DOHA // This is not your grandfather's Ramadan. Thousands of visitors strolled through the Doha Summer Fun Park one evening this week, stopping to nibble on candy floss and ice cream, check out some Islam-themed television serials or watch their children smash into each other on dodgems.
Organised each year by the Qatar Tourism Authority, the amusement park is larger than ever in 2010, and starting this year, has been extended to include Ramadan and Eid. It is all part of a new, more festive commemoration of the holy month. "When I was little we played simple games for Ramadan, or packed up a picnic and went to the beach," said Hamad Salman, a Doha native and marketing executive for Qatar Petroleum. He had come to the fun park with his teenage son and daughter for the second time, and planned to come again.
"This is much better," added Salman, looking around the colourful, brightly lit, 12,000 square metre space, children shouting and laughing as they were spun around, up and down. "All these games and rides make a big difference." Droves of Qataris and other Doha residents attend similarly lively affairs late into the night across the city, from malls to hotels to cultural centres. Gondolania, the indoor amusement park at Villaggio mall, has extended its opening hours past 2am, so kids can bowl and ride go-karts and roller coasters late into the night.
Qatar's only water park is set to open its doors in the coming weeks, and host Ramadan events. Fanar, the Qatar Islamic Cultural Centre, has organised an evening to teach expatriates more about Ramadan and its traditions this weekend. Doha's four- and five-star hotels are hosting lavish nightly iftar and suhoor events, some with Egyptian dancers, Lebanese bands, henna tattoos, falconry exhibitions and up to 50 dishes for tasting. As part of its Ramadan celebrations, the W Hotel Doha is giving away airline tickets that enable the holder to fly anywhere in the world on Qatar Airways.
The fun park is one of the more popular events, with some 4,000 nightly visitors to the cavernous Doha Exhibition Centre. "Breaking away from past events, which were held in shopping malls, Doha Summer Fun Park takes full advantage of the space," said Lahdan al Mohannadi, head of internal exhibitions at the Qatar Tourism Auhtority and lead organiser of the fun park. "In addition, this year the event is free for all."
Buoyant Arab and carnival music fills the space. At one end is a souk, filled with shops offering Yemeni honey, leather purses, perfumes, jewellery and more. At the other a food court offers doughnuts, hot dogs, pizza, fried chicken, and shawarma. In between are a couple of dozen rides, including a choo-choo train and caterpillar coaster for toddlers, and dodgems, video games and a dozen more active rides for the bigger kids.
The al Mannai brothers - Hamad and Ahmed, 10, and Mohammad, 13 - enjoyed the Tilt-a-Whirl so much they got right back on and did it again. "That was a lot of fun," said Mohammed as the trio walked away dizzily. These events, most of which aim to entertain the whole family, may be bringing a sense of community back to Ramadan in Qatar. "We've lost some of our traditions, of course," said Moza al Malki.
A family therapist and commentator, she has seen Ramadan change several times in recent decades, from more to less strict and back again. "But nowadays we are going back to some of these old traditions." For the first couple weeks after the fun park opened, on-stage performances included clowns, magic shows and games. Starting with Ramadan, the stage has been re-made into a traditional Qatari house with garden, and programming includes a series of plays, a theatre group performing folklore tales and a Syrian band playing traditional music.
"Several new activities were added to instill traditional values during the holy month," said Mr al Mohannadi. The fun park and Doha's Heritage Village are both hosting Garangou (also known as Karankou) events for families. Garangou is a traditional Gulf children's festival held on the 14th day of Ramadan. Children will play heritage games and sing traditional songs, along with other activities and competitions.
"We are staying together more, families going out together," said al Malki. "Also generosity, giving food to our neighbours, this is also returning." In Al Mansoura, on the edge of Doha, the W Hotel Doha and the Islamic Bank of Qatar have set up an air-conditioned tent to provide iftar to the underprivileged. More than 150 male labourers turn up daily to break their fast with dates, laban, fruits, rice, bread, chicken and lamb.
"These are the people that really need the full meal," said a spokesperson for Islamic Bank of Qatar, which has done the charity tent for three years running. "A lot of the staff from the bank also volunteer - everybody pitches in." Back at the Doha Exhibition Centre, Mr Salman watched his children on the City Hopper ride. "Ready to come down yet?" he shouted to his son, whizzing past overhead. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org