BEIRUT: With the holy month of Ramadan beginning Friday, the Lebanese are putting the final touches on preparations to welcome the month of fasting, despite the fact that deteriorating economic and security situations have dampened spirits around the country.As municipalities are busy making decorations, and restaurants are preparing for entertainment programs and lavish meals for Ramadan nights, many believers highlight the fact that fasting and religious practices should remain the priority during the holy month.
The recent deterioration in the security situation in the Bekaa city of Baalbek and the subsequent slowdown in business has left little space for Ramadan celebrations.
Further worsening the situation this season are the soaring prices of food stuff and clothes. Very little decoration heralds the advent of the holy month in Baalbek, where just a few banners promote iftar and suhour meals. The city has also seen a series of thefts and kidnappings over the past year.
But the picture in Baalbek may not be as bleak as it appears, as Ramadan still constitutes an occasion to cement social bonds between family members who gather at iftar banquets at home, or between locals and prominent figures of the city who attend similar events at restaurants.
A traditional meal topping the choices of Baalbek residents when breaking a 17-hour fast is Mansaf, a dish made of lamb cooked in yogurt and served with rice and pine nuts.
Mansaf is enjoyed in addition to fattoush, dates and Jallab, a drink featuring a combination of syrup made from grape molasses, dates, rosewater and crushed ice.
Ruwaida Lakkis, the manager of Baalbek’s King Restaurant, said that Ramadan completely alters working hours at her establishment.
“The main working shift will move to night, starting at the iftar time and until suhour,” she said, adding that the restaurant offers discounts and hosts iftar banquets held by charities or prominent figures in the city. Lakkis notes an increase in demand for nargileh during the holy month.
Walid Yaghi, the owner of Layalina Restaurant, is more creative. Along with serving regular iftar plates, Yaghi places a huge screen in the restaurant so that his clients can watch Ramadan soap operas. He also hires a man to play the Oud to further entertain his customers who stay till dawn.
Despite witnessing an even worse security situation than Baalbek, preparations to welcome Ramadan in the northern city of Tripoli are progressing normally, despite the fact that the city saw armed clashes that killed more than 20 in May and June between supporters and opponents of Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad.
The municipality has decorated alleys in the ancient souks near the Grand Mansouri Mosque in Tripoli’s downtown, usually bustling during the nights of the holy month.
The municipality is also putting the final touches on a program of activities to be held during Ramadan.
“We are preparing to welcome the month of Ramadan through a procession which will take place during the first day in cooperation with associations and scout organizations,” said Nada Elia, the public relations official at the municipality.
The northern coastal city is also famous for its numerous Sufi orders that perform dances and play Islamic tunes during activities organized by the municipality for Ramadan.
Tripoli also witnesses an increase in demand for its famous sweets during the month of fasting, like Halawet al-Jibn, and carts offering traditional sweets spread across the city. Traditional Tripoli dishes like Mughrabiyye and Fatti along with drinks like Kharoub and Sous are also on offer.
Iftar banquets hosted by charitable organizations have become an increasing phenomenon in the southern city of Sidon during Ramadan. Some organizations hold banquets in restaurants with the aim of encouraging attendees to make donations and briefing them on their activities, while others deliver iftar meals to the houses of needy families.
Some organizations organize iftar banquets for children and provide them with clothes and gifts, particularly in the 10 days ahead of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month.
At night, people hit the city’s seaside cafes and Corniche, where they enjoy suhour meals. For many residents of the city and its environs, Ramadan is associated with Sidon’s famous sweets such as Atayef, Znud al-Sit and Killej, which are derived from Turkish heritage.
It remains unclear how an ongoing protest by Sheikh Ahmad Assir which is blocking a major highway in the city in protest of Hezbollah’s arms will impact Ramadan activities this year.
But for Sheikh Mohammad Anis Arwadi, a member of the Higher Islamic Council, these concerns should be put aside, and Muslims should primarily begin preparing themselves “psychologically” for the holy month.
“He should be aware that for 30 days, he will be fasting for God, not to boast in front of people that he is doing so or because it is a folklore,” Arwadi said. “He is obeying God.”
The sheikh explains that believers should not have food in excess or spend lavishly during Ramadan. They should think of the poor and the hungry who cannot afford a meal.
“Rather than squandering [money or food] during Ramadan, they should help the needy.”
Arwadi’s opinion is shared by many residents of Beirut as well.
“I understand Ramadan as a month of worshipping,” said a woman who identified herself as a Beiruti. “We fast during the day and pray and read Quran at night.”
The woman explained that nothing of her food habits changes during Ramadan. “Having food in excess has nothing to do with Ramadan,” she said.
Ramadan decorations adorn Beirut as well, and many Beirutis observe “Sibanet Ramadan,” or a trip involving a meal in the few days ahead of Ramadan which entails bidding farewell to food during the day.
But even such an activity can be a luxury from some people.
“We do not go out on this trip; this has to do with our financial situation,” says Nadima Taqquoush, also a resident of Beirut. – With additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari, Rakan al-Fakih and Misbah al-Ali