For Arab-Israelis, nothing is different in Ramadan

Many Muslims spend more time at the mosque than in other months of the year and they dress more conservatively.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Abu Nassar Hinnawi restaurant in the Israeli city of Jaffa. (Kaja Bouman)
Business as usual. Abu Nassar Hinnawi restaurant in the Israeli city of Jaffa. (Kaja Bouman)

JAFFA - In the Israeli city of Jaffa, almost 16,000 Arabs are fasting for Ramadan but, at first sight, there is little sign of that.

Israel is no China, which forces Uyghur children and parents to abstain from fasting during Ramadan, but Israel is still a Jewish state. This means it is hard to find pepperoni pizza or a cheeseburger in Jerusalem and getting to Tel Aviv or any other city from sundown Friday and Saturday evening by regular public transportation is simply impossible.

This also means that during Ramadan, despite Israel’s Arab population of 1.6 million, everything stays the same. As opposed to Arab countries in the region, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, where, aside from hotels and expat restaurants, all eating venues are closed during the day and even working hours are adjusted. “It doesn’t matter,” said restaurant owner Nassar Nassar, 56. “You live life as it is and you make the best of it.”

It’s still early when Nassar sat down with a glass of lemonade at one of the tables in the outside area of his restaurant, Abu Nassar Hinnawi, in Jaffa. The sun is low above the ocean near the restaurant, which shows it’s not time to end the fast. Nassar is not fasting this year. “I used to fast but it depends on my mood,” he explained.

Aside from a handful of staff members and five cats at the entrance waiting for guests to break their fast so they can break theirs with leftovers, no one is present in the restaurant.

“During Ramadan, there are always fewer people during the day,” said Nassar. Jaffa is the southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv-Yafo. Though most of the people living in Jaffa nowadays are Jewish, Jaffa is still known for its large Arab population.

Nassar is a father of four and has lived in Jaffa all his life. He opened his restaurant next to Givat Alia Beach 32 years ago and has been serving traditional Arab food since.

“It’s always been the same during Ramadan,” he said. “The first ten days people stay at home but later on in the month they come here in large groups; entire families will come here to break the fast.”

Nassar said some days during Ramadan are busier than usual and he sometimes serves up to 150 people in one night.

Like most Arab restaurants in Jaffa, Nassar has never adjusted the opening hours of his restaurant during Ramadan because he wants to keep serving his Jewish customers and tourists. “Most of my customers are Jews. At my restaurant you get a lot of good, fresh food for a decent price. Jews know a good deal when they see one,” he joked.

The restaurant owner mentioned that it can be strange to be in a Jewish state during Ramadan but he also says it has its advantages. “We don’t have any crazy laws here,” he said, referring to those in some Arab nations where people can be fined for eating in public during Ramadan.

The situation in Israel is likened to that in Western countries, such as the United States or those in Europe. Most Muslims in those parts of the world are used to having others around them who are not observing Ramadan and they don’t work shorter hours, as is the case in certain Arab countries.

Half an hour later, the call to prayer of the mosque next door starts. The sun has disappeared behind the dark waves of the sea and the sky is a deep pink. Soon Muslims will start heading to the mosque.

Many Muslims spend more time at the mosque than in other months of the year and they dress more conservatively. Both are ways to disconnect themselves from worldly pleasures and to focus on the prayers.

“They spend a long time in the mosque but after they will eat. Hopefully here,” Nassar said.