Are you fasting?
Monday night, the Islamic authorities declared that Ramadan was to begin on Tuesday. I knew by the gunfire. It started about sundown and continued sporadically through the evening. Some of it near, some far. A boy was also running through the street, singing, “Allah-u-Akbar!” For further confirmation, I saw on Abu Dhabi television the greeting “Ramadan Kareem” in Arabic before the commercial breaks.
I noticed as I left the Internet café in Ramallah at 5 p.m. on Tuesday that I was the only customer left. The street outside was nearly empty. Shopkeepers were closing the metal shutters on the outside of their stores. Palestinians were in their homes, preparing to break their fast. On my way home, following my usual route through the Old City, I came across what appeared to be a frenzied pancake-making operation. It was Abu Soufian churning out hundreds of pancakes, called qataaeef, which is pronounced “ataaeef,” “kataaeef,” “chataaeef” or “gataaeef,” depending on where you’re from in the West Bank. You would hear all four in Ramallah, since it’s a sort of Palestinian melting pot. People were buying bundles of them by the kilo. I learned that it’s a traditional desert for the iftar, the meal which ends the daily Ramadan fast. Iftar means, literally, breaking the fast.
A block away, I stopped by Fayeq Zabaneh’s very small grocery and deli, where I occasionally stop and have tea with Fayeq, who is about 60 years old, never seems to have many customers and enjoys the company. (I met him when I stopped in his store the first week I was here to have a look around. He sold very little that I was interested in buying, but he was exceedingly nice and complimentary of my Arabic, so I had to buy something and settled on some Palestinian pasta for two shekels.)
Just a moment after I said “marhaba” to Fayeq, Abu Soufian, who is probably about Fayeq’s age, stepped into the store and grabbed five colas from the fridge. The call to prayer had just started. He screwed off the top of one, opened his mouth and poured the sugary goodness down his throat until it was gone. He wiped his mouth with his shirt sleeve. I couldn’t remember the word for fasting – I won’t forget it now – and so I asked Abu Soufian if he was Muslim. (Many of the shopkeepers in the Old City are Christian.) He said yes. “Since 7 this morning I haven’t eaten or drunk anything. I’m tired,” he said in Arabic. “Now you may eat, thanks be to God,” I responded. He ordered a sandwich from Fayeq’s little deli and left.
Fayeq then told me in a firm voice as he was slicing Abu Soufian’s deli meat to never ask someone if they are Muslim. “We are all the same,” he told me. “We are all Palestinians.” Fayeq is Greek Orthodox Christian. I’m still trying to understand the dynamic between Christians and Muslims here. Christians are a small minority and try to get along with Muslims partly by not emphasizing their religious differences, which are especially apparent during Ramadan. Fayeq instructed me to ask, instead, “Are you fasting?” “Inta saayam?”