The closest western reference point for Eid al-Fitr is Christmas and this Irishman loved it (2023)

As an Irishman living in Dubai, I was excited to visit Jeddah, one of the most historic cities in Saudi Arabia, for Eid al-Fitr, marked by Muslims as the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan. My wife is Saudi-American, so the few days’ holiday allowed me some time with my extended family there.

As I was waiting to board the flight, I was amazed to see the crowds of pilgrims en route to Mecca for the Umrah pilgrimage. The white ihram clothing of the pilgrims, mixed with the sounds of prayers, added a sense of peace to the bustling airport.

The flight was short and sweet – aside from a sandstorm that added a bit of turbulence – and before long I was in awe of the city lights of Jeddah as we made our descent. After picking up my luggage I made my way to immigration where the official at passport control welcomed me and told me: “Don’t worry, we’ll look after you.”

This set the tone for the next few days. I arrived around 11pm and got picked up by my family. Around the corner from the family home, some local kids were selling balila, which is a Saudi savoury snack. I was impressed with these young people developing their entrepreneurial skills and the pride they took in making their food. Before I went to bed, I also had enough time to savour some Al Baik chicken. This can be likened to a Saudi version of KFC – and must feature on any Jeddah to-do list.


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Thursday April 20th

As Ramadan came to a close, I was invited to an Iftar meal with my wife’s extended family. I am always humbled by the generous welcome. As a new family member and foreigner, I am spoiled and given the royal treatment. The final fast of Ramadan was broken with traditional dates and water, and then we enjoyed a variety of delicious dishes. Kabsa rice and meat was also served along with shurbat hab, which is a soup made from tomato and oats. The sambusak is a type of Saudi samosa and is my personal favourite when in town. For dessert, um Ali, a type of cream dish, is given to those with a sweet tooth.

During the meal, we received news of the moon sighting, signalling the end of Ramadan. The meal was followed by prayers, and I was humbled by the family’s devotion to their faith and the sense of community that surrounded us. After the meal, my wife and her immediate family took me to the Souq Al Shati, which is a market district of Jeddah. The streets were alive with a sense of excitement, as the locals did some last-minute shopping for their Eid celebration. My father-in-law took me to a traditional tailor to get fitted for a thobe. The thobe is a long, loose-fitting garment worn by men in Saudi Arabia, and it is a symbol of the country’s heritage and culture. The tailor took my measurements and helped me choose the fabric and design that suited me best. As I put on the new, navy-blue thobe for the first time, I felt a deeper sense of connection to the traditions of Saudi Arabia, coupled with a feeling of pride for being included in this way.

Friday April 21st

By now, I was getting acclimatised to what I refer to as the “Saudi schedule”. As a teacher, I usually get up at around 5am – but during Ramadan and Eid, Saudis tend to stay up until the early hours and wake up around 1pm. This also helps people escape the searing heat of the sun during the daytime. Swapping day for night is certainly a rarity for me, but it’s fun to mix things up. We arrived at the house of my wife’s uncle, Khaled Almaeena, for the family celebration, as it is customary for everyone to meet at the eldest family member’s home. Khaled is well regarded as the legendary former editor-in-chief of Arab News.

I was thrilled to see a collection of photographs in which he was pictured with a who’s who of foreign dignitaries and celebrities whom he had hosted down through the years, from Muhammad Ali to Yasser Arafat.

A famed journalist, Khaled is full of stories and I was amazed to hear about the 27 visits he took to Ireland in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Further astonishment lay in store when he showed me his office – and the 1991 Harley Davidson he kept there, a replica model of the one Arnold Schwarzenegger drove in Terminator 2.

The many family members made their way to the get-together and it was time for the gift sharing. Any fears I had about remembering everyone’s name soon went out the window.

The gift-sharing was structured as a “secret Santa” set-up with everyone designated a specific person. Everyone clapped and cheered as the person giving the gift circled the audience while repeating their name. Being relatively unfamiliar with dozens of new people, this was a big help. The occasion was spectacular. The closest western reference point for Eid al-Fitr is Christmas.

This was a party with singing, dancing, colourful decorations and even some moonwalking, which was appropriate given the lunar significance.

The festivities were also a chance for connection, which has taken on renewed meaning in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown days.

Everyone put a lot of thought into their gift and it was a joy to witness everyone’s generosity and delight when giving and receiving their presents.

Saturday April 22nd

I spent the day exploring Al-Balad, a historical district in Jeddah, which offers a glimpse into the city’s past. The district is located in the heart of the city and is home to some of the oldest buildings in Jeddah, many of which date back to the 19th century.

Infused with unique architecture and cobbled streets, the area offers a charm not unlike traipsing around a European city. Visiting Al-Balad is a must for anyone interested in the city’s past and culture. Tourists can explore the historic souq, bargain with street vendors and shop for traditional Arabic handicrafts, spices and foods. The narrow streets and old buildings were a stark contrast to the modern cityscape, and I felt transported back in time. Baab Makkah or the “Gate to Makkah” is an impressive structural landmark in the area. The intricate placement of its bricks makes it a beautiful example of traditional Hejazi design. A Unesco World Heritage site, it traditionally served as the starting point for pilgrims travelling to the holy sites of Makkah.

Sunday April 23rd

As my trip to Jeddah came to a close, I reflected on my time spent there, having explored a rich and vibrant land. The people of Jeddah had welcomed me with open arms, for which I am truly grateful and I learned so much more about their history and values.

On my way back to the airport, my father-in-law pointed out, in the distance, the Jeddah Tower, which is under construction. Once built, it will be the tallest building in the world. It seemed a fitting final image to leave with. I departed with a deeper sense of respect and admiration for the traditions of the past, the warmth of the present and excitement for the future of Saudi Arabia.

Cormac O’Donnell is from Co Donegal. He did his undergraduate degree at Maynooth University and then took an MA in film studies at NUI Galway. He is a teacher in the United Arab Emirates.

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