CAIRO – Compared to Ramadan 2020, when mosques around the world were closed for prayer in the holiest month of the year for Muslims, and curfews prevented friends and family from gathering to break Lent, the religious holiday this year offered the promise of something much closer the normal.
“Last year I felt depressed and I did not know how long the pandemic would last,” said Riyad Deis, co-owner of a spice and dried fruit shop in Jerusalem’s Old Town. Tuesday, the first day of the Muslim fasting month, lived its narrow alleys with shoppers searching Ramadan sweets and worshipers on their way to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Across the Muslim world, authorities have imposed limits on Ramadan customs and festivities in mosques this year: They ask worshipers to bring their own prayer rugs and wear face masks and set time limits on taraweeh, the special extra prayers that some worshipers observe every night. month and introduce other rules.
And still. In the days before Ramadan, many in the region embraced the festive traditions that create crowds – a possible increase in affairs despite that. Worshipers rose in mosques. Shopping districts in Cairo were crowded.
And for many, unlike last year, Ramadan 2021 was to be a shared experience with many people planning to break the fast with family and friends over detailed evening meals, even though they were in smaller groups than usual.
Such plans seemed to proceed regardless of vaccination status, which varies greatly from country to country. (Religious authorities in several Arab countries have announced that receiving the vaccine will not violate fasting.)
Vaccination efforts in Syria and Lebanon have been hampered by poor organization, poverty and corruption as they cross paths in the United Arab Emirates. Israel has quickly vaccinated most citizens, but has been heavily criticized for not doing more to vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
As the spread of vaccines is uneven, the spread of the virus remains a danger.
In Egypt, government officials and prominent TV hosts warned the Egyptians against a third wave of infections during Ramadan. Health officials are particularly concerned about cases rising during the holy month, as Ramadan this year also coincides with Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated by Coptic Christians in Egypt and another national holiday, Sham El Nessim.
Ramadan restrictions can hit hardest in low-income Egyptian neighborhoods, where residents in other years rely on tables filled with iftar food donated by wealthy individuals, mosques or other organizations. This year, as last year, these free parties are banned, but in Cairo, some charities are distributing boxes of pantry staples.
Muslims in Lebanon and Syria are also entering Ramadan with dramatically lowered expectations due to worsening economic crises in both countries, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic rather than due to public health restrictions.
In East Africa, Ramadan comes amid rising coronavirus infections in many countries.
In Kenya, authorities have imposed longer curfews, closed bars and schools, restricted gatherings in places of worship and restricted travel in and out of five counties including Nairobi, the capital.
For residents of Nairobi like Ahmed Asmali, it means a prolonged inability to break the fast with loved ones or attend prayers with larger congregations.
“This is the second year now that we are in a lockdown,” said Mr. Asmali, a 41-year-old PR employee. The experience, he said, “feels weird. Feels out of place. ”
In Syria, where experts say the number of official infections and deaths for Covid-19 (more than 20,100 cases and 1,360 deaths since the onset of the pandemic) is far below reality, the government has few restrictions in place. Worshipers are allowed to stand inside mosques to pray together after breaking their fast, the Syrian Ministry of Religious Affairs said.
In Lebanon, which recently emerged from a severe lockdown, the currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value against the dollar over the past 18 months, and unemployment has risen. Food prices have risen so fast that a month’s worth of meals to break the fast for a family of five – one date per day. Person, lentil soup, a simple salad and a chicken-and-rice dish with a little yogurt – now costs two and a half times the country’s minimum wage, according to the Lebanon Crisis Observatory, a project of the American University of Beirut.
The pandemic still overshadows much of the festivities. Store owners in Jerusalem’s Old City said they were concerned that Israel would not allow a large number of Palestinians from the West Bank, where few have been vaccinated, to visit the Old City this Ramadan and deprive the area of their holiday expenses.
Prepandemic usually allowed Israel tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to visit Jerusalem on Fridays during Lent. The arm of the Israeli government, which has contact with the Palestinian Authority, said on Tuesday that Israel would allow 10,000 vaccinated Palestinians from the West Bank to pray at Aqsa on Friday. It also said authorities would allow 5,000 vaccinated Palestinians from the West Bank to make family visits to Israel between Sunday and Thursday next week.
Omar Kiswani, the director of the Aqsa Mosque, said he was very pleased that the connection was open to worshipers – it is estimated that 11,000 attended taraweeh prayers at the connection on Monday night – but he stressed that people should still be careful . He said masks and two meters distance between worshipers in the mosque are required, and indoor and outdoor spaces will be sterilized daily.
“These are times of great happiness,” said Mr. Kiswani. “We hope the blessed Aqsa Mosque returns to its pre-pandemic glory. But these are also times of caution because the virus is still out there. ”
Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem. Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting form Beirut and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi.