Aleppo Ramadan

October 7, 2007 at 7:05 am 3 comments

Ramadan is about to enter its last week. Although we arrived only a month before it began, the changes have been evident. The first few days of the month seemed quite strange, almost tense. There is a different feeling now, as if the city has settled into the fast. Our friend Samer tells us that the streets will become more crowded than ever as people begin to shop for the new clothing to wear during the three-day holiday that will mark the end of the fast.

For us, the month is marked by the visible changes in our friends and on the streets. For Muslim friends here, the month is more spiritual than material. Some who regularly drink wine (forbidden in Islam) abstain during Ramadan as part of a general effort to become reconnected with the faith. Those internal changes aren’t immediately obvious to those of us on the outside.

The days have a markedly different rhythm, from the first drums outside the house to the last call to prayer. In our neighborhood, the 4:00 a.m. drummer (listen to the drummer) plays something sounding quite bass; in Idlib the neighborhood drummer awakens people with a snare. There isn’t much time to eat then before the sunrise, when we simultaneously hear four calls to pray from the closest mosques (listen). People then go back to sleep for a few hours. School begins early enough, though, that there isn’t much time for more sleep. I’ve been surprised that, instead of letting the kids sleep later during Ramadan, the schools begin at the regular time and let the children out an hour earlier.

Activity seems to go on as usual until about 5:30, when the streets become frenetic with everyone hurrying to get home. Lines for the minibuses get longer and longer, and the large buses get fuller as everyone tries to get home in time to break the fast. For those out on the streets when the sun sets, there is a special kind of juice served. A few nights ago a friendly middle-aged purveyor of the drink insisted that William try some. Special rolls and sweet breads make their appearance.

For us, Ramadan has meant rescheduling things. Since it is impossible to find transportation between 5:30 and 6:30, we try to go out earlier or later. On Wednesday we found ourselves waiting and waiting for a taxi. A man in an SUV pulled up and offered us a ride. He is a native of Aleppo, and knew that we would never be able to find a taxi at that hour, so wanted to make sure we got to our destination. Where did you learn English? William asked. At Aleppo College, an American high school/junior college where my colleague Bob Cunningham used to teach. Our kind driver told us he admired the Americans, the school, and Bob’s colleague, the charming Makhloul Butros whom we had met just days earlier. (Many years ago, I’ll tell my students, people used to know the United States for the very important schools we established in the Middle East, schools like Aleppo College, Robert College in Istanbul, the American University of Beirut….We made many friends in the Middle East by educating children there, I’ll tell them.)

By 7:30, the empty streets seem more crowded and bustling than ever. The usual rhythm before Ramadan was that shops would be open from 10-2, then again from 5-10, so evening shopping is common. But now the hours seem to have changed, so that everything is closed, all the shops shuttered, and streets remarkably quiet between 6 and 7:30. Our radiologist friend has changed his hours, working during Ramadan from 9 to 4 and then again from 9 to 11 in the evening.

What my women friends and I know as “second shift” becomes even more challenging. My friend Rima returns from teaching kindergarten around 3:30. She hasn’t eaten or had anything to drink since 4:45 a.m. Three of her four children are fasting and hungry, and she still needs to get them settled, help with homework and cook iftar dinner before the sun sets around 6:20. She is a terrific cook, and the evenings we have eaten at her table during Ramadan, she has served soup and at least two main courses. After dinner, it’s the first tea and coffee of her day, which won’t end until around 11:30. The next begins a few hours later.


A number of friends have urged me to watch Bab al-Harah, a special TV series created to play every evening during Ramadan at 9. A combination soap opera/costume drama, it is set in French-occupied Syria. The huge cast of characters speaks in Syrian dialect, and the plot is quite complex, with a number of sub-plots and romantic entanglements. Although the intended audience is clearly Syrian, the advertising sponsors (large multinationals Coca Cola, Maggia, Ferro Rocher) seem to reflect tastes further south. Like in the afternoon soaps, the ideal male portrayed in commercials is tall, dark, handsome, and smiling, playing with his children and winking at his beautiful wife, who always has spectacularly long and flowing hair. He wears an immaculate long white robe and white headcovering, not the Syrian version. I think I need to tape some of the TV commercials here to give my students a sense of what is considered attractive. The equivalent of a public service announcement airs at least twice during each episode, of a family sitting down to break the fast together when two sons look out the windown and notice a man sitting alone on the street. They consult with their father, who nods as the boys hurry downstairs to bring the lone neighbor/stranger to the table. The newcomer is shown at the end in thankful prayer. 

(Thanks very much to Russell for his help posting the audio.)

Entry filed under: Food, Islam, Middle East, Syria, US Government.

Che and Bashar Muhammad Sea

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. touma  |  November 21, 2007 at 11:57 pm

    look man i so dont get wat your talkin bout but i cant wait for bab al hara 3 that will com out next month i so cant wait that long i luv issam and abu shab i have to see them even though i have bab al hara 2 on dvd but still.

  • 2. Kinan S.  |  December 21, 2007 at 4:16 am

    Hello there,

    Bab al-Harah TV series is a Syrian production and it’s talking about the extinct old Damascene community.. However, according to your commercial description “a family sitting down to break the fast together when two sons look out the window …etc.” I can tell that the TV Channel that you’ve been watching is MBC Channel… This “Satellite TV Channel” is not a Syrian one… it’s based in Dubai Media City .. and officially it’s a Saudi Arabian channel, and it has a huge massive audience all over the Arab league countries… So can you tell me how on earth you came to the conclusion that the intended audience is clearly Syrian ?!! And since when the TV commercials are considered as an indicator of what is considered attractive to the audience no matter if they are Syrians or Arabs or Westerners or even aliens ??!! Not to mention that the other commercial that you’ve described has nothing to do with the Syrian community… especially the urban community.. Those commercials broadcasted on MBC TV Channel are mostly reflecting the Arab Gulf customs “uniform” with a Palestinian / Jordanian accent “I don’t know why !!! “… On the other hand, if you really think that you “need” to tape some of the TV commercials to give your lucky students a “sense” of what is considered “to you” attractive to the Syrian audience, then I firstly suggest that you switch the remote to a Syrian local channel and bear with the poor audience the commercials torture of the wide verity of stinky bubble-gums and unhealthy snacks… but at the end of the class make sure to inform your students that in Syria, the TV commercials time is considered a potty break time.
    Well… I’ve enjoyed reading some of your writings.. However, I also suggest that you need to correct the spelling / pronunciation of the name of Makhloul Butros in appreciation to his real charming personality… The correct spelling is Mr. Makhoul Boutros.. (Makhoul stands for Mikhail and Boutros stands for Peter) a great educator and remarkable teacher that I had the privilege and honor to be one of his students long time after the American decision makers deserted Aleppo College in order to concentrate on their next steps… could it be the American University in Dubai ?? Dubai is running out of oil !!! 🙂

  • 3. reem  |  October 5, 2008 at 9:11 am

    bab al harah a7la chi inchalla yikoon fi jez2 14


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