A uniquely Syrian Ramadan returns – in Jordan

Upheaval and sorrow have tempered Ramadan celebrations for Syrian refugees in Jordan in recent years. But many are no longer waiting to get on with their lives – or to enjoy them.

Taylor Luck/Special to The Christian Science Monitor
Eyad Mehey (r.) leads the Sayyouf As Sham folklore troupe, dressed in traditional Syrian garb, at a restaurant in Amman, Jordan, as part of Ramadan celebrations on Thursday.
Muhammad Hamed/Reuters
Alaa' Masalmeh, a Syrian refugee, and her children await the start of their iftar meal in Amman, Jordan, last week.

Whirling dervishes, sword-fights, dabka-dances. This is how revelers have long marked Ramadan nights in the restaurants, cafes, and storied souks of Damascus.

On this night, that uniquely Syrian Ramadan has returned – in Jordan.

Dancers spin, swordsmen leap acrobatically and twirl their flashing blades, and lyrical poems ring in the holy month while poking fun at themselves and revelers.

Once rarely employed, Damascene folklore troupe Sayyouf As Sham is now often doing three to four gigs a night in the Jordanian capital of Amman, rushing among restaurants, hotels, private shows, and weddings.

Five years since Syria’s civil war erupted, many of the 1.2 million Syrians who have fled to Jordan have settled in for a permanent stay in the kingdom. Now, many are deciding to take part in festivities that for years had been disrupted by the conflict.

The rise of Syrian-inspired Ramadan traditions here is more than just a cultural footnote. It is a marker of a changing mind-set among the refugees. The war still rages, but more refugees are no longer waiting to get on with their lives – or to enjoy them.

The warmth and joy of the Ramadan celebrations are familiar. But for many Syrians, the nascent sense of home and belonging that the celebrations inspire is something new.

“When you have stability and security you can begin to celebrate and celebrate your culture,” says Eyad Mehey, who left Damascus in 2011 and is head of the Sayoouf As Sham dance troupe, following a performance at a restaurant catering to the Syrian community. 

“Now people feel safe, they are celebrating like they haven’t for years.”

'Thankful for everything we have'

In Amman, Syrian families have put up streams of multicolored lights and lanterns around their windows and over balconies – a tradition new to the more-conservative Jordanian approach.

Restaurants dole out cups of pistachio-covered Syrian ice cream and sugary syrup-dipped pastries, as middle-class Syrian families seek a taste of their homeland.

After three years of “mourning,” Ahmed Salameh says his family has embraced festivities, gathering relatives who have fled to the Jordanian border city of Mafraq. Mr. Salameh left Homs, Syria, for Mafraq in 2013.

Gathering around the evening iftar meal, when Muslims break the daily Ramadan fast, are his three surviving sons, their families, his daughter and two nieces. As the food dwindles, the conversation turns to old days and loved ones they have lost or have been separated from – a brother who died in Daraa, a niece who resettled in Europe.

Ramadan is more than fasting or food, it is therapy.

“One learns that, in the end, no matter how hard, life goes on,” Mr. Salameh says. “We spend the day fasting, feeling with the poor and those suffering, but spend our nights thankful for everything we have.”

A time to mourn, a time to live

Ramadan spirit stretches beyond Jordan’s cities.

In Zaatari Camp, home to more than 80,000 Syrians, residents host banquets and stroll the camp’s souk, sampling qatayef and nabulsia cheese sweets until one o’clock in the morning. Multicolored lights wrap around the camp’s white residential trailers, while women spend the day rolling stuffed grape leaves and preparing other Levantine delicacies.

The camp even boasts its own masaharati – drummers who wake residents for the predawn sahour meal. At night, residents use electricity supplies to watch soap operas aired throughout the region during the holy month – including the Syrian staple “Bab al Harra.”

It marks a stark contrast from the first two years in the camp, a time when residents observed the fast but refused to take part in nighttime festivities or large communal iftars. Many used to decry such celebrations as “inappropriate” considering that relatives were living under military sieges, airstrikes, and mortar shelling just a few miles over the border.

Now, with a return home looking more distant, many instead are choosing to “live in the present” and to worship and celebrate the holy month.

“We are celebrating like we are back in Syria – there is a time to mourn our martyrs, but then there is a time to worship and live,” says Um Mohammed, a camp resident from Shaikh Maskin in southern Syria who did not wish to use her full name because of concerns about her family in Syria.

'Syria has returned to us'

Jordan has also worked to help Syrian refugees celebrate the holy month, granting leaves from Syrian camps nationwide, which allow refugees to spend iftar meals with relatives scattered across the kingdom.

The Zaatari camp’s Jordanian administration is granting 2,000 leaves from the camp per day and more than 10,000 in the first week of Ramadan alone.

“The month of Ramadan is a time that we truly feel like we have a community,” said Abu Mohammed Rifai, another camp resident, who has had iftar with his brothers in Irbid and Amman twice each week since the beginning of Ramadan in early June.

“We may have left Syria, but during the holy month, it as if Syria has returned to us.”

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