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The Ramadan guide for the curious Israeli

Most Israeli Jews know next to nothing about their Palestinian neighbors. Here are a few pro-tips for the holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinian worshippers pray inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, June 19, 2015. (Activestills.org)

Palestinian worshippers pray inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during the first Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, June 19, 2015. (Activestills.org)

And so it begins. Ramadan, the month of fasting in Islam, in which Muslims are made to fast from sunrise until sunset for 29-30 straight days, after which they celebrate three days of the Al-Fitr holiday.

For those who are fasting, including myself, I wish you an easy fast and hope that it passes quickly and without unnecessary heat waves. This month is difficult enough, so I hope the weather doesn’t become Islamophobic.

And now for all of my Jewish neighbors who get excited over one Yom Kippur fast a year, it is important for me as a Muslim to share our experiences with you and clarify a few things. By the way, I have no complaints for those who do not know the ins and outs of Ramadan, since Israelis ignore Muslims as a result of the policy of making Palestinian invisible, especially in the public sphere.

Let’s start off by dispelling the notion that this is a month of vacation. Arabs continue to work — because they must — especially the workers who cannot allow themselves to take a month off. Expenditures are usually double the average month, since the food we make is upgraded, and there is not a single house that does not enjoy cooking and eating extravagant quantities of food.

Our sugar and meat consumption grows exponentially. The entire process of charging our batteries lasts all night in preparation for the following day’s fast. We can see the results in our waists for many months after.

‘You can’t even drink water?’

If you’re working around those who are fasting, please be aware of our soft spot for coffee, espresso or even morning tea. Do not enter the office with your mug and spread the smell before leaving the room in embarrassment. This is torture for the worker who went to sleep at 2 a.m. and woke up without coffee. So please, do us a favor and keep your discussions of food to a minimum.

Psychologically speaking, a person who fasts must pretend that she or he are totally fine (ie. not dying of hunger or thirst) in order to strengthen their willpower. In fact, however, the first few days are very difficult, and include headaches, nausea, weakness, and a lack of concentration (we are not allowed to take pills). My friends, do not offer me to “drink something,” and please do not say things such as “Oh, you can’t drink water either? Wow, how do you do it? Any liquids? Something? Nothing?” Yes, my friends, we cannot drink or eat or smoke, period. And believe me when I say that I know the importance of liquids.

Israeli and Palestinian activists play in the water with Palestinian kids from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, at the beach in Jaffa during the holy month of Ramadan, August 4, 2013.  (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Israeli and Palestinian activists play in the water with Palestinian kids from the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh, at the beach in Jaffa during the holy month of Ramadan, August 4, 2013. (photo: Oren Ziv/Activestills.org)

Moreover we cannot have sexual relations during the fast. But this aspect of our lives is, thankfully, played down on a regular basis and you are not supposed to be exposed to it. So let’s go back to focusing on food and drink. Since not a single Muslim has died of fasting — but rather because he was starved to death or was killed in a war somewhere in the Arab world — Muslims will probably continue fasting every year. Think about it: a hungry person is bound to be irritable and impatient. Therefore if you have meetings and fateful decisions that need to be made together as a team, make them in the morning and not after the faster is overcome with exhaustion.

It is important for me that your feelings of identification (and I hope you have them) must not turn into pity for us. This month is full of family gatherings, lovely nights, visits, trips to restaurants, excellent satellite television, and cultural events. Suffice it to say, we are not being punished.

What do you want from Ayman?

Know this, dear readers, that during Ramadan Arabs in Israel spend a good deal of money of charity. Countless donations are given to poor families, to the sick, elderly, children, single mothers, and others as part of our attempt to strengthen solidarity with the weakest segments of our society. This in turn strengthens my belief that Ramadan is good for our society and very bad for our bank accounts.

I must let you in on another secret, my friends, since lying is not acceptable during Ramadan: not all Arabs fast. We have secular Arabs, Muslims who are less pious, and those who refuse to fast on principle. Just like there are many types of Jews. The person who published a photo of Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh eating at the Knesset cafeteria last Ramadan purposefully mislead Israelis.

It isn’t rare to find an Arab who chooses not to fast. It happens often, but there is a general atmosphere of fasting, such that even the most diehard seculars will not sit and smoke hookah in the middle of Umm al-Fahm, a city known for its strict adherence to Islam. There are places that insist on maintaining the fast, and there are others that provide a space for people who do not fast. There is a huge gulf between religious coercion and mutual respect. So decide for yourself where you are on the spectrum and act accordingly — with out patronizing or judging us. If you’re confused, your best bet is to ask the people around you what is appropriate. Nazareth is not like Haifa, which is not like Umm al-Fahm.

A month of modesty

Ramadan is a special month for many reasons. I personally have not been able to find a reason for why I fast every year. Sometimes I think it is due to the fact that I have fasted for the past 30 years out of habit, and so I will continue to do so this year as well. Sometimes I like the idea that I can rediscover my ability to control myself and suppress my desires. Sometimes I feel myself going through catharsis, in which I cleanse my body and focus on spirituality.

I love the intimacy of being with my family around a table of food every evening (or in other words: I love my hungry family’s dependence on the dishes I cook), and I sometimes feel that I go hungry and thirsty out of fear of punishment that I will receive on the day of judgement, just as I was taught in pre-school so many years ago. That is why I do what I was taught, and make do with the arguments around fasting that take place with my rebellious sons.

A family walks through a destroyed quarter of Al Shaaf area in Al Tuffah, east of Gaza City, March 21, 2015. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

A family walks through a destroyed quarter of Al Shaaf area in Al Tuffah, east of Gaza City, March 21, 2015. (Anne Paq/Activestills.org)

The positives outweigh the negatives. This year Syrian refugees are spread across the world, and the images of Gaza remind the Islamic world that we must be modest and give as much as we can to our hungry brothers and sisters. The events in Jerusalem have excluded the worshippers from the gates of the Old City, which has become famous for its celebrations every year, and whose merchants made their living off the thousands of visitors.

So my fellow brave Jews, do me a favor, leave the house and go find a special organized tour to one of the Arab villages or cities. Go out, enjoy, eat, and learn about what millions of your Palestinian neighbors do for an entire month. I promise it is a very nourishing experience.

Ramadan kareem!

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

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