The pleasures and worries of Ramadan in Tunisia

Friday 19/06/2015
A Tunisian woman buys dates on the first day of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan at the Central Market in Tunis.

Tunis - Ramadan in Tunisia is a month of religious worship but also of in­dulgence. Days before fasting begins, signs of preparations for Ramadan appear in Tunisian towns as a new dynam­ic overcomes the streets and mar­ketplaces.
Bakeries set up special sections for the season’s sweets and pas­tries. People line up in long queues in supermarkets to stock up on food products for the holy month. Oth­ers head to local shops to buy spe­cialty spices and pastries. Mosques repaint their domes and start re­citing the Quran following the Maghreb prayers.
Many families have grown appre­hensive about the month because of the added costs and the surge in prices that have made certain sea­sonal products unaffordable.
“Prices of meat and vegetables increase every year, and a lot of vendors take advantage of the crav­ings of people who are fasting to increase the prices. This leads to a mess,” says Ali, a carpenter.
“I only have two children, but I can barely make ends meet during the past years. It gets worse during Ramadan as more and more ex­penses are added. The grocery list increases as does the cost of sweets and pastries.”
Since the invention of television, Tunisians have come to anticipate the mufti announcing the appear­ance of the crescent moon and the beginning of Ramdan and the ex­changing of seasonal wishes.
The national committee for the observation of the Ramadan cres­cent moon sets up observatories in several Tunisian towns to deter­mine the beginning of the month, with some families accompanying their children to an observatory to witness the crescent’s appearance.
“The state sets up committees in different regions of the country to make sure the crescent can be seen from the 24 governorates of the country. Following the observation, the mufti announces on TV wheth­er the following day is the first day of Ramadan or not,” said Ghofran Husseini, spokesman of the Fatwa Office.
“At the end of the day, we receive reports from different regions to determine if it is the beginning of Ramadan or not. We often also monitor the results in other coun­tries with which we share the same time zone.”
While many believe Ramadan is about spirituality, others think the month has become mostly a cel­ebration of food. During Ramadan, there is a tendency to overeat and indulge in sweets.
“It is unfortunate that Ramadan is no longer a time of the year where people feel closer to God. It is now about preparing food, spending the day asleep and staying up all night in cafes,” said Salah Moumni, a gro­cery owner.
“I take this time of the year as an opportunity to meditate, to get closer to the family and to make sure I read the Quran every night and attend religious gatherings.”
Following the terrorist attacks in Tunisia and the growing threats of the Islamic State (ISIS), some say that violent manifestations of ex­tremism could drive people away from religion. “I wouldn’t say ISIS has affected the way Tunisians perceive religion. In a way, I think that the way violence has been por­trayed on TV has made Muslims numb to shocking images. Religion has become an inherited practice in Tunisia,” Safia, a teacher, said.
“After all it is part of the culture that we inherited from one ancestor to the other. It is about the spiritu­ality and faith as we know it, rather than the rigid codes some have tried to impose. This can be seen when it comes to Tunisians who don’t pray but insist on observing the fast during Ramadan and ab­stain from drinking alcohol.”
Many Tunisians take the oppor­tunity of Ramadan to enjoy rare moments with family.
While young people go out at night to attend cultural events or simply to sip Arabic coffee or smoke water pipes in the old medina of Tunis, others visit neighbours and relatives to chat, exchange sweets or watch their favourite TV pro­grammes.
“There are differences in the way people socialise during the month,” said Imen.
“The older generation puts more emphasis on socialisation in Rama­dan, especially in the second half of the month.
“Cafés used to attract men whereas women would hang out with relatives and friends at home, especially when the Eid is close, to make traditional sweets.”
“Before, there were fewer TV shows and less of a choice; there­fore, the series time used to be sacred time for families,” Imen said. “Now, people tend to go out after the iftar dinner. The cafés are jam-packed. Also, people take strolls downtown and gaze at shop windows, even when they intend to buy nothing. That is one of the pleasures of Ramadan.”