For millions of Muslims this Ramadan, fasting in the middle of a scorching hot summer day is not easy, but is lightened by the fact that everyone does it.
Or not, as the case may be.
Take Sami Awadallah, an east Jerusalemite who works as a night watchman on the other side of the city, in Givat Shaul. His work hours make the fast inconvenient – he’s on the job when his family is having iftar, the breakfast meal beginning after sunset, and he comes home once they’ve already have a predawn meal aimed at helping them get through the day.
He sees himself as a Muslim, but not as a religious man in need of fasting.
“I don’t fast, and my family knows it. My two best friends don’t fast either. But I prefer not to say it to anyone else, because it’s not socially acceptable to just come out and say you don’t fast.”
Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and all Muslims save the infirm – as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women and a few other categories – are required to fast. The social fabric demands observance, more so now than a generation ago, many Muslims say. Restaurants and cafes are shuttered during daytime hours, except for those selling take-away goodies to be served at iftar or given as gifts while visiting. No one is seen taking so much as a sip of water in public, even when the mercury soars close to 38 degrees.
In some Islamic countries, drinking or eating in public is punishable by a fine, or in rare cases, a year in prison. Here, the punishment is social ostracism.
Many people interviewed for this article were enthusiastic to talk about skipping the fast, and far less enthusiastic about being quoted as a fast flouter. Most said they eat or drink only in private, never in front of others. Some quoted an Islamic maxim: If you go astray, hide your behavior.
And some young Muslims who don’t fast look for alternative social circles where they don’t have to pretend.
At a dingy underground café off one of the sidestreets of Salah a-Din, the main shopping sheet of east Jerusalem, several dozen men sat in klatches, drinking soda and smoking cigarettes.
They played pool and cards, games that are frowned on in Islam because they often involve gambling. The young men smiled at the mention of Ramadan. “We’re menstruating so we don’t have to fast,” one joked, quoting one of the categories that exempts women from fasting and eliciting a round of laughter.
Rayan, one of the young men, runs a clothing store nearby. Whether he fasts depends on how his day is going. “Some days yes, some days no,” he said. His long wait at the checkpoint every morning, to get from his home in E-Ram north of Jerusalem to downtown east Jerusalem, has been worsened by the Ramadan crowds. During the Islamic holy month, many more Muslims want to come to pray at al-Aksa Mosque, and so the crowds trying to make it through the checkpoints into the city only thicken.
“Yesterday I spent three hours getting to work. You’re thirsty, you’re hungry, and after a while you get angry,” he says. “Everybody ends up with a short fuse because they’re fasting.
Sometimes I break it just because I need to smoke a cigarette. Of course, if I have to have a drink, I go somewhere like this underground café and do it in secret.”
One east Jerusalem doctor says that he often sees patients who should be excused from the fast for medical reasons. But most of them frown on the suggestion that they find other ways to practice piety.
“There are many cases where the patient can’t fast, but when I tell them they say haram – it’s forbidden,” says Dr. Ibrahim Dandis, a general practitioner. “Even an insulin shot is considered to be breaking the fast.
Some people, if there’s a drug they only need to take once a day, will take it at night instead of the morning.”
During Ramadan he sees a noticeable increase in urinary tract infections, because people have so little water in their bodies due to the fast.
In his reception room after 4 p.m., nearly 12 hours into the fast, one of the families waiting to see him boasted that their daughter, who has just finished the second grade, is already fasting. Usually the expectation is that children start praying from age seven and fasting from age 12, they said, but some families have extended one to the other.
Ibtisam Abidat put her arm around her granddaughter Shahd, seven.
“Last year she used to hide and sneak food, but this year she’s fasting like the rest of us,” she said proudly.
“The kids sleep a lot of the day and are up late into the night. We kind of invert the day and that makes it possible for them.”
Asked if Ramadan fasting was hard, a flagging Shahd simply leaned her head on her grandmother’s shoulder and nodded.
Despite the challenges, faithful fasters say they wouldn’t dream of breaking bread a minute early. In the Muaket family shop on Salah a-Din Street, the aroma of coffee beans and freshly roasted nuts are enough to make the average person salivate. Business is bustling as customers stream in to pick up large arrangements of sweets and candies to bring to friends and relatives.
Ibrahim Muaket, 24, stands over the redolent cashews, almonds and candied pecans all day long. He admits that it’s not easy.
“It’s hard, of course. But we learn patience in our religion,” he said. “Sometimes I’m dying to take just one little piece. It’s very tempting.”
Still, he considers himself lucky. Someone else who’s fasting has the job of roasting the nuts, rather than standing in an air-conditioned shop, he reasoned.
“It’s only one month, and it’s something that you just have to do,” he offered. “I don’t accept the idea of some Muslims not fasting. If you don’t fast, you don’t have any ethics.”