Ramadan in Lebanon, enjoyed by all communities
Beirut - “Happy Ramadan, welcome,” exclaimed Rania Sleiman, as she received her guests shortly before sunset. Although it was on the second day of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Sleiman, a Sunni Muslim, had invited her friends to a “happy hour” at home. At the same time, her neighbours in the eight-storey building in Aisha Bakar, a mainly Muslim neighbourhood of Beirut, were preparing for iftar — the meal to end the daily Ramadan fast.
“I do believe in God but I am not a practicing Muslim,” Sleiman said. However, Sleiman makes an effort to be discreet about not fasting. “I personally don’t smoke in the car during Ramadan, though I am a heavy smoker. I prefer to be discreet out of respect for those who are fasting, not because I am obliged to,” she said.
Ramadan in Lebanon is different than it is in any other Arab country. This is largely due to the country’s multi-sectarian social fabric and the intermingling of different cultures and communities.
“Being a mixed society makes a big difference in Lebanon,” observed Maha Samara, a Christian living in the mixed quarter of Ras Beirut. In Ramadan, not all Lebanese Muslims fast. Many don’t, be they Sunni or Shia, she said.
“Lebanon is made up of a group of confessional minorities. Christians observe a different type of fasting at a different time of the year. The Druze also fast in their own way and Muslims during Ramadan… and they tolerate each other,” Samara added.
Unlike in other Arab countries, not much change in people’s daily lives occurs during Ramadan in Lebanon. Restaurants, cafés and pubs remain open and serve regular meals throughout the day. Many offer three meals a day in addition to iftar dinners.
“No special rules or restrictions are imposed. If you are eating or smoking in the street during Ramadan, no one eyes you in a bad way… Commenting on that, Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Hassan Diab, said behaviour during Ramadan is a matter of ethics and mutual respect, rather than a religious duty.
“In the past, non-Muslims and non-fasting people were more discreet, as they used to avoid drinking or smoking in front of those who were fasting out of mutual consideration,” he said. “But today even Muslims who don’t fast are not attentive to such delicate behaviour and are blunt about it.”
Although Lebanon has a considerable degree of tolerance and freedoms in personal choices, it has been influenced by the growing trend of Muslim extremism that has been sweeping the Arab world for several years. According to sociologist and university Professor Mona Fayad, Arab societies in general, and Lebanon in particular, were much more tolerant and permissive in the 1960s and 1970s than they are today.
In certain areas of Lebanon with a Muslim majority, the focus on Islam is stronger, she said. In northern Lebanon’s main city of Tripoli, the mayor asked people to be discreet and avoid eating in the streets, a matter that spurred outrage among civil society.
In Sidon, another mainly Sunni populated city, being blunt about non-fasting is not welcomed. “This did not happen at all in the past,” Fayad observed.
But Ramadan festivities are enjoyed by all communities and they are not restricted to Muslims only. Charities, civic organisations and businesses host iftar dinners for fundraising purposes to which guests from various religious communities and denominations are invited.
“It is more of a social and humanitarian manifestation,” Nader Sraj, a sociology researcher and academic, commented.
“At iftar dinners, you have Muslims and non-Muslims, those who fast and those who don’t sitting next to each other. There is compromise from both sides, in the sense that the peculiarities of those who fast are being respected, and at the same time there is tolerance for those who don’t,” Sraj said. Ramadan has also become an opportunity for some to make money, he argued. Sweet shops, restaurants, entertainment centres and cafes compete to offer the best products and services.
“In Christian areas, for instance, you have restaurants serving iftar meals at competitive prices in order to draw a bigger number of clients. Also, big money is being invested in the making of television series prepared specially for Ramadan,” Sraj said.
An annual iftar dinner is held at the presidential palace in which all community leaders and religious figures participate. Ramadan, like Christmas in Lebanon, is regarded as a national occasion as well.
But in the past, Ramadan was simpler and less of a fanfare, Samara recalled. “It was not as advertised as today. People went out of their way to help others.
Friends from all religions were invited over for iftar meals. And though we are Christians, I remember that my parents used to host one iftar meal at our house for the neighbours.”
Sleiman also remembers how different Ramadan was. “I used to fast in the past because there was a ‘Ramadan atmosphere’ and we used to enjoy eating together, the whole family reunited around the iftar table.”
Regardless of how it has changed, Ramadan in Lebanon remains free of restrictions, Sleiman said: “We are a mixed country. It makes a lot of difference.”