MANAMA Sep 30 (Reuters) Guests at a hotel buffet in Bahrain queue for meats, stews, curries and pastries, balancing food on their plates in increasingly precarious mounds to break the daily fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The banquet often continues late into the night in Gulf Arab countries, and many Muslims end up gaining weight during a month that is meant to improve health and remind the devout of the plight of the poor.
Muslims do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset in Ramadan, during which followers are meant to renew their ties with God through prayer.
Islam's Prophet Mohammed is said to have broken his fast gradually and eaten modestly, starting with dates and water - - a far cry from guests seen pouncing on piles of rich food at any of the Gulf's iftar, or breakfast, banquets.
''I always put on a lot of weight during Ramadan. It's a big problem,'' said student Ali Hussein. ''Firstly people eat too much, secondly they don't carry on their normal routine and sleep a lot, and thirdly Ramadan food is very rich.'' Tents are erected around the Gulf during Ramadan to house the banquets, usually buffets laid on by hotel chains. Many are lavish affairs sponsored by large corporations.
Tasty but calorific delights particular to the season's feasts include various pastries stuffed with cream and nuts or soaked in syrup, or both.
Iftar weight gain is compounded by sohour or ghabga feasts, a similar meal to iftar scheduled later in the evening, and also by the Gulf's shorter Ramadan working hours, when many choose to sleep during pre-iftar hours rather than feel hungry.
''There's a health angle to Ramadan. The prophet said to fast and be healthy ... one of the fundamentals of fasting in modern and ancient medicine is to get rid of toxins and excess body fat,'' said Sayed Jaffer al Alawi, a religious scholar.
But many Gulf Muslims say this is difficult given the variety of rich foods rarely seen outside Ramadan, and the tendency to do little more than sleep or watch television after the heavy iftar meal.
''There are quite a few people who come after Ramadan saying they've put on weight,'' said Ahmed Farooq, a doctor specialising in obesity at Bahrain's International Hospital.
''When you eat too much rich food late, there's not much activity afterwards. Most people eat and sleep, and so the body conserves more. The blood runs to the stomach and so you feel lethargic,'' he added.
Iftar banquet guest Ahmed Yousef said he followed the teachings of the Prophet and broke his fast with moderation, consequently losing weight during Ramadan.
More importantly, he said, he felt closer to God through extra prayers and Koran readings, and more empathy for the poor.
''Unfortunately, I'd say for about half of Bahrainis, Ramadan is all about the food,'' he said, adding that other Gulf Muslims were the same.
REUTERS SZ RK1328