Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ramadan in Jerusalem

Jerusalem at sunset 
There is nothing like the calls to prayer echoing through a city. The azzan calls the city's Muslim inhabitants to prayer in its sonorous voice, competing with the other minarets for the most beautiful prayer to God. Having never been in Israel or the West Bank for Ramadan, its customs were surprisingly familiar, though a bit less exciting than their Egyptian counterparts.
Ramadan dessert: a light pancake

At around 7:50, there was a huge bang, sounding like an explosion. As I was walking through West Jerusalem to meet my friend in East Jerusalem, the religious Jews were noticeably unsettled. The Muslims knew what it meant, fast had ended for the day. Instantly, everyone lit up their cigarettes, hastily drank the fast-breaking drink, usually carob juice or tamarind juice and then dug in to fill their bellies. Street vendors supplied the many hungry people with everything from sweet corn, to pitas stuffed with freshly grilled meat to freshly leavened bread.

A friend, Jazz, and I decided to spend this glorious night sitting and relaxing by Damascus Gate, outside the old city. The longer we sat, the more people appeared, in droves, heading to pray or coming out to celebrate the end of fast with friends uproariously. Jazz and I sat to nosh on some delicious Ramadan snacks (see to my left) and took in the sights, sounds and smells of the Jerusalem Ramadan. The special multi-colored lit Ramadan lamps swung lightly in the mountain breeze, as if signaling people toward the old city to pray.
Smoking nargileh 
The hookah (nargila) stands that line the streets
our new friend and his pancakes 

In Egypt, the whole country would stop and pray together, sometimes on the streets, and in poorer neighborhoods would break fast in the streets, with dozens of lined tables ready to serve the hungry. The most beautiful thing during this time is the generosity you see. The hungry are fed, the families are together and the homeless are given food and shelter. It is a mass production, one with no other comparison I've found yet in the world.

Here, I would say more than half of the population fasts, but not more than 75%. I could be off, but there are numerous shops open, and most of the people I know don't fast seriously. Some days on, some days off, or they will sneak in a cigarette or a bottle of water. (Of course, I'm sure in the West Bank, fasting is more serious...planning a trip there next week, so i'll update you!) Ramadan rules dictate that while fasting, nothing can pass between your lips- including water, medicine, gum, cigarettes, etc. (Unless of course you are ill, on your cycle, traveling, etc.) The goal: to abstain from food, relieve your body of its earthly cravings to bring you into a more focused state to pray and commune with God. I think it is a beautiful religious idea, though after doing it for two weeks in scorchingly hot Egypt, I couldn't continue. It takes a lot to continue day in and day out for 40 days of fasting! Whew.

But, tonight brought me back to my Egypt days. Tonight Ramadan and the spirit of the Arab world was pulsating, emanating outward to draw you in. Everyone relaxing, joking, smoking, eating- it is impossible not to be sucked into the cultural moment. There is simply no comparison to Ramadan in the Middle East.

If you ever come to the Middle East, make sure to catch a glimpse of Ramadan. While most businesses are closed during the day, the vibrancy and electricity of the night are contagious. All night celebrations rule, and the communal spirit becomes contagious. If you are in Jerusalem for Ramadan, make your way towards Damascus Gate, sit on the steps and watch the beauty unfold. Drink some amazing Arab mint tea, or try a famous Ramadan sweet.

Ramadan Kareem! (That means, Happy Ramadan!)

one of the many street foods: lentils and parsley 

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