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Middle East Kavitha Dispatch

The Facts of Fasts
December 22, 1999

It was 3:45 PM, Friday afternoon and already everything was closing up. Jasmine and I were wandering through the streets of Old Jerusalem and had lost track of time. "Oh no! We better hurry and buy some fruits and vegetables, we might not find anything to eat at all tomorrow!" I exclaimed. As soon as the sun sets on Friday evening, most businesses in Israel close down, for that is when Jewish people observe the Sabbath (or Shabat as it is called here). Buses, restaurants, cafes, stores, laundromats, offices... you name it - it's closed. Even the trendy, bustling street Kevin lives on, Schenken Street (Tel Aviv's version of Melrose Place), becomes a ghost-town on Friday evening. Shabat is a time for rest... people don't work or drive. Shabat technically ends on Saturday evening, but most businesses stay closed until Sunday morning.

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Jasmine and I had just arrived in Jerusalem. After checking our bags in at a hostel we set out with intentions of buying food so we wouldn't go hungry on Saturday, but instead we got caught up in the wonder of Old Jerusalem. We wandered through the cobblestone streets, past historic religious sites in disbelief -- we've read about these places all our lives, and now we're actually here! The winding narrow streets of Old Jerusalem are almost impossible to navigate, so within minutes we were lost. Everything was so beautiful and rich with history though, it didn't matter much to us. Just like that saying "You can't be lost if you don't care where you are." But soon enough we awoke from our entranced state. The once crowded neighborhood was now almost empty... even some of the touristy cafes were starting to close up. We asked an old man on the street where we could buy some fruits and vegetables. He shrugged stating, "You're a bit late. If you must you can always go by the Damascus Gate to find things, but I would rather starve than deal with that mess!" With that said, he walked the other way.

Vocabulary Box

Sabbath - religious rest day appointed for Jews on the last day of the week
navigate - manage or direct course of
perplexed - bewildered, puzzled, complicated
pilgrimage - journey to sacred place
revered - regard with deep and affectionate, or religious, respect
Jasmine and I were a bit perplexed by his statement, but we immediately turned and headed towards the Damascus Gate... driven by hunger and intrigue. As we walked down the sloping hill from the Christian quarter, we began to hear the noise of crowds and shopping. "Of course things are still open! This is a city shared between Jews, Christians, and Muslims!" I realized. "What we can't find open in the Jewish quarter, there's surely something available in the Muslim quarter!"

Sure enough things were open. The market was busier than anything I had ever seen before. Before we knew what was happening, Jasmine and I were caught in a slow moving mob... people pushing on all sides to get to one store or another. "Maybe it's just because I'm hungry... but does every single shop seem to be selling food?" I asked.

"No you're definitely not seeing things!" Jasmine reassured. "There's food everywhere!"

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Vendors sell heaps of yummy food for breaking the fast!

There were full shops devoted to making pancakes... pouring batter on the huge grill... stacking them high, and selling steaming bundles by the hundreds. The sweet shops were weighing out parcels of syrupy, gooey Arabic treats and pastries of filo dough, while the bakeries were churning out piping hot flat breads, cookies and cakes. There were street vendors frying enormous falafels, and stands selling large containers of fresh humus and spicy salsas. Crowds gathered around every store front, pushing to be the next to get their tantalizing treats. From the amounts people were buying and the urgency with which they fought to get it, you would think these people had never seen food before. Everything looked and smelled so good, we couldn't decide what we wanted, much less get to any of it through the swarms of people.

It took Jasmine and me half an hour to move just one block. By the time we finally got through the Damascus Gate and on to the noisy Sultan Suleyman Street it was getting dark. "That was insane! To think the desolate streets of the Jewish quarter could be so close to all that! When we returned to our hostel, the owners were sitting down to a huge meal. It was only then that we finally realized that it was Ramadan!

Ramadan is the month long fast that Muslims partake in to fulfill the fourth pillar of Islam. Fasting for a month?! Isn't that dangerous?! Well it's not as bad as it sounds, during this ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. While the sun is up, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual intercourse. Do you think you could do that? Would you even want to?

Surprisingly, all of my Muslim friends that I have met throughout West Africa, Egypt and here actually enjoy Ramadan and look forward to it all year. Yeah, I couldn't believe it myself when I first heard - why would anyone look forward to not being able to eat or drink all day? No breakfast, no fruit, no coffee, not even water is allowed to pass through your mouth.

It seems strange, but Ramadan is a special month for those that follow it. During this month, families come together and special pilgrimages are made. The purpose of fasting is to bring people closer to God, and extra recitations of the Qur'an are encouraged. How can not eating bring someone closer to God, you might ask? Well, for one thing the great discipline that is required to observe Ramadan keeps spirituality in mind much more than usual during one's daily routine. Our friend Peter happens to be visiting from San Francisco now too, and even though he's not Muslim, he has decided to partake in the fast to see what it is like. He had a hard time the first couple of days, but now he rather enjoys it too.

"I never realized how much my days are centered around eating or cooking. Now I have much more time to read, and in a strange way I actually have and see things since I'm not weighed down and tired the way you get after a big lunch. My mind seems clearer as well."

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Ramadan also has the effect of bringing people together. Since everybody is sharing this challenging time together, there is an increased sense of community among the Muslims. But the main reason people look forward to Ramadan is of course the iftar (the breaking of the fast)! Fasting during the daylight hours gives people a reason to feast and celebrate in the night.

In Egypt, my friends told me about the huge parties they have at night. Restaurants set up tables and lights outside in the streets to accommodate the huge crowds that come to enjoy breaking the fast together. Here in Jerusalem though, the crowds hit the streets in the late afternoons, rushing through the markets to buy food to bring home and feast with their families.

Even though I'm not fasting, I've enjoyed walking with Peter through the market, to pick out the goodies he'll break his fast with. I've also enjoyed the holiday feeling. In addition to special delicacies made for this time of year, the streets are lit up with colorful lights. How lucky are we? Last week was Hanukkah, and now Ramadan will lead us right up to Christmas then New Years! So many people are gathering in Jerusalem for this incredible time... Jews who have just finished celebrating their festival of lights, and Christians awaiting the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus in nearby Bethlehem. Muslims that can make the journey during Ramadan come because the Dome of the Rock mosque in Old Jerusalem is the third holiest sight in the Islamic tradition. It is revered as the spot where the Prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. On Friday they estimate that about 200,000 people came to pray at the Dome of the Rock... no wonder Jasmine and I had such a hard time getting through the crowded streets! They are expecting almost twice that many for the last Friday of Ramadan... we'll have to remember to buy our groceries early that day!

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Even though Ramadan is not a public holiday, it does affect business hours. People stay up late eating, and some even wake up at around 4:00AM to eat a meal before the sun rises. This makes people a bit tired, and napping during the day is not uncommon. Thus business hours are slightly erratic, but that's no problem here in Jerusalem! Just as the Muslim quarter came to our rescue during Shabat, the Jewish and Christian quarters can be relied on whenever the markets in the Muslim section are closed. There are advantages of such diversity sharing such a small space! As the countdown to the Millennium proceeds, we're all excited and amazed to be learning from and celebrating with all these different cultures here in Jerusalem...

Whatever you're celebrating whether it be Ramadan, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Christmas, New Years or just being out of school... I hope you have a happy and safe holiday. See you next year (in shah Allah)!

- Kavitha

p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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