Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Holiday Season III – Jerusalem’s Ramadan Nights

Damascus Gate – Amid the parade of Jewish holidays – it is now Sukkoth – Ramadan is still going strong. It really is the holiday season here.

Israel is celebrating Sukkoth this week, a 7-day holiday that centers around building outdoor, booth-like structures in which Jews eat, hang out, and in some cases sleep. Sukkoth’s roots trace to the exodus from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering in the desert. Sukkoth is a pilgrimage holiday, and in the days of the Temple, Jews traveled to Jerusalem to make religious offerings. Today, Jews from all over Israel (and actually the world) still travel to Jerusalem. While they don’t make sacrifices, they sure cause a lot of traffic jams.

I took some visiting Pittsburghers to the Old City yesterday and the Jewish Quarter resembled the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, except without the beads, floats, or debauchery. Okay, it wasn’t Fat Tuesday, but there was a band and I’ve never seen the Jewish Quarter so crowded. Israel’s chief Ashkenazi and Sephardic rabbis were at the Western Wall yesterday, too. A mob of stroller-pushing well-wishers swarmed them and security had to push back the crowds. It was a scene more reminiscent of a concert than a holy place.

Jewish pilgrims aren’t the only people in town these days, though. Jerusalem is the third holiest place in the world for Muslims, and tens of thousands of Muslims have come here for Friday prayers, break-fasts, and celebrations.

When I lived in Jordan, where more than 95 percent of the population is Muslim, everyone fasted or at least appeared to fast during Ramadan. The holiday was in full effect everywhere. Besides the closed restaurants and lack of food in public, afternoon crankiness and lethargy (which accompany fasting) hung in the air.

Here, things are different. Similar to Jordan, the work schedule has changed, there is a conspicuous lack of public snacking in East Jerusalem, and break-fasts have become regular events on my social calendar. Still, the impact of overlapping Jewish holidays on Ramadan in the Jewish state creates an interesting co-existence and some surreal scenes.

Walking home Monday night, I came across one of those scenes, a lively post-break-fast celebration in the Damascus Gate area. Since the start of Ramadan, Damascus Gate has been adorned with lights and half moon decorations. At about 8PM, though, there was more going on than the usual outdoor market. Vendors sold ground meat and chicken kababs from smoking hibachis. Young men hawked boiled corn, calling out “dooriya!” At impromptu coffee shops on the landings of the Gate’s entrance, men with gelled spiky hair and others with less hair drank tea, coffee, and sahlab, a milky and nut-filled drink. Some of them smoked water pipes as huka attendants stood nearby, twirling iron hot coal baskets and keeping the flavored tobacco fires burning.

The bee-bop of popular Arabic music filled the night, and a clown on stilts wearing a blue balloon hat danced through the crowd. Little kids ran back and forth, some attracted to the clown, others repulsed. Women in colorful red or white hijabs milled through the crowd, shopping for Ramadan deals, but hanging out too.

A normal Ramadan scene, no?

Well, at the top of landing’s steps, Israeli soldiers and policemen looked on. For the hour that I sat on the steps, a young ultra orthodox boy no more than 12-years-old stood at the top of the steps, a few feet away from the soldiers. His fedora was pushed back on his forehead, and he stared with wonder at the action below, transfixed and catching flies. Words couldn’t capture what he was seeing or feeling.

Just a few feet away from the clown on stilts, older Yeshiva boys had emerged from the Old City. They wore black suits and hats and as they walked up the steps, people began to clear away. It wasn’t for them though. A very small boy, wearing a denim jacket and blue jeans was motioning for people to move off of one of the landings. As the crowd, including the teenage Yeshiva boys, looked on expectantly, the denim boy took a running start and somersaulted his way fearlessly across the stone landing, ending in a full body flip to the cheers of the crowd. Another young boy break-danced in his wake and then walked on his hands. The Yeshiva boys, like everyone else watching, smiled in disbelief and admiration.

An hour earlier, 500 yards away, up Jaffa Road, a crowd of a few hundred orthodox Jewish families were watching Sukkoth fireworks in the municipality’s square – home to the Sukkariah, a giant Sukkah made of candy. Ultra orthodox men with curly paot, their wives clad in shapeless dresses, and the many young children with no school in the morning spilled out of the courtyard and into the street. When I walked past them on the way to Damascus Gate, they were rendering the city’s traffic laws meaningless. The road rage of Sukkoth and Ramadan car horns filled the air.

500 yards -- that’s only a thumb or so on Google Earth. In a Jerusalem filled with sukkot fireworks and Ramadan clowns on stilts, however, it is a world away.

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