Fast in day means feasting all night as social Muslims observe Ramadan

March 20, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer

AMMAN, Jordan -- The Middle East has been a little crazier for the past several weeks -- apart from the normal violence.

Muslims have been observing Ramadan, the holiest of Islamic months, a time when the devout fast from daybreak until sunset. The fast includes abstinence from food, water and cigarettes: all staples of nearly every daily function in the Arab world.

"You see the people start to get nervous as the day goes," said Ahmed, an observer of the passing parade from his shoeshine stand in downtown Amman. "They need their puff. They need their cup of tea."

In normal times, no meeting of friends nor chance acquaintance of strangers goes unrecognized without a cup of tea, often followed by coffee. Food is equally ubiquitous; Arabs greet every occasion with a special saying and something to eat.

And everyone here smokes, either directly from cigarettes or indirectly from the clouds that engulf any gathering of more than one person.

But during this month, vices of consumption seem to vanish in the daytime. The streets are filled with people without their customary cigarettes. Restaurants are closed. The shops selling candy, soda and sweets in an unending procession are shuttered.

Ramadan marks the month when Allah began to give the books of the holy Koran to the prophet Mohammed, according to Islamic belief. Because it is marked on a lunar calendar, Ramadan begins 10 or 11 days earlier each year, eventually working its way through the seasons.

"The worst Ramadan is in July or August," said Abu Malek, who sells watches from a stall. "The day is so long then, and it is so hot, and you can't drink water. You see them lying in the streets."

This year's period of fasting is considered comparatively easy. The day lasts only about 12 hours -- from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. -- and the weather still is cool in most of the Muslim world.

But the abstinence takes its toll. Most activity, especially work, moves at half-speed. People seem to shift down, conserving their energy. Business efficiency plummets, and workers are given to taking naps.

There is no small amount of melodrama here. Few are suffering from an overall lack of calories: The fast ends at sundown each day with a huge meal, and eating often continues in spurts until sunrise. The lethargy during the day is more a result of getting up throughout the night to eat.

"Some people get heavier in Ramadan," said Ahmed. Purists complain the lavish spreads to "break fast" have corrupted Ramadan much as merchandising has corrupted Christmas. It has become an occasion centered more around food than God, they say.

Indeed in Amman, the streets are festive and crowded late into the night as the refreshed observants stay up to smoke and drink and eat, and to socialize with their reinvigorated friends.

"I guess I'm not very religious," said Mohammed Barguti, a taxi driver. "I don't pray. But I do fast. It's good for the health, good exercise for the stomach."

But one's religious devotion is confirmed by a little outward show of suffering, and some seek more confirmation than others.

"Some never show it; they say it's a private thing between them and God," said Tewfik Mahmoud, a travel agent. "But some people are just crazy. They say, 'Don't talk to me. I'm fasting.' "

The government and many private companies respond with shorter work hours or by closing offices altogether.

In Amman, the social routine is disturbed. Chairs are on the tables of the closed coffee shops at the foot of the old Roman amphitheater. The beggar boys who kiss the shoulders of cafe patrons to collect a few coins are out of work, but clever panhandlers work Ramadan into their spiel.

By late afternoon, those who haven't cheated on the fast assume a sort of pinched-mouth appearance. They look at their watches often. By 3:30 p.m. or 4 p.m., traffic thins to a crawl.

But as sundown nears, restaurants begin making food, and children scurry to shops with plates that get filled with hummus, a chickpea dish, or qataif, sweet pancakes to be filled with cheese and nuts.

The end of the fast is marked by a long call to prayer that spills from minarets of mosques throughout the city.

For many who have been waiting all day, the call is a bit too long: The plates are on the table before the last mournful summons is done.

Now, as the holy month has about run its course, the search turns toward the sky, looking for the next crescent moon, which will announce early next week the end of Ramadan for this year and the return to normality.

It starts with the traditional Eid al-Fitr feast.

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