Ramadan in the Arab World: A Month of Faith, Food, and Festivities

The holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, is a cherished time for Muslims worldwide, including in the Arab world. As Ramadan approaches, the streets of  come alive with the melodious tunes of iconic songs like “رَمَضَان جَانَا”- “Here comes Ramadan” “وَحَوِي يَا وَحَوِي إيّاحَة” – which originated from old Egyptian words meaning “Welcome the moon”,  and “مَرْحَبْ شَهْر الصُومْ” – “Welcome the month of fasting” and “رَمَضَانْ هَل هِلَالُه” “Ramadan’s crescent moon appeared”. These songs have been particularly woven into the Arab World’s culture for decades, welcoming the blessed month. In Morocco, the whole festive period before, during and after Ramadan is called “عْواشْرْ مْبْرُوكَة”. With that said, let’s introduce a list of interesting things to know about Ramadan.

Fasting and Feasting:

Ramadan is a month of fasting from dawn to sunset, with the day beginning with the pre-dawn meal called “سُحُور” The call to prayer at dawn (أَذَانْ الفَجْر) marks the start of the fast, which continues until the call to prayer at sunset (أَذَان المَغْرِب) signaling the joyous Iftar meal, a time for feasting and celebration.

Illuminating Lanterns and Decorations:

One of the most distinctive signs of Ramadan’s arrival is the vibrant decorations adorning streets, balconies, homes, offices, and even businesses, symbolizing people’s joy and anticipation for the holy month. The iconic Ramadan lanterns, known as “فَوَانِيس”, grace every corner, illuminating the night. These lanterns are rooted in tradition and are believed to have originated during the Fatimid era when they were used to light up Cairo’s streets during Ramadan nights.

Respect for Fasting:

During daylight hours, some non-fasting individuals in the Middle East, for example from the large Christian minority in some countries, also refrain from eating or drinking in public, respecting the sanctity of the month and the feelings of those fasting. This tradition highlights the solidarity and understanding among people from different religions and beliefs during Ramadan.

The Cannon’s Roar:

A unique Ramadan tradition in the Arab world is the firing of a cannon “مَدْفَعْ الإِفْطَارْ”, signaling the time for Iftar. Although this practice originated in Egypt during the reign of Muhammad Ali Pasha, today, the cannon’s boom is often broadcast on television around the Arab World as a reminder of this historical custom.

Suhour Drummers:

One of the Ramadan basics in the Middle East is the “المِسَحَّرَاتِي” (known in Morocco as الطَّبّال) who traditionally roam the streets during the predawn hours, beating their drums and singing chants like: “إصْحَى يَا نَايِم، وَحِّد الدَّايِم” – “Wake up, you sleepyheads!”, “Ramadan Kareem” and “قُومُو عَلَى سْحُورْكُم” “Get up to have your Suhour meal”  to wake people up in time for their Suhour meals. It’s a lively and cherished part of the Ramadan experience.

Reconciliation

As Ramadan is a sacred month, people strive to reconcile and reestablish communication with those they have disagreements with, seeking forgiveness, especially among relatives.

Ramadan Series:

Ramadan isn’t just about fasting; it’s also a season of entertainment. Many Arabs look forward to the release of special TV series, often consisting of 30 episodes spanning the whole month, to enjoy after Iftar. These series captivate audiences, providing a daily dose of drama, comedy, and intrigue.

The Soft Bread

This bread is popular during Ramadan in Syria. It is prepared by making the dough at night, shaping it, and letting it dry before frying it the next day. The simple ingredients of this bread are flour, water, and baking powder. In the past, it was eaten with a cup of tea, but today, it is covered with date syrup before being sold. “النَاْعِمْ” is a tasty treat currently found in Egypt and Lebanon, as well as in places where Syrians live.

The Generosity of العُزُومَاتْ:

Throughout Ramadan, Muslim families embody the spirit of sharing. Many host gatherings to break their fast with family and friends, strengthening bonds and expressing their generosity. These gatherings are an important hallmark of the first week of Ramadan and are considered a vital part of Ramadan traditions and customs.

Yameesh Ramadan:

Yameesh يَامِيشْ, a term used for a variety of dried fruits and nuts, is a popular snack during Ramadan. Almonds, apricots, walnuts, raisins, coconut, dried apricots, figs, and dates are some of the favorites that provide sustenance during the long fasting hours.

Refreshing Ramadan Beverages:

Ramadan is famous for its diverse array of beverages that help quench the thirst after a day of fasting. Popular choices include خُشَاف dried fruit compote, سُوبيا coconut milkshake, تَمْر هِنْدِي tamarind Juice, قَمَرْ الدِّين dried apricote juice, كَرْكَدِيه roselle, خَرُّوب carob juice, جَلَّاب Juice made from grape syrup, sugar, and water,عِرْقْ سُوْسْ Juice made from ground licorice roots ( الجَلَّاب and عِرْقْ السُوْسْ are two famous drinks particularly popular in the Levant), and a wide selection of fresh fruit juices.

Ramadan Desserts:

The highlight of many Ramadan meals in the Arab World is the delectable dessert spread. Favorites like “كُنَافَة,” “قَطَايِف” and “بَقْلاوَة” and “مَعْرْوك” grace the dining tables, while sweet shops take pride in creating new and innovative dessert variations for people to enjoy. In Morocco, the most common dessert in Ramadan is “الشّبّاكِية”, a dessert made with dough and honey.

Free Iftar Meals مَوائِد الرَحْمَن:

Another beautiful aspect of Ramadan is the sense of community and charity. Many Muslims prepare food, drinks, and deserts for those in need. It’s not unusual during Ramadan to find dining tables prepared in the streets for those in need to sit down and break their fast. Also, if you’re running late for Iftar, you will find people in the streets handing out free food to you so you can break your fast till you get home. These charitable traditions help those less fortunate to partake in the joy of Ramadan.

Food sharing “السِّكْبة”

It’s an age-old and very common tradition in Syria to send a portion of Iftar food, along with the children, to neighbors as a form of sharing, just half an hour before the Maghrib (sunset) call to prayer.

The green and white food

In Palestine, it is customary to cook green dishes (to welcome prosperous green days) such as “مُلُوْخِيّة”, or “white dishes”, dishes with cooked yogurt (to herald joyous white days of Ramadan) like “مَنْسَفْ” on the first days of Ramadan. In Syria and Jordan, it’s common to prepare white dishes like “شَاكْرِيّة” and “مَنْسَفْ” during the initial days of Ramadan.

Zakat and giveaways:

Ramadan is a time of heightened charitable giving. People engage in acts of kindness by giving الزَكَاة, an obligatory charity, and الصَدَقَة, voluntary acts of goodwill, as a way to seek spiritual fulfillment and closeness to God.

Taraweeh Prayers and Quran Recitation:

After the Iftar meal, many Muslims head to the mosques to perform صَلاة التَرَاوِيحْ, special nightly prayers held exclusively during Ramadan. Additionally, devout Muslims seize the opportunity to read or complete the recitation of the entire Quran during the month. Moreover, some people spend the last ten days of Ramadan in mosques in what’s called إِعْتِكَافْ which literally means: A long stay at the mosque. During this time they abstain from all physical matters and focus solely on their spiritual side, praying and reading the Quran. It is done to follow the example of the Prophet Muhammad (سُنَّة) who did the same thing. This marks the importance of Ramadan in every Muslim’s spiritual life.

Nightlife After Iftar:

Streets across the region transform as day turns to night. After the sunset call to prayer, people flood the streets for evening strolls, socializing, and shopping. Restaurants, cafes, and shops buzz with activity well into the early hours of the morning.

Garagee’an, Ramadan’s ‘trick or treat’?

In many of the Eastern Arabian countries (Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq) there is a tradition called Garagee’an or Gergaoon قرقاعون where children are dressed in traditional clothes and they go knocking on their neighbors’ doors asking for treats like candies and nuts. The name is said to have originated from the words قَرْع or قَرْقَعَة which means knocking or clanking (the sound of children hitting their gift baskets to declare their presence). This tradition is of Shiite origins and is said to mark the birth of Al Hassan the son of Ali (the Prophet’s cousin) on the 15th of Ramadan.

Traditional Greetings:

Throughout Ramadan, you’ll often hear greetings and well-wishes exchanged among people, such as “كُلّ سَنَة وِانْتَ طَيِّبْ” (May every year find you in good health), “رَمَضَانْ كَرِيمْ” (Generous Ramadan), and the customary response “الله أَكْرَمْ” (May God be more generous). Additionally, phrases like “صَوْمًا مَقْبُولًا وَإِفْطَارًا شَهِيًّا” (May your fast be accepted and your Iftar enjoyable) reflect the spirit of the season. During fasting hours, if tension builds up between people and a fight is about to start you will hear people say “صَلًُوا عَ النَّبِي يا جَماعَة، إنْتُو صَايْمِين” , then the tension subsides quickly with people saying “اللَّهُمَّ إنِّي صَائِمْ” (O God, I am fasting) to remind themselves of their commitment to fasting.

Conclusion:

For Arab Muslims, the importance of Ramadan can not be overstated as a time of spiritual reflection, lovely family gatherings,  delicious feasting, and unique Ramadan traditions and customs. The streets come alive with the sights and sounds of this holy month, making it a special and heartwarming time to be in the region, regardless of your faith. Ramadan Kareem!

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