Baghdad residents enjoy Ramadan against all odds
Baghdad - “It is the life that we long for… Everything looks so different in Baghdad after sunset prayers during the holy month of Ramadan.” With this statement, Abdallah Nassir, 25, summed up the festive spirit of Ramadan, which can still be seen and felt across the Iraqi capital despite rampant violence that grips the war-torn country.
Every day, following the evening fast-breaking meal, iftar, Nassir has a ritual that he observes. “I make it a point to come to the café to meet my friends, whom I hardly see on regular days [outside Ramadan] because of their many occupations,” he said. He talks while smoking a shisha in one of the coffee shops in Baghdad’s Azamiya quarter, the target of several terror attacks in recent months.
The streets, almost deserted in the last hour before iftar, suddenly become congested after evening prayers.
“I cannot describe my feeling when I see families with kids strolling around after iftar having fun and enjoying themselves, basically forgetting for a while the difficult conditions in which we are living,” Nassir added.
Residents of the capital turn out in droves to shop at Baghdad’s Azamiya market. Cafés are bustling with customers from iftar until suhur, the pre-dawn meal Muslims often take before the dawn-to-dusk fast. “They spend the whole night playing billiards, backgammon and dominos or watch special Ramadan TV series,” coffee shop owner Mohamad Samir said.
Most customers, he said, buy cool drinks to help them make it through Baghdad’s hot summer evenings. “I try to offer the widest variety of Ramadan specialties, especially qamar el din (apricot-based paste), juice and lemon sorbets, in addition to the hookah pipe that comes with different flavours of tobacco.”
Azamiya market, near the mausoleums of two revered Muslim scholars, is a popular spot at night and in the morning as well, when stalls of fresh vegetables and fruit are swarmed by people stocking up for iftar.
Oum Mohamad is a regular customer of Al-Arish restaurant during Ramadan. “This place reminds me of the good old days,” she said. “It is a blessed area… On one side, you have the tomb of Imam al-Kazim and just in front is the tomb of Abu Hanifa al-Numan.”
“Despite the sufferings and the calamities, Ramadan provides a respite. It is an opportunity for families to gather around the iftar table. It is true that many things have changed and people have acquired habits that are strange to our oriental society but I am keen on perpetuating our customs and traditions such as sharing special Ramadan dishes every day with my neighbours,” said the nostalgic 60-year-old woman.
The month-long Islamic observance is a test of willpower and especially faith. It is also meant to be a reminder for Muslims of the importance of family and what life is like for the less fortunate and the poor.
At night, many people flock to mosques across Baghdad to perform tarawih, the special Ramadan evening prayers.
Although it is a time for contemplation and showing solidarity with others, Ramadan is in a way “customised” as well. For civil society activist Asmaa Kamel, 30, “the joy of Ramadan” is best expressed and shared in assisting those in need, especially the displaced families fleeing Islamic State (ISIS) militants and the continuing fighting by Iraq’s security forces to defeat the group.
Kamel said she has spent “a most enjoyable and inspiring day” at a southern Baghdad camp where she shared iftar with the refugees. “Despite all the difficulties and trauma, most families are trying to live the Ramadan spirit hoping to go back to their homes and villages soon after liberation from ISIS,” she said.
Iraq has suffered from a devastating security vacuum since 2014, when ISIS captured the northern city of Mosul and overran large reaches of the northern and western parts of the country. According to the United Nations, more than 3.2 million people are displaced in Iraq and more than 10 million are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance.
Ramadan in Iraq is also about food — especially the wide variety of sweets, juices and pastries. “Demand for sweets shoots up during that month,” noted Kassi Ghalib, who works at a sweets shop. “Not a single home across Iraq does not have at least one kind of sweets, which are mostly appreciated during family gatherings held after tarawih evening prayers, when all members of the family get together to play games and watch Ramadan programmes.”
The sounds and smells of Ramadan fill the alleys and streets of Azamiya where the noise of the street is mixed with the echoes of prayers emitting from mosques, calling for peace, security and better days for Iraq.