BEIRUT: It’s hard not to notice that Ramadan is under way, with the constant reminders from shopfronts and restaurants.
Like Christmas and Easter, its ubiquity affords the festival a cultural rather than religious aspect and there are many ways the month is enjoyed by all. The iftar is the most common aspect in which non-Muslims get involved.
Numerous NGOs, cultural organizations and even churches organize cross-cultural iftars as part of their year-round work encouraging Muslim-Christian dialogue.
“It’s one way of building bridges, social and family bridges, and of bringing families together,” says Mohammad al-Samak, the general secretary of the Christian-Muslim National Committee for Dialogue, which has been facilitating joint iftars, usually between schools, for 20 years.
This year, among many, iftars have already been planned at the Al-Jamhour School in Baabda and at St. Joseph University.
“We encourage Christian organizations and personalities to ask for an iftar celebration for Christians and Muslims,” he says. “And Muslim organizations also invite Christians to their iftars.”
The events are a key part of promoting dialogue, he says. “Muslims appreciate very much and feel highly grateful for the initiative taken by churches and Christian societies and even by Christian schools,” he adds. “This is a message to Muslims that we believe in one God, that we are one family.”
That message extends beyond the monthlong festival.
“There is always a safe way to have relations, whenever there is conflict and misunderstanding, and these bridges of love and respect, though they are limited within Ramadan, are always useful during other times,” he says. “We consider [joint celebrations] as pillars for these bridges.”
However, not all joint iftars are so formal. Randa Haddad, 37 and a Christian, has been organizing iftar celebrations for her Christian and Muslim friends for 12 years. Her Muslim friends would do the same at Christmas and Easter and she decided she wanted to return the favor.
She says being a Christian during Ramadan in Lebanon is a wholly different affair from when she lived in Saudi Arabia.
“I see Ramadan differently than before,” she says. “It’s an occasion for Christians and Muslims at the same time. All people share the iftar, and every year I do an iftar and I invite all my friends, Christian and Muslim at the same time.”
Although she doesn’t fast during the day, she says her iftar “is the same as any Muslim iftar,” and for it she prepares soup and juices, followed by traditional Lebanese fare.
These shared iftars speak to the peculiarity of Ramadan in Lebanon, where the scars of inter-religious conflict are still clear in people’s memories. For Haddad, that aspect of coming together to share important religious events is not lost.
“If you have Muslim friends, you should share something,” she says. It’s a positive experience, “especially for this situation in Lebanon. Maybe the people can come close to each other, and forget the war.”
Sharing Ramadan celebrations like this is common in some areas, but that isn’t necessarily the case across the whole country.
“It depends whether you are talking about Christians who live in areas where there are Muslims or in areas where they do not have daily interaction with Muslims,” says Father Boulous Wehbe, a sociologist at Notre Dame University. In certain areas, he says, Ramadan will pass with little notice.
A pastor at a church in Ras Beirut, Wehbe attends many iftars throughout the Ramadan season, and says the experience speaks to commonality between the Lebanese.
“There is something very peculiar in Lebanon,” he says. “When these NGOs, organizations or maybe a bank or whatever it is, organizes an iftar, many Christians are invited ... [and] you see that there is likely an atmosphere of affinity and cordiality.”
Common Lebanese culture, he says, can also be observed in the way people practice religion, a fact that comes out during such shared celebrations.
“Much of culture has in it religious symbols and religious practices, and you see many times that practices are common between people of both faiths,” he says. “For instance, what they do in weddings or funerals, the way they greet each other, the way they have their food, their songs, whatever it is.”
Because of the long history of both Islam and Christianity in the country, Lebanese may feel that their cultural heritage is shaped by both religions.
“When I listen to the Quran being recited, I feel it is part of my heritage. I don’t feel it is something coming to me that is alien or outside,” he says.
Carine, a 25-year-old wedding planner who was raised in the Christian-majority region of Jounieh says that before she started studying in a mixed university, Ramadan “didn’t even exist. I knew it existed but it did not affect me in any way.”
A culinary-enthusiast, Carine says she now relishes the opportunity to enjoy Ramadan delicacies. Her own religious beliefs also add to the significance of Ramadan, and the respect she has for Ramadan traditions.
“Fasting for me is very important,” she says.
“Obviously I have Muslim friends, so if you care about somebody, it’s important to share whatever they care about. From the religious point of view it’s [also] very important to me.”
On days when she attends or hosts iftars, she abstains from eating, although she does drink water.
Mutual respect for religious traditions can also be a business decision, as well as a personal one.
Jean Nseir, a bank manager at Bank Audi, says he is careful when taking meetings with Muslim clients or business associates during Ramadan to observe their fasting, and follows it himself, eschewing refreshments.
“We show respect,” he says. He is also careful not to call Muslim clients and colleagues at times when he knows they will be in prayer.
It’s an important part of maintaining good client relations, he says.
So much so that the bank sends memos around every year, informing their staff to respect the practices of their Muslim colleagues and clients.
Such accommodation is second nature in a country like Lebanon, Nseir says. “We live in a country where we know the traditions and customs.”