'' the professor noted.
During the first three days of Ramadan, the Emir's palace is open to anyone who wishes to come. During the rest of Ramadan, the Emir returns the calls.
A few old-style diwaniyahs remain. Usually older men can be seen gathered outside on wood benches with their coffee brewing over charcoal. The new versions are often large rooms with glittering chandeliers and furnished with ornately designed sofas fixed to the walls.
The main topic of conversation at this year's diwaniyahs is slightly different. ''Normally they would focus on the elections next January. This would be the time for preliminary maneuvering. All men are talking about now is whether the Iran-Iraq war will spread to Kuwait,'' Assiri says.
The diwaniyah is the place to be to find out what is happening in Kuwait. Kuwaitis enjoy much greater freedom of expression than their Arab neighbors. The debates can be lively and the arguments long.
The Essa family diwaniyah attracts government undersecretaries, radical and moderate parliamentarians, oil executives, and academics. It includes those who advocate that the state become more strictly Islamic and those who fight for the state to continue on a more secular path.
Some of these men-only assemblies are less political, breaking up into circles of men watching videotapes or playing cards. But most Kuwaitis get a little bit of each by visiting more than one a night.
''Ramadan is very special. It is much much more than your Christmas because that is only one day for you with the extended family,'' says Amal Jaffar, a senior Kuwait radio employee.
''This is the one time where we spend a whole month talking and sharing with family and friends. It makes you feel close and good - despite the fasting.''