Eid al-Fitr: A special occasion across Mideast
Beirut - Muslims across the Middle East are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, with a determination to brush away the gloom engulfing the war-plagued region and enjoy the holiday.
Although there is not much room for fun and amusement in a region with the highest number of refugees and war-displaced people, children look forward to special treats on the Eid, including gifts, new clothes and lots of maamoul — small shortbread pastries filled with dates, pistachios or walnuts — which are popular in Levantine cuisine and Gulf countries.
In Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees, Nawaf Zoubi, 12, said he was eager for the Eid day to come because a benevolent Jordanian businessman promised new clothes and toys to 100 Syrian children.
“I hope I will be one of them and my toy would be a machine gun. I will practice shooting on a photo of (Syrian President) Bashar (Assad),” joked the tall, dark-skinned boy in blue jeans.
Zaatari has grown from a desolate desert locale in northern Jordan into the country’s fourth most populated area, housing more than 80,000 Syrian refugees.
Despite the feeling of despair at being away from home, the holiday spirit is visible. On nights preceding the feast, the marketplace bustles with people buying clothes and stocking up on food for holiday meals, using UN coupons.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it has no specific activities planned for the Eid but Mohammad Arslan, who heads a sports group in Zaatari, said several football games for different ages were scheduled during the holiday.
Saleem Muthana, 62, a farmer from the restive southern province of Deraa, said his wife will bake the traditional meat-and-spinach pies on the first day of the Eid al-Fitr. “My nine sons, their wives and my 16 grandchildren as well as my brother and his family of 22 will come over for lunch,” said Muthana, while sitting in a small green space he calls his “garden” between three family caravans.
Mohammed Sultani, 49, also a farmer from Deraa, recalls with some sadness the simple joys of the feast back home. “On the first day of the Eid, we used to pray at dawn, then go visit my sisters and give their children some money to buy Eid candy,” he said.
But in Damascus, demonstrations of feast are not as visible as Syrians prepare to spend their fifth Eid in a country torn apart by civil war. The old souks of al-Hamidiyah, Syria’s main bazaar in the heart of the capital, lacked the hustle and bustle that normally preceded the Eid days before the outbreak of violence in 2011. Conflict and economic hardship caused by the plunging value of the Syrian pound have drastically reduced the purchasing power of the people who save their pennies for buying basic needs.
“Most people you see in the souk come here to spend time and stroll around, not to buy,” commented Abu Abdo, the owner of a clothes shop in al-Hamidiyah. “We also open our shops as a pastime, instead of sitting at home, and we hardly sell one piece the whole day.”
“Many come into the shop ask about the price of an item and then walk out without buying. It has become too expensive with the pound’s depreciation,” said Mohamad Issa, another shop owner.
Syria’s currency is worth one-quarter what it was in 2011. The Syrian pound, valued at 47 to the US dollar before the conflict began, dipped to more than 300 against the dollar on the black market. The official exchange rate is 260 pounds.
The feast’s spirit is also largely subdued in Egypt, where the month of Ramadan was marked by bloody terrorist attacks and rampant inflation is felt painfully by average Egyptians.
“We will not buy new clothes for the feast this year. The children will have to do with old clothes because we simply cannot afford it,” said Shaimaa Magdy, a mother of two, whose husband works as a driver. “None of my friends bought any new clothes for either themselves or their children, too.”
Magdy said she prefers to save the money for essential needs of the children, including school fees and uniforms. Egypt’s urban inflation reached 8.07% in June, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. Nonetheless, Egypt’s amusement parks, cinemas and theatres announced special programmes for the Eid. Tens of millions of people are expected to defy the political gloom that shrouds their country and converge on these places to celebrate the event as they has done every year.
The Eid traditions across the Arab world are largely similar. In Jordan, mosques are crammed for the Eid’s dawn prayers before men start family visits in a certain order: parents, sisters, then brothers and, finally, in-laws. For some, it is a time to visit the graves of loved ones.
Major cities across Jordan come to a virtual standstill with public and private offices, including banks, closed for several days. Shopping malls, movie theatres and public parks are usually crammed with holiday crowds. Nightclubs and liquor stores reopen the night of the holiday after a month-long closure during Ramadan.
Although in Lebanon nightlife does not come to a stop during Ramadan, special concerts and programmes featuring some of the nation’s top singers occur during the Eid al-Fitr, an occasion for both Muslims and Christians to celebrate.
Top hotels and nightclubs compete to offer the best-priced programmes and buffets, while summer festivals, including the famous Baalbeck International Festival, get under way with the start of the holiday. For the Eid, parents and charity organisations make extra efforts to bring smiles to the faces of children. Many associations have “Eid fairs” for orphans and unprivileged children, while families plan outings for the holiday.
“We will take the children either to the movies, to the malls or to amusement centres, after of course paying visits to relatives and friends,” commented Kamal, the father of two young girls.