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The Muslim holy month of Ramadan began today. It's a time of dawn-to-dusk fasting for Muslims around the world. Saudi Arabia is the historic homeland of Islam, and the traditions of prayer and charity continue there. But many Saudis are concerned with the growing commercialization of the holiday. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from the Saudi city of Jeddah.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Here in Jeddah, the historic center of the city is blazing with lights and colors as two Saudi princes surrounded by TV crews kick off the annual Ramadan festival. Organizers say they want to connect Jeddah's glorious past, the traditional route for religious pilgrims to Mecca, with the city's prosperous present.
SAMI NAWAR: Oh, my God, Ramadan is a month which everyone comes to the old city and shop.
AMOS: That's Sami Nawar, the director of Al-Balad, Jeddah's famous historic district. The festival offers sports for kids, all-night street restaurants and mosques open for extra prayers, in keeping with agent rituals, he says.
NAWAR: And we have to be cool and calm, even when we are hungry and thirsty. And this is one of the lessons of Ramadan.
AMOS: But in recent years, there are new lessons and rituals - excessive shopping, excessive eating, plus TV binge-watching at night. There are dozens of dramas created just for Ramadan, with the highest-priced commercials of the year. Food sales are the heaviest during this month of fast and feast. Major brands tailor sales. Saudi IKEA, the international furniture outlet, promotes a Ramadan collection, from decorative pillows to serving plates, says sales manager Mohammed Hidiwii.
Do a lot of people buy Ramadan collection?
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He said, all the products mainly are finished before Ramadan because of this kind of promotion.
AMOS: Many Saudis are uneasy with the growing commercialization of this holy month, a trend they've seen with Western holidays. Sami Nawar's extended family gathers in Jeddah for Ramadan.
NAWAR: Who's this?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Kia.
NAWAR: Kia - Zacharia. (Laughter).
AMOS: Children and grandchildren join one of the country's most noted architects. He's been a public voice against commercialization for years. Ramadan, he says, is losing its essence.
NAWAR: I think 70 percent of the time is spent watching television. You know, the best time for those who want to make money is becoming Ramadan and we eat more food in Ramadan than any other time we eat, maybe, the whole year.
AMOS: It's the price of prosperity, says Hassan Hatrash, a musician who composes music for films, the cost of modernizing quickly.
HASSAN HATRASH: Ramadan is a festival. It's like, a time where people over-buy and really over-stack goods and food. And of course, shops do, you know, special sales in that season, and all the, you know, gimmicky stuff happens.
AMOS: He's nostalgic for the Iftar of his youth, the meal families share after the sun sets.
HATRASH: And I can remember vividly that we hardly eat. Like, for Iftar, we just eat a few dates and drink some milk and that's it.
HATRASH: (Playing music).
AMOS: But his life has changed dramatically too, as he acknowledges while playing music with a friend at his production studio. This simple desert life is fading, replaced by a globalized consumer society, even in the birthplace of Islam. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Jeddah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.