Last week saw Ramadan kick off across the Islamic world, and for the pre-dominantly Muslim population of East Jerusalem, it is a time of both celebration and sacrifice.

Ramadan is one of the five core pillars of Islam which requires healthy Muslim adults to go without all food and water from sunrise to sunset for a month-long period. It is a time of increased prayer and reflection aimed at getting closer to God. There is also a focus on charity and understanding the plight of others in poverty. It is also usually a time of great feasts and family gatherings in the evenings.

In Jerusalem, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine is responsible for sighting the new moon and declaring the start and end dates of Ramadan. The lunar calendar means that the start occurs around 11 days earlier each year. This year Ramadan will run until around the 23 May.

This is good news for many, as it is gradually inching back towards winter. I can’t imagine how tough it is having no water in 40 degrees heat with an early sunrise and late sunset! So far, the weather in Jerusalem is cooler this year than it was during Ramadan last year, which is a blessing – especially for those that work outdoors.

The Dome of the Rock

My neighbours are both Palestinian but have lived in different countries around the world. I spoke to them about what Ramadan is like for them. They both grew up in families that have always observed Ramadan, so it is a tradition for them to fast.

The most religious members of their families will observe all prayer times and aim to read the entire Quran during Ramadan. They told me that as children they would look forward to the special foods, the decorations, the relatives visiting, and the buzz of excitement around their neighbourhoods. Ramadan is followed by the celebration of Eid Al Fitr and this is similar to Christmas with presents for children and special sweets.

Special sweets are enjoyed during Ramadan

Surprisingly, hunger doesn’t sound like the hardest part of Ramadan, but tiredness! They both tell me that Ramadan ‘messes up your sleep schedule’. Normally there are many relatives to visit and gatherings can go on into the early hours. Sleep is short lived, with many people waking for a pre-dawn meal called ‘sahoor’, before the first prayers at around 0430.

Unsurprisingly, this year is unlike all others that have gone before. An evening curfew has been imposed in Muslim neighbourhoods to prevent people from visiting friends and relatives and accelerating the spread of corona virus. My neighbours are sad about this and say it just doesn’t feel the same to celebrate Ramadan alone.

‘The only thing I miss is coffee’ says Ahmad when asked about surviving a long day without food and water. He says that drinking a lot of liquids the night before staves off thirst during the day and it is not too bad if you are lucky to work indoors. There are many special drinks that are prepared during Ramadan to help with evening rehydration and these include date juice, carob juice and apricot juice which are high energy.  

My neighbours were enthusiastic about the benefits of observing Ramadan and said that it was ‘good for the soul’ and ‘it helps you to break your habits’.  Going without sugar, coffee and cigarettes for smokers makes it easier to reduce or give up these things after Ramadan. It was also a time to appreciate what you have, and they would be using the month to remind their kids about ‘how lucky they are’.

Usually people flock in vast numbers to worship at the Al Aqsa mosques compound which includes the Dome of the Rock. Last year the city was packed, on Fridays in particular, with coachloads of worshippers pouring in from across Palestine.

For many it was a once a year chance to visit this sacred site, with special permits issued for the occasion. It was a special sight to see crowds of people, chattering excitedly, as they passed through the Old City walls and towards the mosques.

People praying at the Al Aqsa compound – not this year!

This is only the second Ramadan I’ve observed, but it seems to me that there are a few unwritten rules for non-Muslims during Ramadan and these are:

  1. try not to eat or drink in view of others in public – easier this year than last;
  2. be sympathetic to the slightly grumpy shopkeeper if his customer service isn’t as good as usual and;
  3. be VERY careful if you happen to be driving near the end of the fasting time as drivers will be hungry and in a rush!

I have huge respect for everyone that observes Ramadan and wish you all a Ramadan Kareem!

2 thoughts on “Ramadan

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