The first time I met someone who fasted during Ramadan, was in an all girls school in Manchester, when I was about 15. It was a girl in my class, who originally came from Pakistan I think, and when I asked her why she wasn’t eating anything she said it was Ramadan and explained to me that she ate with her family early in the morning before dawn and at night when the sun set and the moon came out. Not eating for a day seemed doable to me, but not drinking any water seemed a little more drastic. That was northern England — the constant drizzle alone might have kept her hydrated.
Back then, as in impressionable teen, I thought it was very exotic of her to keep such a strange custom. The tradition seemed at odds with the surroundings we were in, distant and ancient (although she had lived in England far longer than I had). It might be considered logical that my classmate’s fast seemed exotic to me and something of a rarity, but here in Israel many people observe Ramadan, and yet, many non Muslims who have grown and lived in the same country, often do not know all that much more about Ramadan than I did back in rainy Lancashire.
No hydrating drizzle here in Israel — it is a hot spring, the weather is almost like summer, which means something between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius most days. Not drinking between sunrise and sunset here is a different deal altogether. Ramadan commemorates the time the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. This is a month of introspection, self restraint and modesty. This is the month that offers the opportunity of being closer to God than usual. Fasting helps you understand the plight of the poor better as well as practicing self restraint; if you cannot fast, due to illness for example, you can give money to the poor instead. Charity plays an important role during Ramadan. People are encouraged to pay extra attention to giving more to those less fortunate than them. It is also a time to visit family, to pray, to go to the mosque and to read the Qur’an. If your regime allows it, you might choose to sleep during the day, and feast at night. I have heard many people refer to Ramadan as the best time of the year; some, especially working mothers who also cook extensive meals most evenings for their families, say it is a rewarding, but a tiring month.
One of the ways The Abraham Fund Initiatives (TAFI) works to promote more reciprocal awareness between the Jewish and Arab populations of Israel is to support knowledge about each others customs and traditions. As part of this effort, the entire staff of TAFI went on a trip to Taybe, an Arab town in the triangle region of Israel. Generally speaking, the Arabs I have met tend to know more about the many Jewish holidays than the other way round. In a country with a clear majority, that is understandable to some degree, but it does result in a distance and a misbalance. Understanding the differences as well as the parallels between these religions has the potential to enable the type of mutual understanding that sometimes seems lacking in Israel.
The Abraham Fund uses Ramadan as an opportunity to bring groups of Israeli Jews to Arab towns, to enjoy colourful celebrations and to learn more about Arab society and culture. This month there have been tours for groups of Israeli journalists; staff from college campuses; and education professionals. These guided tours are often the first time that the participants have visited an Arab town, despite living so close, and Ramadan nights create an attractive and welcoming backdrop for such a tour. The trip to Taybe that I took part in illustrated to me the potential such simple measures can have. We learnt much about Ramadan and its traditions.
First, we toured the town and spoke about Ramadan with our guide, and then we stopped off at shop where we were plied with gifts of coffee with cardamom, sweets and other delicacies; then we gathered near a small restaurant that was booked for us, and waited for the sun to go down. I watched through the glass doors as the last preparations were made to our meal (the meal breaking the fast at night is called Iftar), and my eyes boggled at the amount of food on the table: stuffed chicken, legs of lamb and dawale — rolls of wine leaves with rice and spices inside — stuffed aubergines, salads with tahini and without, lemonade and tamarind juice, dish upon dish piled on every corner of the table. A bottle of water stood by each plate. We waited for the call to evening prayer to be heard from the nearby mosques — where everything was eerily quiet until then — before beginning the meal. Our guide told us to listen to the silence, and grinned as she said that soon we would hear the clatter of forks replace it. As some of our group were fasting, the relief of digging into the meal was felt acutely.
After the fast is broken, the night begins! Some people choose to work at night — you can hear construction going on around midnight in Arab towns, the streets are full, boys going to play football, the sweet shops overfilling with customers. Quatayef is a popular desert across the Levantine and is commonly made on Ramadan. Our guide in Taybe took us to see them being made, the shopkeeper expertly pouring perfectly sized circles onto the hot pan with deft movements. For a town as big as Taybe there is also a night market that opens after sundown, with a stage and many vendors selling sweets, waffles and ice creams, with music and entertainment.
As the light seeps away, the market fills with children and mothers looking out for their younger kids, the older ones rambling about by themselves, enjoying the cool breeze that might emerge at night. We concluded our tour there in the town square, carrying bags with presents, bottles of fresh tamarind juice and sweets. Experiencing a Ramadan night in an Arab, and mainly Muslim, town gave me some feeling for how special this month is.
I went home, noticing more than usual the decorations on many houses that are customary for Ramadan, and thinking about all the people I know that observe this holy month. Be it my classmate back in England or the observant Muslims I have come to know here, all of them adhere to certain traditions, and knowing about them is an enriching experience for me. I believe that the same holds true for the non Muslims of Israel. The more awareness there is between the many groups that live in Israel, the more we can hope for the type of mutual understanding that is crucial to any shared space.
If you are not Muslim and have never been invited to someone’s home for an Iftar, or to a mainly Muslim town, be sure to accept the invitation should the opportunity arise. The welcoming people and the atmosphere of Ramadan will stick with you, and help you understand how so many million people around the world express their religion and culture.