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From Past to Present: Ghabga, Gargeean, and the Gulf’s Ramadan

In the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, after the sun goes down, a chorus of laughter and song fills the air in the Gulf countries. Children, often dressed up in colorful traditional attire, knock on the doors of their neighbors asking for sweets and spreading joy as they sing: “Gargeean, oh, Gargeean, Bayt Isqayir Wirmaydan.”

The Gulf region has a rich culture and history, and stories of the past are handed down from generation to generation. Contrary to some outside perceptions, the Gulf is much more than an extended oil field; its culture, society, and history are the main components that make this region “a world of its own,” with its own distinct and unique traditions.

A Child’s Holiday

One such tradition is the “Gargeean,” a Gulf Ramadan tradition that has existed for many decades and is deeply rooted in the Gulf’s culture. The name Gargeean varies slightly across the Gulf countries. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the tradition is called Gargeean or Girgian, while in Qatar it is known as Garangao, in Bahrain as Gargaaoun, in Oman as Qarangasho, and in the United Arab Emirates as Hag Al Leylah. In addition to the slight name differences across nations, there are also differences when it comes to its perceived origins. Some Shi’a Muslims believe that the 15th of Ramadan is the birthday of Prophet Muhammad’s first grandson, Imam Hassan ibn Ali, and this date coincides with Gargeean. However, for many in the Gulf, Gargeean is celebrated without a religious background or connotation, and it is embraced by all the segments of the Gulf society, both Sunni and Shi’a.

Growing up in the Gulf countries during the 90s, I was captivated by the Gargeean, and my memories of the celebrations during my youth have endured. Gargeean is more than a simple holiday: in many ways, it is a journey back to the innocence and joy of childhood. I fondly remember a scene from my childhood in Kuwait, where Gargeean is celebrated for three days, rather than one as in other Gulf nations. During these celebrations, young boys and girls are adorned in colorful clothes, their faces full of excitement as they gather in front of our doors and sing the famous song. I remember my brother and I eagerly joining in, sharing the sweets we had at home with equal enthusiasm. “In the past,” recalls a 70-year-old Kuwaiti aunt, “we used to go door-to-door in the neighborhood with our colorful woven bags, and our generous neighbors would give us toys and money. Gargeean had a festive atmosphere; it felt like experiencing Eid in the middle of Ramadan. Today, the way how Gargeean is celebrated has slightly changed.”

But beyond the festive mood lies a deeper significance woven into the fabric of Gargeean, which brings together all generations in the family. Even today, Gargeean continues to unite people and celebrate shared culture—albeit in a manner adapted to and appealing to the new generation of children. Today, Gargeean is celebrated more akin to a house party, where family members exchange diverse gifts and enjoy the festivities together. As Kuwaiti writer Yousef Alshammari explains, Gargeean, as with nearly all modern traditions and customs, has become more commercialized as modern capitalism and consumerism have conquered the Gulf. Now there are special clothes for the children designed for Gargeean, and specialty sweets from a variety of brands. Today’s children mostly skip the singing and focus on the glory of the gifts. In the past, people used to buy sweets from the local markets, but now they are prepackaged with the child’s name written on them. Despite its popularized version nowadays, Gargeean still stands out as a well-known tradition, but its character appears to have fundamentally changed.

Navigating Tradition in Modern Times

Another traditional Ramadan event widely celebrated across the Gulf is Ghabga, originating from the Arabic term for ‘gathering around the table’. In homes across the Gulf, families and friends gather after Iftar (the fast-breaking meal) and Taraweeh prayers, segregated for men and women. Unlike in my native country, Turkey, where iftars are celebrated together with family, friends and even strangers, Khaleeji families prefer to spend it only with their close family and their in-laws, reserving this moment for familial bonding. Meetings with friends, neighbors and colleagues are reserved for the Ghabga. “The moment of breaking the fast holds immense significance for us; we cherish sharing this spiritual experience together as a family. However, our Majlis or Diwaniyas are warmly open to friends for the Ghabga,” a 40-year-old Qatari friend told me.

Traditionally, Ghabgas occur either at home or in the Majlis, particularly for men. However, this dining tradition has evolved into a significant occasion, with many now hosting Ghabga parties held in venues beyond the home to celebrate Ramadan. It is an occasion for the people to share Ramadan hospitality and keep up with the long-standing traditions. The gathering customarily continues until Suhoor, the meal eaten before dawn breaks and the fast begins.

The observance of Ramadan traditions in the Gulf countries are deeply intertwined with each country’s culture and identity. For example, in Saudi Arabia, there is a tradition of Al-Musaharati, a name given to the person who walks and beats a drum in residential areas to wake worshippers for their Suhoor meal. The origins of the Al-Musaharati tradition remain unclear, but most narratives in the region believe that its roots trace back to the era of Prophet Muhammad. However, in the era of smartphones and alarm clocks, there is no real need for a Musaharati any longer, and this tradition is increasingly rare—though it remains notable in the historic district of Jeddah, which itself has undergone significant changes over the past decade. This year in Qatar, various regions have revitalized the centuries-old Al-Musaharati tradition, aiming to keep the local heritage and culture alive. Although specific locations where the Al-Musaharati can be found in Qatar have not been specified, several organizations have announced their intention to incorporate this tradition into their Ramadan events.

From past to present, as times change, Ramadan traditions in the Gulf have naturally evolved. Yet even as society changes, it remains important to pass these traditions down to younger generations, ensuring that the memories can remain fresh and the customs endure.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.

Issue: Society & Culture
Country: GCC

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Sinem Cengiz is a researcher at Qatar University’s Gulf Studies Center and a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Gulf International Forum. She is a regular columnist for Arab News newspaper and a member of the Women in Foreign Policy (DPK) Initiative. She is the author of the book Turkish-Saudi relations: Cooperation and Competition in the Middle East and co-editor of the book The Making of Contemporary Kuwait: Identity, Politics, and Its Survival Strategy. In her research, she focuses on the international relations of the Gulf and Turkey’s relations with the GCC states. Cengiz was born and raised in Kuwait and is currently based in Doha. She tweets at @SinemCngz


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