Despite challenges, Ramadan has a special meaning to world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, of whom one-third are Arabs.
For children across the Arab world, the holy fasting month of Ramadan means lit crescents, decorations, lanterns and sweets. For adults, it’s time for worship, charity and family gathering to break a day-long fast at sundown.
This year, however, rather than peace generally associated with religious observances, gloom overshadows as instability threatens to spill over from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya and despair grips Palestinians frustrated by Israel’s prolonged occupation.
With the displaced and refugees in the Arab world totalling unprecedented numbers and Islamic State (ISIS) militants conquering more territory, Arabs find themselves fearfully watching in the region’s upheavals.
“How can we celebrate when our very existence is threatened by militants and wars around us?” sighed Syrian nutritionist Rima Akhras, 37, speaking to The Arab Weekly in Damascus.
“Ramadan has no meaning for us this year because it’s supposed to be the time to worship Allah, not to kill in His name, as ISIS and other jihadists are doing,” Akhras said.
ISIS militants, known for torturing and slaying of civilians, secured two major victories in May: Conquering Iraq’s key city of Ramadi, bringing themselves closer to Baghdad; and capturing Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, rich with treasures dating back 3,000 years.
In Yemen, 2,000 people have been killed and 8,000 wounded as that conflict deepens over the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who seized Sana’a last September and then fanned out into central and southern regions of the country. The Arabs’ predominantly Sunni governments see the Houthi advance as a bridgehead for Iranian influence in the region.
Despite the challenges, Ramadan has a special meaning to the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, of whom one-third are Arabs.
“Ramadan is a month of worship, charity and fasting as a means of fostering piety and is a duty on all adult Muslims,” Iraqi cleric Hassan Abadi told The Arab Weekly in Baghdad. Abadi said Muslims worldwide celebrate the glory of Allah during Ramadan and thank Him for revealing the Quran to Prophet Mohammed.
Muslim thinkers emphasise the religious significance of fasting and its implications for self-purification and spiritual growth rather than the outward observance of the many rules regarding the fast.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is signalled by the sighting of the new moon. This year, it is expected to begin around June 18th.
According to the Quran, God requires the fast of Ramadan so believers “may cultivate piety”. Fasting during Ramadan is the fourth of the five pillars of Islam, the essential religious duties of all adult Muslims.
In Jordan, the government closes all restaurants, discotheques, nightclubs and liquor stores and bans eating, drinking and smoking in public during Ramadan. Violators are sent to jail until the end of the holy month.
In Lebanon, where regulations are more lenient, more people are seen eating and drinking in public. Liquor is also served, unless in areas with predominantly conservative inhabitants.
Water pipes, cold fruity beverages, backgammon, playing cards and TV series, soap operas and talk shows rule the atmosphere in almost all Arab countries during the holy month. So does the free meals offered by charities in a show of compassion to the less privileged.
Jordanians are counting the days until Ramadan and streets are showing signs of festivities, including special banquets for Iftar (Arabic for the sundown meals) and special musicals performed by local as well as Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian singers.
But the joy is subdued to some who are concerned that they may overspend.
Amman car mechanic Alaa Badri, 32, told The Arab Weekly: “I long for Ramadan, its tradition like family gatherings but I am worried because food prices are really high, which means I will end up spending more money on meals, which I can’t afford.”
According to a 2014 study by the General Association for Foodstuffs’ Merchants, Jordanian households spent nearly $170 million on food during the last Ramadan, compared with an average of $100 million in other months of the year. The syndicate estimated that 14 million birds were slaughtered during the last Ramadan.
In Tunis the word “Ramadan” is overheard in every conversation of people passing by. For almost all Tunisians, the holy fasting month is the only time of the year when all the family gets together for Iftar and evening visits.
Preparations begin weeks before Ramadan as women gather ingredients needed for the pillar dishes of the future, such as the traditional paste used for the soup and the “brik” — a pastry shell filled with eggs and fried in oil. Traditionally, women make their “oula”, which consists of constituting stocks of spices and couscous at home in store for Ramadan.
Some families gather in the kitchen to polish tableware and cutlery. Certain plates used only for Ramadan are brought to the table. Mosques in every neighbourhood add more lanterns to their domes and change carpets in prayer rooms.
During Ramadan, many Tunisians go out at night to enjoy Arabic coffee and attend festivals and concerts, while others visit mosques to pray. Activity at night makes up for the slow pace of the day.
In Egypt, an Arab champion of Ramadan festivities, people say they have much to be thankful for.
“We had so much to worry about since 2011,” Cairo accountant Mohammed AsSayed, 36, told The Arab Weekly, referring to the revolution, part of the “Arab spring”, which toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and three other Arab leaders.
“But now, we have a new president and things are getting better, so, as we say in Egypt ‘Ramadan came and made us happy’,” he said. “What does not kill you makes you stronger and this is Egypt now: a strong country with high hopes.”
Iraq, however, is bound for a harsh month due to the long hours of fast and its hot weather, which reaches 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.
What makes it worse this year is the hundreds of thousands of displaced people fleeing ISIS’s rule and thronging on Baghdad, where they are forced to spend Ramadan in tents under scorching heat. So are the Syrian refugees displaced in their own country and in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.
Iraqi areas under ISIS rule, such as Mosul in the north and Anbar in the east, witnessed a complete change. “Coffee shops were blown up, women are forbidden to enter the market without a male escort and all aspects of celebrations for the month of Ramadan are banned,” Abu Faisal, an Anbar resident, told The Arab Weekly. He declined to be identified further, citing fears for his safety.
In the West Bank, however, municipalities decorate main city squares and streets as mosques announce the beginning of the fasting month.
Groceries, vegetable markets and sweets parlours are usually crammed with people observing the fast and looking forward to a special meal with family. But as in Jordan, markets may get fewer shoppers this year as Ramadan unfolds due to the economic crunch many face.
Every Friday in Ramadan, buses drop off thousands of people at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank. Worshippers wait in long queues to pray at al-Aqsa Mosque — Islam’s third holiest shrine — in Jerusalem. Those waits can sometimes be interrupted by Israeli-fired tear gas if clashes occur. It is estimated that up to 300,000 Muslims perform Friday noon prayers at al-Aqsa during Ramadan.
While the majority of the West Bank virtually shuts down during daytime, some restaurants in Ramallah and Bethlehem open for non-Muslims, or those who do not fast, although eating, smoking and drinking in public is prohibited.
For Badri, the car mechanic, Ramadan is a great time to relax as public and private offices reduce their business hours almost by half to help people cope with fasting, especially in hot weather.”I look forward to it because we will have more time to sleep and watch soaps on TV,” he said. The Arab WeeklyBy: Roufan Nahhas, based in Jordan, has been covering cultural issues in Jordan for more than two decades.