Birthdays Saudi style!

‘From our birthday until we die, is but the winking of an eye’

W.B. Yeats

Greetings from Riyadh where it’s another day of sun, currently the thermometer is nudging 41 degrees and it’s due to get warmer later in the week with the daytime temperatures due to hit 49. However, we did have a surprise shower of rain last week. There were a couple of dust storms followed by a sudden downpour. It was very unexpected, but very welcome as it dampened the swirls of dust hanging in the air.

Anyway, for this blog I am going to feature birthdays! I recently celebrated my birthday in Riyadh, which got me to thinking about birthdays in general and how they are celebrated (or not) in different parts of the world, including Saudi Arabia.

Birthdays are generally regarded as a time to celebrate another year of your life with family and friends, incorporating the traditions of presents, cards, a birthday cake with candles and a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.

The secret to staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly and lie about your age.’

Lucille Ball

The earliest mention of a birthday was around 3,000 BCE in reference to a Pharaoh’s birthday in Egypt (not on their actual birth, but their birth as a God). The Greeks adopted the practice, celebrating their gods with tributes, including moon-shaped cakes for the lunar goddess Artemis, which they adorned with lit candles to recreate the glow of the moon. Blowing out the candles and making a wish was another way of sending a message to the gods.

The tradition was passed on to the ancient Romans who adapted the practice from celebrating the gods’ birthdays to also celebrating the common man’s birthday. But only men’s birthdays were celebrated – women had to wait until the 12th century before they got their birthday cake!

German bakers introduced birthday cakes as we know them today in the 1800s and two sisters who were school teachers in Kentucky U.S. wrote the original happy birthday tune in 1893 (it was then called the ‘Good Morning Song’) and in 1924 the Happy Birthday lyrics were added.

Today birthdays are big business, but they generally all follow the same format: a birthday cake, balloons, presents and cards. Parties can be wildly extravagant (think celebrities) or low-key and intimate.

However, birthdays and parties have not, until very recently, been a feature of everyday life in Saudi Arabia. In 2008 a cleric denounced birthday parties as an unwanted influence – they were ‘haram’, the Arabic word for banned. Celebrating birthdays with singing and parties was regarded as un-Islamic and an unwanted Western influence.

In 2015 the Saudi Ministry of Health instructed all public hospitals not to allow birthday celebrations after some nurses were reported to have celebrated Christmas in their hospital accommodations.

And as recently as 2017 a leading Saudi cleric said on TV that celebrating birthdays was forbidden because it led to squandering money on parties which is frowned upon under Islam.

The Saudi ban on birthdays was in line with the strict interpretation of Islam, although elsewhere in the Muslim world birthdays have been, and are, routinely celebrated.

In recent years however there has been an easing of the ban, although it is still almost impossible to find birthday cards (there is a very limited selection in some Virgin Megastores and some flower shops have some small cards). You can find cake candles in some of the supermarkets, but again the range is very limited.

Meanwhile, cakes are easily available. Saudis love cakes and sweet treats and there are a huge number of cake shops throughout Riyadh. For my birthday I ordered a delicious red velvet cake covered in white chocolate frosting from ‘Munch’ via the HungerStation app and it was delivered within 30 minutes – result!! You can also order balloon arrangements online and have them delivered to your door – everything and anything can be delivered.

While most Saudis who celebrate their birthdays probably do so at home, there is a growing trend to go out to cafes and restaurants for a birthday meal. I have twice seen a Saudi birthday celebration in a restaurant – a cake with candles is brought out and the staff gather round to sing happy birthday, but instead of joining in and clapping, with the person whose birthday it is looking slightly embarrassed, the Saudis all tend to sit impassively and it is impossible to tell who at the table is actually celebrating their birthday – I am not sure they really know what to do, and they are still not that comfortable with public displays of exuberance!

Another time we were at a quite fancy restaurant in Riyadh when the staff came over with a dessert and a candle. They duly sang happy birthday as we all looked on bemused because none of us were celebrating a birthday. Everyone was confused, the staff said it was definitely for our table. When they set the plate down we saw it actually said (in chocolate piping) ‘Happy Brexit’!! The Irish manager of the restaurant had been chatting to us earlier in the evening and had sent it over as a joke :0)

I had not intended to celebrate my birthday in Riyadh, but of course the pandemic hit and everyone’s plans for 2020 changed. As it happened, I had a really lovely time! I had a delicious birthday cake delivered which was a novelty, a beautician come to my home and gave me a manicure and pedicure and I went out for a birthday lunch to a downtown restaurant called Okku (Japanese) which was fabulous!

I also had two surprise Zoom calls with friends and my best friend from Monaghan somehow managed to have a HUGGEEE bunch of flowers delivered to me :

So I couldn’t feel any luckier and I really appreciated all the birthday love. Birthdays in Riyadh are not so bad it turns out and it is certainly a birthday I will never forget!

Wishing you all a happy birthday, whenever and wherever you might be celebrating!

Anne :0)

Follow me on Instagram: anne.mcgrath248

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