Ramadan may be the holiday of fasting, but each day ends in a sumptuous feast fit for a king – and even tourists can take part.
While the holiday began on Sunday evening, and Monday marked the first day of the fast, even if you’re among those not observing, you can partake in the glory of the iftar, the traditional break-fast meal.
A Ramadan tour, run by Drachim Shluvot (paths that intertwine) – a forum for ethical tourism – explores culinary wonders of the Arab neighborhoods of Israel throughout the month, meeting local business owners, learning about traditions and experiencing the excitement leading up to the iftar meal. The tour starts around 5:30 p.m. and ends at 10 p.m.
Throughout the villages in the Galilee, just before sundown the street stalls begin to open, so people can buy freshly prepared snacks to break the fast. There’s a mad rush on the streets as the fast breaks, and – just as quickly as it starts – all goes quiet.
When the call to prayer sounds, everyone knows it’s time to eat.
The hungry participants join a family iftar meal in a private home, before taking a walking tour through the mixed Christian, Druse and Muslim village of Shfaram.
There you’ll find the North’s best butcher, the most famous ice cream shop, and any sweet dish you desire.
Gili Rei, the co-director of the shared society department at the NGO Sikkuy, which runs the trips, says the goals of the project are three-fold.
“One, it is a wonderful tool to lower the walls and separation of alienation. As a tourist you come with an open heart to be exposed to someone an a different culture,” she said. “It’s an opportunity for Jews to meet Arabs in a very direct and open way, see their cultural heritage in their own villages and cities and acknowledge where they come from.
“The second thing is we create these connections between Jewish and Muslim tour guides and businesses, and head of local councils – these are the building blocks to keep peaceful communication even during times of tensions... It becomes a shared interest to collaborate and to maintain a non violent environment.
Thirdly, Rei said, it helps to support the local economy and local businesses, empowering “mostly women but not only.”
She said the NGO runs year-round tours to areas where Jews and Arabs live closely together, but “Ramadan is the height of the season for us.”
While they started doing the tours almost 10 years ago, they have peaked in popularity recently, with more than 2,000 Israeli Jews participating last year.
In Wadi Ara, Abed and Hasan Egbaria own Al-Rouha Dairy, which normally produces 11,000 liters of milk products a month. During Ramadan, Abed said, they churn out three times as much.
“During Ramadan there is a rise in consumption of cheese, because you eat it with sweets when breaking the fast,” Abed said in his home, situated right above the dairy. “Even though you fast [all day] you gain more weight because you’re eating cheese, sweets and pastries at night!” Abed opened the dairy nearly 12 years ago. Despite studying for both an MBA and CPA, he was unable to find a job in academia, and instead decided to take a leap of faith an open a dairy. Al-Rouha turns out halloumi, labaneh and Arabic cheese – the kind used to make kannafeh.
Over in Umm al-Fahm, Manal Karamal Jebereel is living out her life-long dream of having a restaurant. The mother of three today does private catering, at outside venues and also in her home, which can host up to 45 people.
Her menu is made up of traditional Arab-Palestinian dishes, the recipes orally passed down from her grandmother.
“Although I’ve written a few down,” joked the chef, who studied cooking at the Tadmor culinary institute in Herzliya.
The table in her home is laden down with dishes, which she spent all day preparing without being able to taste them.
From caramelized onions swimming in olive oil atop blended fava beans to cinnamon-scented maklube with velvety eggplant and woody almonds; fluffy fried bread; potato and lentils topped with homemade pastry; meat cooked in tomatoes and onions, protected by a pastry topped with nigella seeds and so much more.
Shfaram, a mixed city of Christians, Muslims and Druse, is considered the powerhouse of coffee roasting and spices, and is also famed for its ice cream.
Elias and Sami Zeitoum have been in the family ice cream business for more than 30 years. Their most famous is the “mastik” flavored ice cream, made of the mastika spice pulled from a tree – and imported from Greece.
“Our ice cream is different from others, with a softer flavor and taste,” said Elias.
“A lot of generations grew up on this ice cream. They come here to buy something special. The ice cream is always fresh and the machines never stop working, that is the key to success.”