Ramadan and Eid

On the whole I enjoyed Ramadan, probably partly because after hitting new highs right at the beginning the weather started cooling. Needless to say what had been unbelievably hot before the heats zenith felt like a relief after it had peaked. One day we went up the mountain to watch the sun setting and the city light up. As evening approached the streets started emptying and an unbelievable silence embraced the city. Gradually the taxis stopped honking, the street sellers stopped hawking their wares and instead of Damascus’ constant racket an expectant, total silence kept us company as we sat with a bottle of wine identifying landmarks. Gradually the green lights of the minarets became more prominent against the pinkening sky. Then the azen started from one of them, the cannon rang out twice, and as the call to prayer spread from minaret to minaret and the sound of knives and forks against china drifted across from a nearby restaurant. We watched the city as the mosques faded out again leaving only the sound of cutlery to disturb the silence.

Last week though it was eid and fireworks all round. During Ramadan if you strolled across the piazza In front of the Umayyad mosque as dusk fell you’d see the mulberry juice seller congratulating the men leaving the mosque and families picnicking rather than waiting to go home to eat. It was transformed for Eid. Men rented out go-carts, the youth competed to see who could send a flying pig the most times round a set of sharply inclined vertical rails (I was congratulated on Habibies fine performance, he almost managed 3 revolutions). Guys with two AA batteries and a tennis ball challenged passers by to a game of skittles (It turns out the is a reason bowling lanes are traditionally not cobbled) and women browsed for second hand clothes. Practically every spare bit of space in the city had a swing boat erected on it for the children, but the refugee camp by my flats surpassed the lot and transformed the wasteland by the road into a man powered fair ground. It was really cool. Young Palestinian men swung Ferris Wheels and Merry-go-Rounds, pushed Swing Boats and drove kids around on the horses and carts that usually sell vegetables. Embarrassingly they all wanted to give Habib and me free goes, because we are not Syrian or refugees. Not being refugees of course the cost of a go on the rides would have been negligible for us.

 

Half way through eid Habibi returned to the UK and I moved into The Fixer and U’s incredibly cheap flat. Its been quite good fun, The Fixer is pretty much nocturnal giving him an edge in the cockroach killing competition. We’ve all overlapped at twice daily breakfast/dinner parties, but now he’s leaving Syria, so U and I can get a drink in the middle of the night secure in the knowledge that no one’ll be lurking, trying to send us out to buy beer. I’ll miss it.

 

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رمضان كريم

Imagine a culture that runs on sweet tea and nicotine. Imagine a society where nothing actually works, where people being nice to each other is what keeps the buses on the roads, the bureaucracy workable, which, when peoples employers routinely pay them months, sometimes a couple of years in arrears, keeps the vegetables being sold. Place this society in a country where 40 degrees is pretty standard, no one can afford air con, and the electricity doesn’t work anyway. Then remove the sweet tea and the cigarettes. Apparently Summer Ramadan’s are kind of easier than winter ones because every ones to exhausted by the heat to be bad tempered

 

In Jermaanaa Ramadan is pretty much optional. There are Muslims here, but its identity is as a Druzey suburb, and the Druze don’t do Ramadan. While the Druze say their faith is a sub sect of Shia Islam, they don’t fast. They don’t go to Mecca on the hajj either; the 10 % or so who are initiated into the faith went to the tomb of Moses’ father in law in the Galilee, before Israel inconveniently started existing. They don’t pray 5 times a day, and I’m not sure what their relationship to the other 2 pillars of Islam is. If you’re thinking they don’t sound very Islamic, your not alone, the Sunna and Shia have traditionally been pretty anti Druze, forcing the latter into the mountains to avoid being persecuted.

 

Syria has this reputation for tolerance, but I’m increasingly thinking it’s a matter of mathematics. The Christians are absolutely convinced that if they were given the chance the Sunna would all like to live in Saudi Arabia. In my experience the Sunna (other than the Kurds, who have other concerns) are quite proud of their tolerance of the Christians, who Sunna kind of feel are so off the true path that there’s no hope for them, but that they’re sweet and fluffy doing their own thing. However in my experience they on the whole find the Shia both infuriating and frustrating. You know when you watch someone cooking, and you look and think ‘they are making that so much harder than it needs to be’? But you know they won’t appreciate being told how they could do it better. I think this is how the Sunna feel about the Shia. That they’re so close, yet when it comes down to it just wrong. And unlike me watching people cooking for me, the Sunna don’t recognise that giving advice is A) pointless B) annoying. The Druze and Alawi are even worse, having been Muslims, been right, stopped and gave up the true path for hippy blends of neo-Platonism, reincarnation and Islam! For their part the Druze, like the Christians, know that they’re culturally superior. Actually, they know they’re superior, full stop.

 

Anyway the minorities are quite up for annoying the Sunna, if they think they can get away with it. In Jermanna a lot of the takeaways and restaurants are open throughout the day. As the iftitah approaches and I go to work others start opening to brake the fast, their staff (aka the owners family) casting annoyed, ‘fuck you’ looks at the staff of restaurants who’ve been open all day, who where self satisfied, fuck you expressions. It’s actually quite nice, Jermannas usually gridlocked in the evenings, but enough people are sat at home waiting to eat to allow traffic to move. The rest of the city’s deserted in the evening, apart from a few people rushing home and some stoical, desperate, or non fasting Taxi driver’s sharking for fares. I can lean out my window and watch the Palestinians gathered around their ‘ftora,’ which usually means breakfast, waiting for the cannon that signals at last its time to eat.

 

But while in Jermanna Ramadan’s biggest impact on my life that through a haze between asleep and awake I wonder if the minaret seams to be saying different things, and possibly more of them, is it louder and is someone drumming, sometimes I have to venture into Sham proper. Today (I say ‘today,’ I mean literally a month ago today. This should all be in the past) I left my house to extend my visa at 10AM. It was gone 4 by the time I retuned. (A vital bit of paper had expired but I couldn’t get a new one before my iqama expired. the eventual solution: photocopy the old one and submit that.) The office is in Roknadeen, or ‘the corner of religion.’ The first time I went there a friend gave me directions. ‘Get of the servicee when monaqbat (meaning women who veil, from niqb) out number mohajibat (from hijab), and follow the Iraqis.’ Surprisingly good advice.

 

My Christian friends fast from midnight to midday for 15 days before Christmas and Easter, and don’t eat any meat for the whole 15 days. They argue that this is a lot harder than the Muslim version, where everyone gets together and stuffs their faces, and are not at all impressed by the western, no chocolate approach. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Skipping breakfast is nothing, nothing compared to hours in the Syrian summer without water. Everyone in the (air con free) passport office replied ‘hot, thirsty, and dying for a fag’ when asked ‘how are you.’ It also turns out that without overflowing ashtrays acting as air fresheners the whole passport office stinks of piss. The streets were pretty dead (doing nothing is a pretty popular Ramadan survival method. My friends teaching hours have pretty much halved.) But not so dead that I felt I could actually drink. I have never been so thirsty in my life, though actually that wasn’t the worst of it. I really do not know how people like the guys from the jowazat survive Ramadan. My vision went funny and the backs of my eyeballs hurt, my body felt incredibly light and my mouth ‘kinda glued itself together. I also threw up that night’s dinner. Coincidence, I think not.

 

Any way, it was miserable, but I’m beginning to think that Ramadan is proof of the Qurans divine origin. To paraphrase Hunter S Thompson you’d have to be crazy on acid to think inventing it was a good idea.