Saturday, October 3, 2009

Pinned down at McDonald’s on the Muslim equivalent of Friday night

First off, as many of you no doubt know, Wednesday night in Saudi Arabia is the start of the weekend for Muslims, so my hiking buddy and I weren’t too worried about staying out and, in fact, were up for whatever fun a couple American guys on a tight budget in a fundamentalist country can have. The plan was to treat ourselves to McDonald’s and then hit a popular bookstore on what is known as “Pepsi Street” where women are known to gad about without head coverings.

We had also received text messages from a couple compatriots who had an expedition planned for one of Riyadh’s landmark sites, so we were figuring out how to plan our trip for an optimal mix of walking and cab rides.

Except…we hadn’t checked our cell phones for the evening prayer time.

Fortunately we had made it into McD’s in time, but halfway through our Filet o’ Fishes and fries, the manager came over and very politely indicated that it would be a wonderful thing if we would move to a particular dark corner not easily visible from outside…”in case the police see us.” It was actually quite a pleasant alcove, and with the store lights outside turned off and the lights inside dimmed, one might even say it was preferable to the ordinary fast food ambience. The only problem was we were locked in for the duration of the prayer.

For those not familiar with this custom, all shops must close during the five prayer periods each day. The morning prayer, Fajr — currently at 4:28am — is not a problem since you’re not usually out and about then. The evening prayer, Ishaa, for this date was pegged at 7:12pm.

For most small stores, also public buildings like the museums or the Masmak fort site, the owners simply shoo everyone out and re-open about 20 minutes later. Very large markets like the big supermarkets — Carrefour, Best Buy, Tamimi, the malls, etc. — just close down the registers, but allow people to continue going through the store.

Restaurants have a special problem: their customers are consuming the product in the facility. You can’t really shoo someone out in the middle of a meal. Yet if you stopped serving everyone long enough before the prayer call to allow them to finish before the loudspeakers start blaring, you’d have to turn people away 30-40 minutes before the call and then be closed an additional 20 minutes during the prayers. So at McDonald’s we were simply asked to move out of sight of the window overlooking the busy Siteen Street.

And this is how we found ourselves sequestered for 15 minutes in a lovely little low-light McDonald’s while cars lined up for the drive-through and tardy patrons waited outside.

Hmmm...I wonder why these people aren't at prayer?



  1. I am picturing you and your friend, in a tiny alcove, with low lighting, munching on fries...only thing missing from that romantic scenario is a vanilla milkshake.

  2. So much little time to enjoy french fries...... Maybe it's a subversive weight loss technique....the Prayer-time diet?

    "I lost 25 pounds in just 14 days by ordering my meals right before prayer time and then rejecting the food because it was cold after prayer. Why my burkah practically hangs off me now!"

  3. I'm told the Saudi McDonald's shake is pretty darn good. The place is really quite friendly and hospitable, unlike many American franchisees. A clerk or maybe the manager brings your tray to your table and someone else buses the tray when you leave. And they usually have a copy of the Arab News on hand (Actual headline: "Sex braggart gets five years, 1000 lashes").

    It's excellent for cutting down on a bookbuying addiction too...the store just scuttles everyone out to the checkout line when it's prayer time. And who wants to wait 20-30 minutes to go back in?