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Jerusalem Rejoices in the Welcome of Ramadan
submitted by This Week In Palestine

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Ramadan Kareem, yes, but Allahu Akram.

“Ramadan Kareem," (literally Ramadan is generous), is the salutation with which Muslims greet each other during the month of Ramadan. The response is: “Allahu Akram,” God is more generous.

This idiomatic exchange forms the main mode of welcome and polite conduct should a guest drop by during the daylight hours. While the fast continues, it is not polite to offer the customary cold drink or coffee. The host apologizes by saying, “Ramadan Kareem,” the guest responds by saying, “Allahu Akram.” The idiomatic exchange assumes the function of a suffix in language; it indicates, sets apart, and qualifies the particular moment as special and unique in the Moslem calendar.

To celebrate Ramadan, Jerusalem has cast away its wistful melancholy and has donned joyful, festive apparel. Ramadan lanterns (fawanis Ramadan) dangle decoratively from ornate strings of flickering yellow, green, and red strings of lights interspersed with the symbolic flickering crescents and stars. Shops reopen after the breaking of the fast; vendors selling katayef, nammurah, and other pastries proliferate. The vendors of sugar candy (sha’r el banat), spinning the wheel as they weave the sugar candy … and the trays of candied apples add to the sense of festivity. Cold drinks made from extracts of carob, tamarind, and almond are sold around every corner by flamboyantly dressed men bearing shining-silver, heavily ornate containers on their backs.

Since the Islamic lunar calendar year is 11 to 12 days shorter than the solar year, Ramadan migrates throughout the seasons. This year Ramadan fell during the month of September, which coincided with the beginnings of the Palestinian autumn. The mild weather has added to the congeniality of the festivities.

One strolls in the alleys of the old city under brightly lit canopies of colourful lamps that stretch across the streets. The local youth of various neighbourhoods vie with each other in decorating their living quarters. The sparkling, colourful light installations dominated by the crescent - the symbol of Islam - transforms Jerusalem’s night into day. Despite the continued blockage of Jerusalem from the rest of Palestine, a merry atmosphere welcomes the thousands of pious men and women who flock to Al-Aqsa Mosque to pray, study the Qur’an, meditate, and perform taraweeh prayers. For, in addition to the five daily prayers, Ramadan is distinguished with a special prayer, taraweeh, which has special merit.

Taraweeh prayers are performed after the breaking of the fast at home and in conjunction with the evening mosque prayers. They are de rigueur collective religious rituals to be performed in the mosque, hence the re-opening of the shops throughout the evening. The length of this prayer is usually much longer than the usual prayers. Taraweeh is derived from the Arabic root word, raaha, which means to rest, relax. After every four raka’at (genuflections in prayers), one stops for rest, relaxation, and contemplation and then resumes the prayers. The number of genuflections in taraweeh is quite flexible. The numbers prescribed for raka’at: 39, 29, 23, 19, 13, and 11.

Each night a certain number of verses from the Qur’an are recited during the taraweeh. By the 27th of Ramadan, the whole Qur’an, in synchrony with the mosques of Mecca and Medinah, is finished. The night is set apart from all other nights as the “Night of Destiny” - Laylat Al-Qadr.

Collective meals are a special feature of Ramadan. Mawa’ed El-Rahman, (literally Tables of the Merciful) abound. Almost seven thousand iftar meals are served daily throughout the Old City - in the various “soup kitchens” and in El-Haram El-Sharif. The sight of the huge multitude breaking the fast simultaneously is awe inspiring. Under a deep blue sky, the pious await the sunset in parallel, orderly lines stretched in front of the Mamluk water fountain and the Aqsa Mosque in the golden glow of the Dome of the Rock.

Ramadan Kareem.

I stand on my roof waiting for sunset. The buildings around are soaked in a translucent blue.

I wait for Adhan al-Maghreb, the call to prayer at sunset, which signals the daily end of the fast. The Qur’an recitations from the different minarets, each set off seconds from the other, intermix to produce awesome contrapuntal music. The traffic has come to a hush. I see my neighbours sitting around their dining tables. Wherever I turn my eyes, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters await the end of the prayer call that punctuates the end of one more Ramadan day.

This Ramadan, Jerusalemites will, once again, break their fast to the sound of the cannon explosion - a tradition that my generation associates intimately with Ramadan. They will wake up at dusk for the last meal, suhur, to the first sound of the cannon, and they will return to bed and begin the imsak, the abstaining from food and drink, to the second sound of the cannon.

The musahher, a lonely turbaned man clad in a flowing gellabieh, tambourine in hand, walking up and down the winding alleys of Jerusalem, made sure that everyone was awake (a service for which he was rewarded an idieh - monetary gift - at the end of Ramadan), has become, for many, a vague image. His calls admonishing the sleepers to rise and pray still echo in my ears: “Al salat khair min an’nawm,” prayers are better than sleep, “Ya nayem wahhed ed-dayem,” Oh sleeping one, say your prayers to the eternal one.

I remember vividly the joy of waking up for suhur. My sister Suhad and I, barely ten and eight years old, would plead and beg mother and father not to let us sleep through it, but to wake us up for suhur, the last meal before imsak, the beginning of siam, fasting.

At home we never had heavy food at suhur, though it is common in other households. Instead, and if Ramadan took place in the warm season, we simply had a goat-cheese sandwich and a delicious apricot pudding, which is closely related to Ramadan, mawardieh.

When Ramadan fell in winter, we would eat arshalleh, a mildly sweetened doughnut flavoured with aniseed that we would dunk in hot milk. When it was too cold to get out of bed, Father would bring arshalleh to us in the bedroom.

Father would not sleep immediately. Rather wrapped in his camel-haired Iraqi abayeh, he would stay up reading the Qur’an. Every Ramadan he would finish the Qur’an, reading its chapters throughout the afternoon and morning hours. Ramadan was a “special” month for my father, which he savoured by reading the Qur’an, in prayers and meditation. He would act as though God watched all his actions.

Fundamental to the ritual of fasting is one of the major distinctive attributes of Allah, namely, that of self-sufficiency, al samad. In Suret al Samad, in the Qur’an, God says, “Qol huwa allhu ahad, allahu el samad, lam yalid wa lam yulad wa lam yakun lahu kufwan ahad.” Apart from stressing that God is an indivisible entity, that He was not born, that He did not give birth (all with profound theological implications), the fourth quality, “el-samad,” emphasizes the notion that Allah is sufficient unto himself, that Allah suffers no lack, that Allah transcends desire. In performing the ritual of fasting, the Muslim emulates one of God’s major attributes - al samad. Fasting as such is not self-denial; rather it is to be understood as an act of transcendence, of modulating one’s consciousness beyond desire. Fasting is an act of active renunciation of desire in emulation of God.

Ramadan Kareem.

Ramadan is kareem because the Qur’an was revealed during the lunar month of Ramadan punctuated in a special night, Leilat al Qader, Night of Destiny, on the 27th of Ramadan. During this night, and according to commonly held beliefs, the sky opens and the wish of the fortunate one who witnesses the miraculous event is fulfilled. People flock to the Dome of the Rock and pray all night long hoping that their requests would be granted - a sign of divine blessing.

Leilat el Qader. The Night of Destiny. The heavens opened and the Qur’an descended, Leilet Nuzul al Qur’an. In the Muslim faith it is believed that the Qur’an was not created at one particular moment, rather it was eternally in existence; hence the emphasis on the term “revelation.”

Witty dialecticians during the classical periods of Muslim cultural splendour quibbled. “If the Qur’an is eternal, then it is coeternal with God.” Such a logical deduction led them to conclude the existence of two eternals: Allah, on the one hand, and the Qur’an on the other. For these philosophers, al-mutakalimun, such dualism could not be tolerated were Muslims to adhere to strict monotheism. One of the two eternals had to be dropped, and it was the Qur’an. For decades dialectic thought, inherited from Greek civilization, led to a positivist reification of the Qur’an, which culminated in its perception as created. The logically constituted error was to be resolved later in Muslim theology by el-Ghazali.

During Leilat al-Qadr, according to tradition, the sky opens and the wish of the lucky one who witnesses this miraculous event is fulfilled.

As a child I asked my father if the sky ever opened to him. He said it had. I asked, “What did you see? What did you ask for?” His answer seemed enigmatic. He said that he saw light. But he did not ask for anything. “How come you did not ask for millions of dinars?” Suhad and I would nag him. He answered that the sight was so beautiful that he could not ask for anything. He was overwhelmed by the splendour of the moment.

My father always repeated that his only request of God was sutrah, i.e., having just enough not to need anyone’s charity, and thereby keeping one’s pride and sense of dignity. We would argue that life is much more than sutrah. He would answer that one should be content with what one has, for the sense of inner satisfaction is a treasure that is never exhausted, “Al qana’atu kanzon la yafna.”

His words still echo in my ears, “El ridha kheir min as sa’adeh,” making a choice and believing in this choice, the state of ridha, acceptance, is better than happiness, as-sa’adeh, whose object is ever shifting.

Ramadan Kareem.

The idiom triggers a set of closely related aromas and flavours. Ramadan sweets - atayef and mawardieh (apricot pudding) - and shorbet frikeh (whole-wheat soup) come immediately to mind. Overnight, atayef stands spring up all over the city, and these freshly baked pancakes are sold by the kilogram. Atayef is pronounced with a qaf in classical Arabic: qatayef. In the Jerusalem dialect, the letter “qaf” is softened into an “ah”: atayef. Gazans transform the qaf into a gah, as in the letter “g” in the word goat: gatayef. Peasants, on the other hand, transform the qaf into a kaf, as in kitten: katayef. Atayef are used as a crepe that is filled with chopped walnuts, flavoured, and sweetened with a bit of sugar and cinnamon. The atayef pancake is folded into a half-moon shape and either fried or baked in samneh baladieh (clarified goat butter) and dipped for a few seconds in ater, a viscous sweetener, before being served. During Ramadan the daily menu becomes highly formalized. Soup, shorabah, which Palestinians use mostly during the cold season, assumes a prominent position. Grandmother insists that whole-wheat soup, shorbet frikeh, should be served at least three times during the month of Ramadan.

Appetizers such as falafel, hummos, sambuskeh, tabbouleh, and all kinds of pickles are laid out daily on the table. The main dishes for Ramadan consist of the seasonal vegetables that may be served as mahashi, stuffed, or yakhani, stewed. Palestinian food is seasonal; its menus follow a set pattern punctuated by the rhythm of the agricultural year.

Ramadan is joyous. The holy month is not totally devoted to fasting, worship, contemplation, and charity but also to intensive socializing. During the rest of the year, in profane time, one’s social time is concentrated within the circle of immediate family and close friends. During Ramadan, sacred time, the circle expands to include distant relatives, neighbours, and general acquaintances ... Rarely does a single family break the fast alone. The iftar meal assumes a focal social position. Each night friends and relatives meet in a different house to break the fast. Lavish meals and specialty foods are associated with this season amidst merry gatherings.

In no other month of the Muslim lunar year does the sky above assume such significance. The interest begins with the search and first sighting of the first sliver of the crescent of Ramadan, which announces the birth of a new month. People henceforth look continually up, watching the gradual waxing and waning until the Ramadan moon disappears and the search for the new moon, the new crescent, begins. Once the new crescent is seen, the religious authorities announce the beginning of Id el-Fitr, the little feast.

Time develops a different rhythm; a sense of excitement pervades every aspect of life. Between the readings of the Qur’an, the long afternoons spent in reclusive meditation in El-Haram el-Sharif, the evening taraweeh, and the suhur prayers, the relationship with the Almighty modulates to heighten the consciousness of the Other and deepens the sense of religious feeling, casting a different colour on the way in which Muslims discourse with God, themselves, and others.

The exalted position of Jerusalem in Muslim thought adds a special virtue to prayers in al-Aqsa Mosque equal to that of prayers in the mosques of Mecca and Medinah. Many travel to Mecca and Medinah to pray there during Ramadan. In Palestine the Friday and the nightly taraweeh prayers as such attain a special symbolic significance when performed in the Aqsa Mosque. Before the sealing off of Jerusalem from the West Bank and Gaza, neither the Sacred Sanctuary nor the old city could contain the hundreds of thousands who would flock for prayers in the third holiest spot in Islam, and people would pray outside the walls of the city. The climax of these daily mini-pilgrimages is the Night of Destiny. However the Israeli concern with security overrides Muslim religious needs. My friends from Jericho, Sabastya, Halhul, and Bet Suriq are barred from entering the sacred city in the sacred month simply because Israelis believe every Palestinian to be a security threat. The joy of Ramadan for Muslims outside Jerusalem is incomplete.

Despite the bleak political situation and the ongoing forced annexation of Jerusalem to Israel, Ramadan is welcomed with great rejoicing … In the overwhelming sense of the sacred, the present difficult moment is reduced to a footnote in the discourse of Muslim Jerusalem.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at aqleibo@yahoo.com.

This Week in Palestine
October 2007

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