Ramadan in Iraq: Culture Threatened by Wars and Violence

 

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Muslim lunar calendar, is a time of piety and philanthropy for Iraqis practicing Islam. The rich traditions of the holiday center on food and community. Special breads, sweets, and juices are prepared and many families celebrate iftar together, breaking fast and practicing the Islamic tenant of generosity at each other’s homes or a local mosque. Ramadan is a time of joy and celebration, yet years of instability have altered Iraqis’ ability to partake in many traditions, changing the culture and practices of a treasured celebration. For refugees fleeing the country, internally displaced persons (IDPs) in camps, and those living in cities and villages, cultural shifts have transformed how Ramadan is celebrated, deeply affecting all Iraqis.

The past fourteen years of conflict and destruction in Iraq have transformed virtually every aspect of life for the Iraqi people. This constant violence has had devastating effects and threatens a way of life that has existed for centuries. Though issues of politics, humanitarian crises, and safety usually dominate the international discourse surrounding Iraq, the cultural impacts of conflict are extensive and should not be ignored. The resulting shifts in the practice of Ramadan, a holiday categorized by generosity, celebration, and devotion, embody the harmfulrepercussions of violence and underline the importance of cultural preservation.

For those living in cities like Baghdad, celebration during Ramadan is clouded in fear, with recent acts of terror serving as a reminder of the constant threat of violence. Hayfaa al-Azawi, who lives in Baghdad with her children, recalls Ramadan after the United States invasion in 2003 and also during the time of Saddam; the government limited electricity and rations, so families were not able to cook many traditional dishes. She remembers trading sugar with local bakers in an attempt to buy some sweets for her family that she was unable to cook herself. Now, some don’t ever have electricity, and power outages are often a daily occurrence. This has led to unreliable refrigeration which forces women to purchase, prepare, and cook dishes all on the same day. Grueling work to say the least, especially during times of fasting.

Conflict has increased economic instability as well, and many cannot afford the ingredients needed to prepare dishes traditionally eaten during iftar. Financial uncertainty is widespread, with the breadwinners of countless families either imprisoned, dead, or disappeared. Those living in poverty and struggling to feed themselves on a daily basis are in more danger than ever, braving high temperatures during the day to search for food for their families at night. Before the wars and embargo, children would run from house to house searching for sweets and other special treats from their neighbors. Now, Iraqis struggle to provide for their own children and many have nothing to spare. Fear has marred the joyous and communal culture of Ramadan as families are more concerned with survival than celebration. Hayfaa’s husband Mohamed al-Azawi described how “you could be on your way to a mosque or someone’s house for iftar and a car bomb would go off,” sadly indicative of the normalcy of tragedy in Iraq.  Women who used to come together to make traditional meals now cook alone in their houses, and all Iraqis are fearful of being taken while out in public, as disappearances have become increasingly common. The new culture of violence erodes Iraqi traditions during Ramadan and emphasizes the deep rooted impacts of conflict on society.

Refugees living in camps during Ramadan face similar hardships in preserving their culture in times of crisis. Temperatures are steadily increasing and the danger of heatstroke is exacerbated by fasting. Families living in camps often walk long distances to get their daily water supply which is difficult in extreme heat, especially if these individuals are not eating for 19 hours out of the day. The call for prayer, the traditional signal to break the fast, rarely reaches camps, and most meals consist of daily rations instead of food typically eaten during Ramadan. The schedule of IDPs celebrating Ramadan occasionally conflicts with those working in the camps which can inhibit communication. Many Muslims sleep during the day while fasting, which is usually when workers are performing their day-to-day operations. This creates a disconnect between those living in camps and those working in them and some families miss vaccinations and other important announcements as a result.  For families and individuals migrating during Ramadan, fasting is sometimes impossible, as many have small children or simply are not well enough to fast at all. Migrants must make the difficult choice between adhering to religious tradition and maintaining their health.

Though the holy month of Ramadan is a time of celebration and giving, many are too concerned with survival to enjoy the traditions of the holiday. Conflict has permeated every aspect of Iraqi life, even the most hopeful and festive celebrations, and this loss deserves recognition. Culture is the foundation of identity, and acknowledging the importance of Ramadan’s unique traditions in Iraq and how these traditions shift is paramount to preserving Iraqi society.

 

By Emma Sampson

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