Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ramadan Customs Waning in the Arab World

The unique Ramadan customs and traditions of different Arab countries are slowly fading due to economic decline, war, and technological advancements.

Ramadan Customs
A group of three drummers walked the streets of Gaza’s Khan Yunis and woke people up for the Suhoor meal, on March 25, 2023. Ali Jadallah/ Anadolu Agency via AFP

Ali al-Ajeel

In the Arab world, each country has a unique Ramadan flavour. Each community has its own culture, traditions and customs passed down through generations.

These Ramadan traditions existed until a few decades ago, and families gathered in one place around the table.

Today, the wars, the deteriorating economy and psychological pressure have made Ramadan less enjoyable. Most people are not celebrating the holy month as they used to, and many traditions and customs have started to fade.

Old Traditions

How different Arab countries welcome Ramadan reflects the diversity of cultures and folklore. Some customs and traditions might flourish in one place and fade elsewhere. For example, despite the economic condition, Fanous Ramadan, al-Musaharati and Sakbah are still indispensable.

For centuries the lantern, or the fanous in the Arab world, had been the primary light source at night around the globe. Reportedly, it became a symbol of the holy month after al-Muizz li-Din Allah entered Egypt.

Although electricity has made lanterns obsolete, the fanous has remained an essential part of Ramadan, albeit symbolically.

Another famous folkloric figure is al-Musaharati, or al-Mesaharji, as he is often called in Iraq. Each community designates a man to wander the streets with a drum reminding the residents to eat suhoor before the Fajr prayer.

In the past, people relied entirely on al-Musaharati to wake them up, and he was considered an essential part of Ramadan. Modern clocks, however, have rendered his role less vital and outdated, especially following the security turmoil that accompanied the Arab Spring.

Another beautiful custom is the Sakbah, when people exchange food during Ramadan, especially on its first day. In Syria, Ramadan has a special flavour. Families, big and small, send food to their neighbours before iftar.

The Sakbah often consists of one or two dishes, which add unusual variety to the dinner table.

Souad Salem, a 37-year-old Syrian living in Damascus, told Fanack, “I have a poor widowed neighbour who cannot feed her family. However, she shares food with us all during Ramadan.” She adds, “Our mothers embedded this habit in us, and we practised it from a young age. No matter how harsh the circumstances, we have to do it.”

Jordan has “Ramadan tents.” In the street, an organisation or group of people set up a tent lined with food for iftar. Throughout the month, these tents remain in the street and are a place for reciting the Quran and chanting religious songs. Sometimes, people can enjoy listening to a storyteller or a sheikh’s lecture.

Iftar Cannon

The iftar canon is one of the most prominent traditions of Ramadan in the Arab world. Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Wali of Egypt, was said to have purchased modern war cannons to build a strong Egyptian army. One day during Ramadan, his experiments with one of the cannons coincided with the sunset and the Maghrib call to prayer. The burst was so loud that people assumed it was a new tradition. The public demanded that Muhammad Ali continue this tradition throughout Ramadan for iftar and suhoor, and he agreed. Firing live cannons twice a day has become an intrinsic Ramadan tradition.

In Iraq, due to the security situation and the presence of US troops, the tradition was suspended after 2003. Similarly, Syria stopped the Ramadan cannon following the Syrian crisis. In contrast, the Ramadan cannon continues in Jordan and other Arab countries.

Once Upon A Ramadan

The region’s economy, living standards and security conditions have plummeted, endangering many Ramadan customs passed down for generations. Some customs have been scaled down or are now practised by fewer families.

The Majina is an ancient tradition in Iraq. In the past, after iftar, large numbers of children would go outside dressed colourfully. They knocked on doors chanting, “Majina, O’ Majina, open the bag and give us,” and neighbours would gift them dates, sweet delicacies or money.

This tradition has begun to fade in many areas of Iraq. It has disappeared almost entirely, except in some areas of Old Basra, where it is called Girgi’an.

Another Ramadan custom, unique to Damascus, is the Tekriza. According to the famous history book Ya Sham by Munir Kayyal, this custom takes place in the week preceding Ramadan. To prepare feasts, families leave Damascus and head to parks, orchards and the countryside.

Tekriza was an opportunity for the family to meet. However, this custom is endangered. Yasser al-Ali, a 34-year-old taxi driver from Damascus, told Fanack, “Tekriza has almost gone extinct recently because of the war and because many Syrians are too busy with life.”

Abdullah Saleh from Jordan, 62, told Fanack that Ramadan no longer feels the same as it used to be more beautiful. Saleh adds, “Ramadan was cosier and brought neighbours and families closer. We exchanged food, salads and desserts before the Maghrib prayer and often had iftar together. Then the family would go to the mosque for Taraweeh prayers, and we visited loved ones or met at home or in a public park. Unfortunately, none of this happens today.”

Destructive Technology

The technological revolution sidelined many of Ramadan’s old customs and traditions.

Ramadan wishes have moved to smartphones and became less personal between neighbours and families. The visits during the first days of Ramadan were replaced by texts and social media messages.

Ramadan’s nighttime is another causality. People used to gather in the evening after iftar. Ramadan shows now keep people glued to their TVs at home.

Sanaa Issa, a 39-year-old Syrian from Aleppo, told Fanack, “There are fewer visits, and the evening gatherings – even if they happen – are useless. Everyone is busy with their mobile phone.”

Finally, the custom of children collecting candy has gone extinct. In the past, especially in Iraq, children roamed the streets during Ramadan, carrying bags and knocking on doors to collect sweets. Today, children spend most of their time on mobile phones, and some parents consider it shameful to let their children participate in this tradition.

Harsh Conditions

This year, Syrians and Iraqis are welcoming the month of Ramadan amid an economic crisis and poor conditions, especially with the collapse of the Syrian pound. These circumstances have greatly affected people’s purchasing power, depriving many families of essential goods and basic commodities. Thus, many families cannot welcome Ramadan as they were used to.

Traditionally, a few days before Ramadan, families used to shop for food and other necessities to prepare for the holy month. However, the high prices have forced many families to change their habits and settle for the bare minimum.

Mustafa Hassan, a 42-year-old Syrian from Hasakah, told Fanack, “We wait for Ramadan the entire year, and we count on it to rejuvenate our souls. Merchants also count on Ramadan to revive their stagnant sales and recoup their losses. However, prices are skyrocketing. This year has been ruthless.”

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles