A Month Like No Other (Ramadan Customs in Syria)


Ramadan is here again. Shops have put out their lanterns and believers have adopted the spirit of worship and Islamic fasting. No food or drink from sunrise until sunset – or at least that is how most people think of the holy month.

But while Ramadan is primarily a religious occasion, for many the month’s social customs are just as important. And while all fasters abstain from food and drink during daylight hours, many of Ramadan’s other rituals differ from region to region. To get a better insight into the diversity of Ramadan customs and traditions, I spoke to a wedding band leader from old Damascus, a young woman from the coast and a young Christian, asking each one what Ramadan means to them.

Socialising, worshipping and shopping

Entering a traditional restaurant in old Damascus, a slender man in his early fifties greets me with a wide smile and heavy Damascene accent. Abu Fayyad proudly shows me photos of young men wearing elaborate traditional suits. They are members of the country’s oldest ‘arada band – a traditional musical group that sings and conducts sword fights during weddings and other occasions – formed by Abu Fayyad in the 1980s.

This month, however, Abu Fayyad is not going to work. It is the holy month of Ramadan, which he dedicates to God and his family. According to Abu Fayyad, many people who own their own businesses or work as freelancers take the month off as well. “All through the year we work for ourselves, this one month is for God,” he says with a smile.

As the Koran stresses the importance of strong family ties, Damascenes spend the first 10 days of Ramadan, mubaraket el-shaher (the month’s congratulations), visiting relatives, starting with the most closely related. “We always gather at my parents’ house on the first day of Ramadan,” Abu Fayyad says. “In large families, you can have up to 60 people eating at one table.” The socialising usually stretches until the early hours and often only finishes with suhur, a small breakfast people eat an hour before sunrise to help them get through the day without food or drink.

The second third of the month is called maghfirah (forgiveness). It is during this period that people contemplate their wrongful deeds of the past year and ask God for forgiveness. But it is not only God whose forgiveness is sought. People also reflect on quarrels they had with neighbours, work colleagues and friends and ask them for forgiveness.

“Just like traders take stock at the end of the year, Ramadan used to be the month when people took stock of their deeds over the past year,” Abu Fayyad, who believes only some people follow this habit today, said.

The last third of the month is spent shopping and preparing for Eid, with clothes, perfumes and traditional sweets topping shopping lists. All of which Abu Fayyad strongly disapproves of. “Before Eid people shop as if the markets are going to die out during the three-day celebration,” he says.

While people usually perform their morning prayers alone at home, during Ramadan men frequently go to the mosque after suhur to pray in a group. Another prayer which is only performed in a group at the mosque is the Taraweeh – an extended prayer performed every day during Ramadan after the last of the five daily prayers. Many women also pray the Taraweeh in groups at the mosque.

A month of charity

Charitable activities form an important part of Ramadan. Most Damascene traders distribute boxes containing SYP 5,000 (USD 108) worth of food – including oil, rice and sugar – to the poor. “This is a new tradition in Damascus that started some five years ago,” Abu Fayyad says. “Rich traders distribute thousands of food boxes during the holy month.”

Fitret Ramadan (Ramadan’s fast breaking) requires another donation of around SYP 75 (USD 1.60) which every Damascene Muslim – young or old, rich or poor – should pay before Eid. The money goes to those most in need. “It’s a way to keep society together and make the poor realise that there are people who are needier than they are,” Abu Fayyad explains.

In some coastal villages like Dweret el-Sheikh Sa’ed near Tartous, charity takes a different form. Arwa Nasir, an energetic little woman, tells me about the two-day celebration that is held in her hometown.

“Large families buy lamb or chicken and kilos of bulgur [cracked wheat] for the celebration,” Nasir explains enthusiastically. “We have so much bulgur during the celebration that I call it the ‘Day of Bulgur’.”

The occasion is celebrated over two days, one in the middle of Ramadan and another at the end of it. Families gather at religious schools to cook the bulgur and meat and distribute it to the people.

Many people then gather at the local shrines. They burn incense before entering, kissing the shrine and donating money for its upkeep. Afterwards, they sit on the grass near the shrine to break their fast. Nasir said that as many coastal villages do not have a mosque, villagers cannot hear the call to prayer. Instead, people break their fast at different times and start eating when they see that the sun has set.

A month of collective celebrations

Many Christians join in on the Ramadan celebrations as well. Rafik Bouz, a young Christian from Damascus, sends dozens of emails every Ramadan to congratulate his Muslim friends at the beginning of their fasting period and later on for Eid. Bouz even fasts for one or two days every Ramadan.

“My best friend is Muslim,” Bouz says. “I don’t feel that we are different. We fast together to share each other’s customs – we both like eating,” he adds with a smile.

Among Bouz’s favourite seasonal snack are the Ramadan bread and the traditional na’em sweets, which he eagerly looks forward to every year. But the fact that he cannot enjoy these delicious snacks in public before sunset bothers him.

“I have to change my habits because eating in public while others are fasting is rude,” Bouz said. “I believe the central message of Ramadan is about sympathising with the poor and your fellow human beings, not fasting. But at the end of the day it’s your personal choice to fast or not.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

DID YOU KNOW?
Before the advent of electricity and loudspeakers, the muezzin at the Umayyad Mosque would raise a metal ball from the mosque’s middle minaret – known as the Bride’s Minaret – to signal the exact time of sunset to the other mosques in Old Damascus that could not hear the call to prayer.

Another way to signal the exact time of sunset is the firing of midfaa’ or cannons. This tradition is still practiced today: throughout Ramadan two cannons are fired from Mount Qassioun and Mezzeh every day.

Only sheikhs with good singing voices used to work as the musaharati, the men who wake people for suhur during Ramadan. Traditionally, the musaharati used to sing rhyming tales to wake people. They would also receive a plate of food from each family they woke during the night, a custom still practiced by some families.

In addition to refraining from food and drink from sunrise until sunset, Muslim fasters should not swear, smoke or have sex during daylight hours.

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