Ramadan: The time for getting to know each other

‘Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem’ carves out a space for Muslim culture.

THE OLD City comes alive at night during Ramadan. (photo credit: DANCU ARNON/NATIONAL LIBRARY)
THE OLD City comes alive at night during Ramadan.
One of the keystone tenets in the Bible, of a definitively social acceptance ilk, appears in Leviticus. The full divine edict reads thus: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
The New Testament features a similar concept in the Book of Matthew, while, Muad Odeh advises, the Islamic version is a little wordier and more wide-reaching. “In the Koran it is something along the lines of: ‘A person who, for you, is hostile, relate to them as if they are a friend and soul mate.’ Basically, it means that if someone treats you badly, you should do something good for him,” Odeh explains.
Odeh is secretary-general of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community based in Haifa. He will also contribute to an intriguing international panel discussion called Ramadan Across the World: Muslim Voices from Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey and Israel, which is due to take place, in English, at 5 p.m. on Monday. The cross-border confluence also includes representatives from Indonesia and Morocco, and New York-born Dr. Raquel Ukeles, who is curator of the Islam and Middle East Collection of the National Library of Israel.
The discussion is one of scores of items lined up for the inaugural edition of Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem, which began on April 24 and is due to run through until May 23, under the auspices of the National Library, and spanning the full Muslim month.
The full online program incorporates lectures, workshops, tours, discussions and musical slots in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Tuesday’s agenda, for example, includes an Arabic-language lecture about hadith – literally, “talk” or “discourse” – traditions, which are said to refer to reports of statements or actions of the Prophet Muhammad, or his tacit approval or criticism of something said or done in his presence. Thursday’s schedule in Hebrew features an interdenominational lecture called “Stories of the Prophets on the Islamic Tradition: Jesus,” while the May 24 Hebrew lecture, “The Friend of God and the Sultan: The Sufi Sheikh between Spiritual and Practical,” looks equally appealing. And the musical side of the program takes in Ramadan chants and a devotional event titled Music with a Ramadan Spirit.
There will also be a bunch of virtual tours, in English or in all three languages, including Jerusalem Explained: The Roots of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, courtesy of the Tower of David, and The Holy City tour by the same institution, while the English-language lecture, “A Philosopher in the Islamic World: What Did This Really Mean?” will be provided by the National Library.
Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem is the brainchild of Ukeles, who is keen for Jewish Israelis to get a better handle on the religion and culture of the large Muslim minority in this country.
“I’ve been in Israel for 11 years. I work at the National Library, and I’m the head of the Islam Collection. I come from an academic background in Islamic studies. When I was in the States I did a lot of work teaching Jews about Islam, and teaching Muslims about Jews. So I come from a deep commitment to expanding awareness, and the belief that getting to know each other better, and getting on better, needs to have at least one component be about knowledge and education,” says Ukeles.
Not that it is the be all and end all. “Education is not enough, obviously,” Ukeles adds, “but it needs to be a component.”
The emphasis on Western culture here is not new. When, for example, Jews made aliyah from places like Morocco, Iraq and Yemen, they found the musical airwaves dominated by pop, rock and Western classical music. Musicians from Iraq, for example, such as the al-Kuwaiti brothers, were lauded not only by the public in the country in which they spent their formative years, but also by King Faisal. But when they came here, they found the young Jewish state less than willing to recognize their status and artistry, simply because they came from the wrong part of the world.
Ukeles would like us to address all that, and the sooner the better.
“I’ve found two things in the decade I have been in Israel,” she says. “There is very little space in Israel today for Muslim culture. I would say Arabic culture, Arabic Palestinian culture, but also Muslim culture.”
Still, there does seem to be some movement in the desired direction. “There seems to be more space, in the last few years, for Arabic; but when people talk about Islam, it is a very hollowed out understanding, or lack of understanding, of Islam.” Ukeles says we are missing out on a lot. “Islam is a religion, but also a 1,400-year-old culture that is tremendously rich, and most Israeli Jews don’t have any sense of that.”
Rather than challenging those of us who are not conversant with the culture of around 20% of the population, Ukeles sought ways to smooth our paths into the Muslim side of the regional cultural tracks.
“One of the ways we decided to deal with this,” she says, “was through the Muslim calendar, because Israel seems to be a place that puts a very strong emphasis on holidays and on the calendar. So, how do you start talking about Muslim culture? Perhaps by getting the Muslim culture into the Israeli calendar.”
That line of thought led straight to Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem. “The logic is to use the framework of Ramadan, which is a monthlong observance – it’s not even a holiday – to create many opportunities to learn, to appreciate, to experience [Muslim culture].”
ERAN ZIDKIYAHU began, to a degree, experiencing life alongside Muslims at an early age. Zidkiyahu, who will lead the Between Jerusalem and Hebron – A Virtual Tour of the Sacred Sites of Islam in Israel Hebrew-language virtual tour on Wednesday (2 p.m.), grew up in Armon Hanatziv, within spitting distance of the Arab neighborhoods of Sur Bahir and Jebl Mukaber. He would happily traipse down there and play with the kids there on a regular basis. But all insouciant childhood fun time ended abruptly with the advent of the First Intifada in 1987.
Zidkiyahu says he has been enchanted by his neighbors’ culture and language for many a year now. “I heard the kids speaking Arabic, and my father works in the shuk and I worked with him a lot, so I heard Arabic there, too. That was a great advantage for me.”
He also heard Arabic during his army service, much of which was spent in the territories, and he developed what he calls “a passion” for the language and culture.
Today he earns a living as “a geopolitical tour guide,” taking in Muslim holy sites along the way.
“I think all of that comes from my connection with the domain in which I live,” Zidkiyahu muses. “It would seem pretty strange to me to take groups around the area without knowing Arabic. You wouldn’t, for instance, join a tour group to Scotland or London with a leader who doesn’t know English. That’s ridiculous.”
And it is not just a matter of pragmatism. “Knowing the language is a fundamental way of connecting with the environs in which you live and work. As a group leader, knowing Arabic gave me a lot.”
Zidkiyahu also sees a generous amount of common denominators between Hebrew and Arabic, and between the cultural and political evolutions of Jews and Arabs here.
“I didn’t know Hebrew syntax when I went to university,” he recalls. “But, when I learned that, that makes it a lot easier to learn and analyze Arabic. I realized I needed to study Hebrew more in depth in order to learn Arabic. It is very similar. They are both Semitic languages.”
It all goes deeper than that. “Christianity is not a religion of Halacha, but Islam is. There is the Sharia [Islamic law]. I didn’t learn anything about Halacha at school. I didn’t listen to the teachers. And then I discovered that to understand the Sharia, I need to learn Halacha; and to understand Muslim prayers, it is a good idea to study Jewish prayer.”
Even with all the aforesaid confluences between Judaism and Islam, it still came as a surprise to hear Zidkiyahu note that the political growth of both cultures has involved a fair bit of complementary nipping and tucking. “The Palestinian national movement and the Zionist movement formed in tandem, opposite each other, from the outset. If you only consider one without the other, you miss the whole point.”
That, he also says, comes across at the respective religions’ sacred sites, some of which will feature in Wednesday’s agenda. “There are very similar elements, and common features, between Jerusalem and Hebron. They are both built on hills. They are the two holiest Islamic cities here, and there was a lot of migration of Arabs from Hebron to Jerusalem during the Ottoman period. And also King David settled in Hebron before he moved to Jerusalem; and, of course, Abraham was in Hebron.”
Zidkiyahu believes getting a better handle on the cultural, religious and political backdrops to Hebron and Jerusalem offers multifarious benefits for Jewish Israelis. “I think it would be good for Israelis to connect to these places, not because of the religious, national or nationalistic aspects. The dynamics of these places have a powerful impact on reality here and in the territories, and Israel’s standing in the world. Every stone here tells a story.”
Odeh is also hopeful that Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem will help to enlighten us about more of the ins and outs of Islam, and the Muslims who live here alongside us.
“Hatred and racism come from ignorance,” he says. “It is a defense mechanism. When you get to know people, as people, there is less hatred. We are different, but we have many common denominators. We can learn from each other.”
For more information about Ramadan Nights from Jerusalem: ramadan-events.webflow.io