Ramadan in Damascus

Last year, the Holy Month of Ramadan was from the middle of October until the middle of November. Ramadan is a month of fasting for Muslims. They begin their fast at the pre-dawn call to prayer (often partaking of a meal just beforehand) and end it at the dusk call to prayer. Since the traditional Muslim calendar is shorter than the Western one, Ramadan falls at a different season each year. This means that the actual length of time spent fasting, while always from dawn to dusk, is not consistent. During the winter, it's from about 5am until 4.30pm. During the summer, however, it can be much, much longer (from 3.30am until 8pm, even).

I had some exposure to Ramadan in America, since BYU hosts an iftar feast each year to break the fast on the final night. But last year's Ramadan was my first time experiencing it in a Muslim-majority country. At the time, I wrote down a few of my first impressions. Here they are.

Ramadan started on the 15th of October. The night before, there was a special feeling in the air as people prepared for it. We learned only a day before if Ramadan would start Thursday (the 14th) or Friday (the 15th). Apparently, they have certain meteorologists view the moon to decide if it's in just the right stage to start the holiday (this is according to my English students and our neighbors). Of course, I’ve also heard that Syria waits for Saudi Arabia’s meteorologists to make their decision, and then makes the opposite decision. Whatever the case may be, they finally decided it would start on Friday.

After church (on Friday), we took a nap and woke up to the sounds of a live prayer going on at the mosque next door. The prayer ended just a few minutes before the regularly scheduled recorded call to prayer that comes on at about 5.10ish these days. Jeremy and I went out onto the balcony and it seemed that there was a deathly quiet over the whole neighborhood, like everyone was holding their breath. Then, the Allahu Akbar came on over the loudspeaker and we heard some little kids from a neighboring apartment clapping their hands. Almost immediately, we heard plates and silverware clanking as families began to eat. The city seemed to come alive again. Our landlady sent her son up to our apartment with some delicious food and told us to make sure to be available to accept food in the evenings during Ramadan. So we’re pretty excited about that. Since then, she’s sent up plenty of traditional Syrian salads, meat pastries, and other random dishes. Some foods are served especially during Ramadan - they often break their fast with sugary foods like dried dates to get their energy back quickly.

The next day, again right around 4.45, we managed to get into a grocery store down the street as they were closing up. They were frantically turning off all the lights and turning away customers as they closed before the break-the-fast prayer.

As we crossed the main highway (Autostrad), we saw two cops on a motorbike. One cop was driving, and the other was holding and balancing two heavily-laden bags full of takeout containers. They dropped one off for the traffic cop at that intersection and then went on their way, presumably delivering to other traffic cops at intersections all down the road. Syrians definitely take care of each other :).

We caught one of the last services heading into the city center before the roads became relatively deserted. The driver was also in a frantic/happy mood and racing to get to wherever before the prayer. The Souq al-Hamadiya was as close to deserted as I think we’ll ever see it. Only a dozen shops were open, and nobody was doing any shopping. It was an eerie sight and feeling, since Jeremy and I usually lose each other in that place among the huge, bustling crowds.

A few nights later, our landlady invited us over to partake of the iftar with them. We all sat around the table in their tiny kitchen. Her husband and two kids were very anxious to eat, telling her to hurry up putting the food on the table, even as they sat there and did nothing to help (sounds familiar)! The call to prayer went off, the dad hastily read a prayer that was posted on the wall, and then everyone dug in, quite literally. There were special foods that they eat during Ramadan, like fried pita bread with grape sauce, peach slurry, various salads, etc. It was very delicious.

I have the whole month off from work - I guess they figure that students don't learn English very well on empty bellies (and I think I agree).

In my religion, we fast all day once a month. So in some ways, I can identify with those participating in Ramadan. On the other hand, they do it all in one month, instead of being spread throughout the year. That has to be difficult after a while. In the meantime, we'll be doing our best not to eat and drink in public. Most of our friends have told us that it's not a big deal if we do, but it seems like it would be more respectful to not be enjoying food in front of people who are starving.

A visit to Marqab Castle

Performing in the dark