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Arab Israelis prepare for subdued Ramadan

Ramadan is just a few days away, but in Arab Israeli towns and villages there is no holiday spirit in the air.
People walk under lights decorating the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City on April 19, 2020, as Muslims around the world prepare for the holy Muslim month of Ramadan amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP) (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images)

Stay at home, stay alive” says an information campaign run by Israel’s Ministry of Health to prepare the country’s Muslim community for the month of Ramadan, which begins April 23. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, observed by Muslims all around the world, including Israel’s 1.6 Muslim citizens. Throughout this month, Muslims refrain from eating, drinking and smoking from sunrise to sunset. Many observant Muslims get together hours before the fast begins for a pre-dawn suhur meal and a chance to eat one last time before sunrise. Some Arab towns and villages still follow the maseharati tradition, in which a designated person wanders the streets and alleyways to wake people up for this meal. While the custom is slowly disappearing from Israel’s towns and villages, it still remains common throughout much of the Arab world.

Everyone realizes that Ramadan 2020 is going to be different from any other Ramadan. During this month, night becomes day and day becomes night. Extended families gather together to break their fast with a series of rituals including the iftar meal with all sorts of sweets, taraweeh prayers in the mosques and special events lasting until dawn. Under normal circumstances, it is even customary to do the daily shopping at night. This year, however, as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the holiday will be spent largely at home. Saudi Arabia recently announced that it would suspend the taraweeh prayers in its mosques and asked people to recite them at home instead. 

Israel’s Muslim community is following suit. “We will not be holding the taraweeh prayers this year,” the imam of a mosque in the town of Baqa al-Gharbiyye told Al-Monitor. “This is going to be a different kind of Ramadan. Unfortunately, we will not see people paying visits to their family, nor will we see large iftar meals. Everyone will be sitting at home instead. This is not the Ramadan that we are used to. It is not the Ramadan that we know.”

There is no doubt that Ramadan in the shadow of the pandemic poses an enormous challenge to the authorities. Everyone is banging their heads against the wall, trying to figure out how to get people to avoid large gatherings for meals, shopping and other traditional ways of celebrating the occasion. “We will mark Ramadan differently this year. We will stay at home and celebrate it with the nuclear family living at home with us. We don’t want to let the coronavirus defeat us because we want to celebrate Ramadan again next year. We therefore call on everyone to follow the special directives of the Ministry of Health for the month of Ramadan,” said Dr. Zahi Said, the Health Ministry’s spokesperson to the Arab community in a conversation with Al-Monitor.

Some people say this will be a “sad” Ramadan, and not the happy occasion we're used to. People are having a hard time with the idea that they will not be able to meet up with their relatives, as they used to do. This is especially apparent in the Arab villages. Ramadan is just days away, and there is no Ramadan spirit in the air. There are no special lights in the streets and not even the mosques have been decorated. People have come to terms with the fact that COVID-19 has changed the rules of the game.

For many years, Arab Israeli towns held annual “Ramadan markets” on the nights of Ramadan, an idea borrowed from traditional Christmas markets. The biggest of them, based in the town of Taibeh, has been cancelled this year. “Every year, the city of Taibeh has hosted the Ramadan market, a festival of culture and ritual, attended by tens of thousands of people from here and elsewhere. The event will not take place this year. There can be no doubt that Ramadan will be very different this year. On this holy month, we will pray to God that this plague passes,” Taibeh’s mayor, attorney Shuaa Mansour, told Al-Monitor.

Mahmoud Boqaee, head of the Sha’ab local council in the north, explained, “My colleagues, the heads of the local authorities and myself have been hard at work on a plan to deal with the month of Ramadan, given the outbreak of the coronavirus. Some of the ideas raised, and which I personally encourage, include preparing sweets at home, or having bakeries and candy stores deliver them to homes, in order to avoid crowding in the stores. Similarly, we suggest that the taraweeh prayers held at home be broadcast by the media or social networks.”

Ramadan features all sorts of special candies and pastries, the most famous of them being qatayef. Under normal circumstances, people rush to the sweetshops and stock up in the hours leading up to the iftar meal. But all this has changed this year. Samara Brothers Sweets, one of the best-known sweetshops among Arab Israelis, shared their deliberations about what to do as a result of COVID-19. Muhammad Samara, who manages the shop in the town of Tira, told Al-Monitor, “Middle Eastern sweets such as kanafe, qatayef and baklava are essential ingredients of the iftar meal. The shops prepare well in advance for this month, because sales go up dramatically. This year, as a result of the coronavirus and Ministry of Health directives, we are instructed to take steps to ensure that shops are not overcrowded, especially in the hour leading up to the iftar. We will follow these instructions and adapt so that we can continue to serve our customers. What is certain is that Ramadan will be different this year in every imaginable way.”

The pandemic has paralyzed the global economy and Israel, where numerous businesses are suffering, is no exception. Poverty in Israel has only gotten worse as a result of COVID-19. Fortunately, quite a few civil and religious organizations have been reaching out to the needy, especially now, during the holiday season. One of the most prominent of these groups is the Islamic Movement, which warns that many more people have fallen into poverty amid the pandemic.

A report by Middle East analyst Eran Singer of the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation shows that many more people are in need. Nevertheless, Knesset member Waleed Taha of the Islamic Movement offered to help the ultra-Orthodox Jewish residents of Bnei Brak as they prepared for their Passover celebrations. Perhaps this is what is great about Ramadan, a month devoted to helping others regardless of race, religion or gender.

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