A different holiday season

kahk cookies 298 88 (photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
kahk cookies 298 88
(photo credit: Ksenia Svetlova)
On a cold and rainy Jerusalem night, while west Jerusalem was already steeped in sleepy fog, Salah a-Din street in east Jerusalem was radiant, busy and festive. Every shop and restaurant had been decorated with lights and festoons, the street had become one huge traffic jam and sounds of music and flaring fire-crackers filled the air. That night, as the world's one billion Muslims began celebration of the three-day festival of Id al-Fitr, east Jerusalem resembled Cairo, Amman or Damascus. Id al-Fitr signals the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting. One of the two major Muslim holidays, Id al-Fitr is often called "The Little Feast" in comparison to Id al-Adha "The Great Feast," which comes at the end of Hajj. Unlike the Christian and Jewish calendars, the Muslim calendar is not very rich in holidays. "That's why we celebrate each of the holidays for a few days - Id al-Fitr is 3 days and Id al-Adha is 4 days," explained Ashraf, 20, a resident of Beit-Hanina who came to Salah a-Din street to celebrate with his friends after completing the traditional dinner with his family. So what's a young man to do for fun in east Jerusalem during holidays? "Well, there is not a huge variety, but you can go for a pizza or an ice-cream, you can just hang out in the street - but not for long, because it's raining and freezing - you can go and play the computer games or you can drive to Malha mall and hang out there", says Ashraf. He adds, " The mall is nice and there are also many coffee shops in the western part of the city, but you don't feel the holiday atmosphere there, people don't even know we have a holiday". In fact, as I crossed between the two parts of the city, it seemed to me that Jerusalem is more divided than ever during the holidays. "There is no physical border that separates between the two, but rather an imaginary, invisible wall of mistrust, misunderstanding, fear and mutual disregard," says Muhammad Saida, a plumber from Wadi Joz who was 12 years old when the city was reunited in 1967. "It used to be different before." Saida still remembers a time when Jewish friends would come to visit his family on Id al-Fitr, to greet them on the holiday and enjoy the special holiday pastry, kahk, a powdery cookie made from semolina and dates (see a recipe for kahk below). "Today there are also some Jewish people, especially those who grew up in Arab countries, who know about our holidays, traditions, rituals and customs. He explains the holiday customs. "The first day of the Id is usually spent within a family circle. We all have a family dinner together and it is indeed a very special and happy time one should spend with one's loved ones. During the day the men of the family visit women relatives who have married into a different family, and this is also a very special tradition," says Saida's wife, Fatima. "And of course there is a festive prayer in the mosque. The residents of East Jerusalem are able to pray in al-Aqsa, which makes it even more special for us" adds Saida. While their parents discussed the Id traditions, the Saidas' seven children, aged six to 20, sat quietly, listening to every word said, curiously looking at me, a Jewish reporter, as if they had a hard time believing that I really did not know about how to celebrate the holiday. "And there are also presents, sweets, new clothes and going out with friends on the second and the third day, and the school is closed," the children told me, competing with each other as they told me more and more about the holiday. But as the young reveller Ashraf noted, Jews and Arabs know little about each other's holidays. Randomly asking innocent bystanders at nearby French Hill, I found out that few knew about Id al-Fitr. Seven out of ten respondents didn't' even know there was a holiday, although they all did know about the previous 30 days of fasting. One person did know about the holiday, "since all the garages in Wadi Joz were closed," he noted. And when asked about the Jewish holiday season which just came to an end several weeks ago, none of the Saida children had much to say, either. "Well, we do know that there is a holiday, usually because the streets are closed (in Orthodox neighborhood) and also the offices and banks do not work, but we do not know much about it,", said Dalia, one of the five sisters. "The adults here who work with the Jews know, of course, but the kids and the teenagers hardly ever learn about the traditions and the celebrations," explains Saida, in perfect Hebrew. His kids speak Arabic and English, but hardly any Hebrew. Then Fatima added, "I do hope that it will be different one day, for all of us here in Jerusalem." Who knows, perhaps by next Succot or the next Id al-Fitr?