Every night, after breaking the fast of Ramadan, the narrow alleys of the old city of Syrian capital Damascus are crowded with people of all ages. Some head to nearby mosques for the night or Isha’a (prayer), others go to visit relatives or friends and some prefer to spend the evening in one of the oldest cafes in the area, al-Nawfara.
From outside the door of the tiny yet crowded café, one can hear the voice of an old storyteller rising and falling with the events of a tale he narrates to those gathered around him. The 60-year-old man holds a very old, handwritten book and waves a metal sword, especially at the important moments of the story.
“We love to come here in Ramadan, almost every night. It’s a very beautiful tradition during this month,” said one of the café customers. “With our lives changing very rapidly, there is almost no place for such old customs and the holy month of Ramadan is a great opportunity to revive them.”
Abu Sami, the storyteller, is one of the very few people remaining in Syria who still practise this ancient skill. Although he owns a shop, he still comes to al-Nawfara each Ramadan night to tell stories about legendary Arabian heroes such as Antara ibn Shaddad and Qays ibn al-Moulawah.
The café is one of the few places in Syria that has worked hard to preserve this tradition. It is not easy in a world where technology now dominates all aspects of life and in a country that has experienced a brutal war for many years, with catastrophic effects at all levels. Abu Sami comes to al-Nawfara at other nights during the year but telling these stories in Ramadan has a special meaning and atmosphere, both for him and the customers, as it reminds them of the lovely old days.
Traditions in Syria during Ramadan
In the very early morning, and when people need to get up and have their last meal before fasting begins, traditionally there is a man who walks around the streets, holding a small drum that he beats to wake residents so they can eat. This man, known as “Mesaharaty” (the final meal of the Ramadan day is called “Shohor”), could be found in almost all the old areas of Syrian cities. People recognised him by the sound of his drum and the traditional rhyming phrases such as “You sleepyhead, wake up and go to pray, wake up to your fast.”
“This year I’ve only once heard the sound of Mesaharaty. Last year we had two in our neighbourhood but in the old days we had many and we used to hear them every day,” said Mustafa, a 30-year-old man living in al-Shagour, one of the oldest areas of Damascus.
For Mustafa and his family, the Mesaharaty is a tradition completely bound up with Ramadan. Not waking up to his voice means there is something missing from the atmosphere of this holy month.
“Although we now have our digital watches and mobile phones and we don’t need someone to wake us, everybody here, including young people, are very attached to this warm voice that we hear in the early morning,” Mustafa said, adding that he believes the tradition will not disappear despite all the difficulties and changes of modern life; it will continue to have a very special place in Syrians’ hearts.
Other traditions that have almost disappeared
After around eight years of war that has destroyed large parts of Syria and its economy, preserving the Ramadan traditions is not easy, especially for families experiencing economic hardship. It is worth mentioning that around 80% of Syrians now live below the poverty line, according to the latest UN figures.
In the years before 2011, it was very common for neighbours to exchange plates of food prepared for Iftar, the fast-breaking meal. A family might offer rice with vegetables, chicken or meat, others would offer delicious desserts. This was a sign of generosity and sharing in a month that means a lot for Muslims, who make up the majority of Syria’s residents.
“What can we offer our neighbours now?” Ghiadaa asked sadly. This 50-year-old woman was displaced from Aleppo city five years ago and now lives in the suburbs of Damascus. She has found it hard to provide for her three children since her husband passed away and she said that since she lost her husband and house, everything in her life has changed.
“Sometimes a friend or neighbour comes and gives me some food during Ramadan. I find this a very touching gesture but unfortunately I cannot pay it back as I used to in the past.”
For other families, fast-breaking, or Iftar, has become a very melancholy part of the day, as they miss the big gatherings of all the family members. Now, many have left the country, others are dead or disappeared, and those gatherings have lost all sense of joy.
“How can we preserve Ramadan traditions if we have lost the people?” Israa, a 45-year-old housewife asked. “I still do Iftar and Sohor with my husband but we’re alone as our children have travelled to other places. Ramadan is about us, about people and traditions and we in Syria have lost these customs that mean so much to us.”