‘Sadness in the air’ across Syria as 7th wartime Ramadan approaches

AMMAN: Muslims across Syria will begin the month-long Ramadan fast this weekend, the seventh since the start of the war.

With Islam’s holiest month approaching, Syria Direct asked five residents about their preparations for and reflections on the start of Ramadan. Their stories traverse political, geographic and socioeconomic lines—from a government employee in Damascus, to a farmer in the capital's besieged, rebel-held eastern suburbs, to a 22-year-old student in the northeast Kurdish heartland.

Despite their diverse perspectives, a common narrative shines through each of their stories: Ramadan in wartime is a shadow of a once-festive, communal experience.

“There is sadness in the air with the start of Ramadan this year,” says Abu Zainab, a 27-year-old motorcycle repairman in the rebel-encircled Idlib town of al-Fuaa. “So many families are split up right now, and what makes Ramadan so beautiful is having family together in the same place.”

A strong sense of nostalgia runs through each of the following stories, a longing not just for a time before the bombing and the displacement but also for a return of the small comforts: large family meals, Ramadan television shows, pushcarts in the streets overflowing with sweets for the holiday.

Today, there is little fanfare in the lead-up to Ramadan, the five Syrians say.

“Frankly, it’s not just Ramadan,” says Abu Mazen, 40, an employee at the Syrian Ministry of Education in Damascus. “We’ve lost our excitement for virtually every month.”

Idlib province

Khaled, 29, is preparing for his first Ramadan outside of his home in the Waer district of Homs city.

He was on one of the last bus convoys carrying opposition fighters and residents out of the long-disputed district west of Homs city last week, completing the surrender of the last pocket of rebel resistance in the city once called the "capital of the revolution."

“For the evacuated families, this Ramadan will be harder than any other year before,” he told Syria Direct on Thursday. Some 15,000 people left Waer in recent weeks under the Russian-backed evacuation agreement.

 Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

“People are starting Ramadan this year with a lump in their throats and a great pain inside them.”

For Khaled, Ramadan once meant a chance to enjoy traditional foods—licorice- and tamarind-flavored juices, jallab—a drink made with rose water, grape molasses and dates—and a traditional Homs bread he calls “Ramadan bread.”

But now internally displaced like millions of other Syrians, Khaled says there is “no longer any joy with the nearing of the holy month.”

“There is so much to worry about—those who have been displaced, those who have been detained, the destruction of the country… So no, there is no comparison with how Ramadan was before the revolution.”

Damascus

Damascus was famous for its “Ramadan spirit” before the war, says Abu Mazen, 40, an employee at the Syrian Ministry of Education in Damascus.

“Nightlife would keep going on all the way until suhour (in the early hours of the morning) with people hanging out in restaurants and coffee shops,” he recalls.

Today, however, the pre-holiday atmosphere in the nation’s capital is nowhere to be found, Abu Mazen says.

“There’s really nothing that would make you think that Ramadan is right around the corner in Damascus, no decorations, nothing,” he says.

Markets—once packed with evening shoppers—are noticeably less crowded, a result of "exorbitantly high prices" in the capital, he says.

“Ramadan hasn’t been the same since the start of the revolution.”

 A public waker, or musaharati, rouses residents for the pre-dawn Ramadan meal northeast of Damascus, July 2013. Photo courtesy of Sam Tarling/AFP/Getty Images.

Kafr Batna, East Ghouta

For the past three years, “there’s been one constant throughout our Ramadan celebrations in Ghouta: the siege,” says Anas Abu Ayman, 25, a farmer from Kafr Batna, in the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus.

The East Ghouta suburbs are made up of a dozen bombed-out towns and villages encircled by the Assad regime since 2012. Earlier this year, the regime transformed a semi-porous blockade into an airtight siege by cracking down on rebel smuggling tunnels and closing the last remaining crossing into the suburbs.

The tightening siege shut the suburbs off completely from outside food and supplies while trapping an estimated 400,000 residents within the encircled pocket.

“Dining tables used to be overflowing with Levantine food,” Abu Ayman tells Syria Direct. “Today, you’re going to find usually just one type of food on a table, and it was most likely prepared and distributed by a relief organization.”

Food may be in short supply and electricity cutoffs mean that watching Ramadan soap operas is no longer possible, but there are still small holiday traditions, he says.

“You’ll find pushcarts going through the streets offering drinks with tamarind and licorice and other Ramadan treats,” says Abu Ayman. “People are trying to stay happy and to keep the Ramadan spirit alive.”  

Al-Fuaa, Idlib province

Residents in the rebel-encircled, pro-regime town of al-Fuaa of Idlib province are preparing to celebrate Ramadan this weekend amid an ongoing evacuation process.

The deal, reportedly brokered in March by Qatar and Iran, will see 20,000 residents of al-Fuaa and Kufraya in Idlib province leave the towns, which will fall under rebel control, in exchange for residents and fighters in rebel-held areas in Outer Damascus and south of the capital, which will revert to regime control.

In April, an unclaimed car bombing outside Aleppo city killed at least 120 evacuees from the two rebel-blockaded towns in Idlib province, as residents from al-Fuaa and Kufraya continue to search for information on family members who went missing during the explosion.

 Syrians shop in regime-held Damascus before breaking their Ramadan fast, June 2016. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.
 
“Things are actually quite normal here, but by that I mean there’s no special Ramadan atmosphere,” Abu Zainab, 27, a motorcycle repairman in al-Fuaa, tells Syria Direct. “The people of al-Fuaa are too preoccupied at the moment with other matters like the evacuation and the people who are still missing.”

“So many families are split up right now, and what makes Ramadan so beautiful is having family together in the same place.”

Qamishli, Al-Hasakah

In the northeastern reaches of Syria’s Kurdish-controlled territory, Rosa Masoud says this Ramadan is “really no different” from previous years.

"Despite the high prices, people still go out and buy what they need so that they can celebrate Ramadan as they’d like,” the 22-year-old student from Qamishli tells Syria Direct.

“It used to be nicer, when we still had water and electricity and could buy food at reasonable prices,” she continues. “Everybody was still together then, but now so many people have left."

But still the small traditions have continued throughout the war.

“Fathers give guidance to their children through prayer, fasting and reading from the Quran, mothers prepare the suhour where all the family eats together and together, we listen to the call of the maghreb prayers to know that the evening has started.”

“Not to mention the fact that we all watch Ramadan soap operas.”

 

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Justin Schuster

Justin was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. He received his BA from Yale University with a double major in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. While at Yale, he served as the Editor-in-Chief of the political journal, The Politic. His previous work and research in the Middle East includes time spent in Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, and the West Bank.