Friday, October 21, 2005


Right now we’re in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan – that means that all Muslims are supposed to fast while the sun is in the sky everyday. It’s quite fascinating how this tradition puts the city on an entirely different schedule every day. Of course for about 25% of Syrians this is not their tradition (for Christians and certain sects of Islam) but in my area at least, which is largely Muslim, it really does seem universal. I know a few non-Muslim foreigners who are fasting only because it’s such an integral part of life here.

The day starts every morning at around 2 am, when a guy comes around to wake everybody up to eat before the sun rises: He beats a drum, bangs on doors, and rings doorbells – he also calls out every now and again: “oomoo yaa naayimeen!” or something like that, meaning “Get up, sleepers!” These wakers – there are usually 2 or more, separated by a half hour or so – always bring a smile to my face.

During the day, it seems that stores seem to open a little bit later than usual. People go about their usual business, buying food, buying whatever, though of course many food shops have changed their offerings for the month – e.g., from quick eats to take-home food. Many food shops take the opportunity of the drop in business during Ramadan to redo their décor. I can’t deny that I really miss the convenience of being able to get a quick shawarma sandwich at any time – yum.

Starting at about 2 pm, things start to get crazy on the streets – everyone is in the rush to get home in time for the sunset call to prayer, when eating can begin again. Traffic is hellish, and markets are busy busy with people buying the last ingredients for the iftar meal. Right up until the last minute, those still out on the street are rushing – finally, the maghrib call rings out (around 5:05 currently), and people eat – silence reigns.

The evening (starting about 6:30 or so) has quite a festive atmosphere. Stores open again, and streets that were silent 2 hours before become noisy and bright. At first I was impressed that there is a month-long holiday devoted to not consuming, rather than our American Day-after-thanksgiving-till-christmas sacred month of going to the mall. After almost 3 weeks, though, I see there’s plenty of Ramadan consumption – the iftar meal is a big deal, and the evening shopping ritual. We’re still a week and half away from `Eed, the holiday which comes at the end of Ramadan, but I’ve heard from a number of people what a busy shopping-fest that is.

People always ask if I am fasting, and sometimes I feel pressure from them for me to do so. As is the case with so many religious formalities, the letter of the law seems to become more important than the spirit. On the whole, I note that people seem to think more about the start, end, and completeness of the fasting, rather than the pious thoughts that are supposed to come with it.

I will be relieved when the month is over, but I’ve enjoyed experiencing the different sides of this. One thing is to take part in the running around to buy food and get home just in time – because although I’m not fasting, if I'm eating with others it's when I eat. Another is to be waiting around the table, food ready, waiting for that call to prayer – often watching the chanters at the Ommayyad Mosque on TV. As soon as the first syllable is out, it’s time to dig in. I especially enjoy being an onlooker. I once sat in a city park through it all, starting at around 4 pm. I could see the traffic intensify, then drop to just a trickle as the park emptied out except for just a few of us. I walked home through silent, silent streets. Occasionally during this time I see people on the streets – they often offer me a bite of the food they’re eating. On roads that 30 minutes ago were crowded and loud, the only noise I can hear is the occasional clink of plates or silverware from inside the houses all around me.