A Reporter's Notebook: the Israelis wishing a generous Ramadan to Palestinians

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion fires a cannon to signal the end of the day’s Ramadan fast on May 16, 2019. Photo by Jackie Levy.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion fires a cannon to signal the end of the day’s Ramadan fast on May 16, 2019. Photo by Jackie Levy.

JERUSALEM — With summer blazing in the Middle East, my wife Randi and I sleep with the windows open. At dawn, we hear the Ottoman-era cannon roar from the cemetery on Saladin Street three kilometers away, signifying that observant Muslims must end their predawn suhoor meal and begin today’s ritual daylight month-long Ramadan fast. The onerous fast involves not only abstaining from food, smoking and sex from dawn to sunset, but also, not drinking water. Appropriately, the word Ramadan comes from the Arabic root ramiḍa or ar-ramaḍ, which means scorching heat or dryness.

Keen to symbolically demonstrate that he is the head of the unified metropolis of 900,000 people, even if Jerusalem’s 350,000 Palestinians boycotted last year’s municipal elections – as they have in every vote since 1967 when Israel captured the divided city ­– Mayor Moshe Lion set off that cannon in a sunset photo-op last Thursday (May 16), marking the end of the fast. Lion then joined a festive Iftar dinner in the presence of the dignitaries of east Jerusalem, which during the Jordanian occupation from 1948 to 1967 was known as East Jerusalem.

Hizzoner’s ceremonial cannon firing was carried out together with the Hajj Yahya Sandoka family, which for the last two centuries has been responsible for the twice-daily cannon blasts during the month of fasting and Eid al-Fitr, which follows Ramadan on June 4 this year. The date varies since Islam follows a 354-day long lunar calendar with no correction to keep it in sync with the 365.5-day solar calendar.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion. Photo by Jackie Levy.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion. Photo by Jackie Levy.

Lion likely was unaware of the origin of the tradition, known as midfa al iftar, which is said to have begun in Egypt more than 200 years ago. The Ottoman province’s ruler, Khosh Qadam, while testing a new cannon at sunset, accidentally set it off. The sound reverberated throughout Cairo, prompting many civilians to assume that this was a new signal marking the end of the fast. Many thanked him for his innovation, and his daughter, Haja Fatma, urged him to make this a tradition.

While the firing of the Ramadan cannon in the wee hours hardly disturbs our sleep, noisier is the crew of stonemasons who show up after the Iftar feast. In the glow of powerful arc lamps, they are paving our pedestrian-only street, Yoel Moshe Salomon, in the historic Nahalat Shiva district, making an elaborate pattern of granite, basalt and limestone complemented with ornamental street lamps and trees. 

In 1869, Jerusalem-born Solomon (1838-1913) and six other visionaries founded my neighborhood – then located far from the medieval walled city but today in the heart of downtown. From a distant outpost to a working-class slum filled with the workshops of glaziers, tinsmiths and carpenters, the neighborhood today has morphed into Jerusalem’s gentrified entertainment quarter. A popular song, “The Ballad of Yoel Moshe Salomon”, recounts Solomon’s founding of the agricultural village of Petah Tikvah in 1878, the first settlement in what came to be known as the Zionist project to return the Jewish people to the land of the Bible.

But all this seems lost on the workers outside my window, busily laying cobblestones all night long to avoid the heat of the day.

Israeli Jews wishing Palestinian Muslims a generous Ramadan

I wish them “Ramadan karim” (May Ramadan be generous to you), and they smile back. My anecdotal impression is that more and more Israeli Jews are wishing their Palestinian Muslim neighbors Ramadan karim or Ramadan mubarak (Blessed Ramadan) in an ecumenical gesture of goodwill.

The Jerusalem Municipality is displaying signs to wish a Ramadan Kareem (generous Ramadan).

The Jerusalem Municipality is displaying signs to wish a Ramadan Kareem (generous Ramadan).

This year, the most newsworthy of those gestures took place May 13 in Hebron when Sheikh Ashraf al-Jabari, 45, who recently established the Reform and Development Party as an alternative to the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah and Hamas, invited a group of Jewish and Arab Israeli business leaders, as well as Palestinians, for a kosher Iftar feast catered from the nearby settlement Kiryat Arba.

The festive banquet of chicken, rice, potatoes and string beans was organized and sponsored by the Judea and Samaria Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a joint Israeli-Palestinian group co-founded by Jabari that aims to strengthen economic cooperation between Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank.

Sitting in a spacious tent set up outside the businessman’s home, Jabari, the business leaders and West Bank settler leaders shook hands and embraced.

Among the Jewish guests, many of whom wore skullcaps, was Hebron Jewish community spokesman Naom Arnon, who was respectfully referred to as an unofficial “foreign minister” for the 1,000 Jews clustered around the Tomb of Patriarchs.

“We drank [Turkish] coffee together. We all love the same coffee,” Arnon said in Hebrew, which was translated into Arabic. “I think we have arrived at the days of the Messiah,” he added.

Wearing a blue suit and red tie, Jabari – who is from a prominent Hebron clan - said, “We want to build a united front, to create a breakthrough on the economic issue. We are issuing a clear call to separate between economics and politics, and hope to have fruitful cooperation on the subject.

“From our point of view, we need to strengthen the connection between the US legislature and activity that promotes economic equality here,” he added. “This meal is meant to reinforce the growing trend in which economic-business connections can strengthen relations and friendship, by way of leading people to a more positive place.

“Breaking the fast together, at a joint meal in the city of Hebron, clearly symbolizes our ability to bridge any type of gaps,” he said.

Across the Palestinian side of Jerusalem, the municipality has gone to great lengths to make Ramadan festive. Colored lights have been festooned from the Old City’s Damascus Gate. Fawanis Ramadan lanterns decorate many alleys in the Muslim Quarter. For the first time a peddler's market has been permitted at the entrance to the Shuafat refugee camp. The municipal welfare department is distributing food stamps to the needy. Garbage collection has been increased in parks, and sports tournaments organized in Palestinian neighborhoods. 

Historian Dr. Ali Qleibo of Al-Quds University’s Centre for Jerusalem Studies has also extended a hand toward co-existence, organizing a series of Ramadan Saturday night tours and events on May 11, 18 and 25.

Yet the media, with its “If it bleeds, it leads” orientation, continues to emphasize the narrative of conflict and violence. Lost is the Ramadan message of purifying oneself and increasing one’s taqwa (good deeds and God-consciousness).