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A Holy Month Brings Comfort to Worried Muslims in Mideast

As they begin 30 days of daily fasting and nightly feasting, Egyptians typify a region troubled by terror and fear of war.

November 06, 2002|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The holy month of Ramadan began Tuesday with the sighting of the crescent moon over Saudi Arabia. It swept west with the glow of the sunset, bringing comfort and hope to a region darkened by the shadows of terrorism and the threat of war.

"Things are very bad for Muslims right now," said Mona Abdel Barri, a Cairo cleaning woman. "But Ramadan makes everyone closer and helps us forget our problems. People start to think of others instead of just themselves. Ramadan is a month of good."

For the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, the ninth lunar month is a time to renew one's commitment to God through prayer, charitable deeds and abstinence. For 30 days, fasting begins at sunrise and continues until, in Cairo, the firing of a cannon at sunset sends hungry families hurrying home for a nightly feast.

They rush home through streets bedecked with bright paper flags and Chinese-made tin lanterns, past mosques festooned with lights and merchants' stalls stockpiled with the foods of Ramadan.

Among the most popular items are dates, which are named each season in light of current events. Last year, during the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, the best-quality dates were known as Bin Ladens, the worst as Bushes. This year they are Leilas and Sharons (for Egyptian movie star Leila Alwi and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon).

Although Ramadan is a period of reflection and celebration, many Arabs say foreboding tempers their happiness this year. The plight of Palestinians is a source of anger and despair. The threat of a war in Iraq raises fears of a region engulfed in conflict. And terrorism, carried out under the banner of religion from Bali to New York, has cast Arab Muslims into the unwanted limelight of worldly apprehension.

"These terrorist acts have absolutely no relation to religion at all and no relationship to sane minds," said Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, who, as the grand sheik of Cairo's thousand-year-old Islamic institution, Al Azhar University, speaks with one of the region's most influential voices.

"These are acts of madmen who do not know religion. They don't understand the rights of others," he said. "These acts are done by people by their own will and with whisperings from the devil."

The mood in the Arab world aside, the holy month brings this year, as usual, a fulfilling sense of self-discipline undertaken in the name of God. From Riyadh in Saudi Arabia to Marrakech in Morocco, millions stomp out their cigarettes. Alcohol is forsworn in favor of sahlabs, a drink made from ground orchid bulbs, warm milk, nuts and cinnamon.

After breaking their daily fast, Arabs pour into the streets, where stores open about 9 p.m. and coffee shops stay busy until the fast begins at dawn. Everyone straggles into work late the next day.

Fasting during Ramadan is one of Islam's five pillars, along with reciting daily prayers, giving alms, making the pilgrimage to Mecca and affirming Muhammad as the prophet of God. The prophet excused from observing the fast pregnant women, travelers, the sick and soldiers at war -- the latter because the holy month does not always bring a cessation of hostilities. The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat used the cover of Ramadan to go to war against Israel in 1973 after consulting with Islamic experts who ruled that his soldiers would not have to fast.

Just before the first strike, Sadat saw that his officers were apparently fasting. He scolded them, saying that their utmost concentration was needed and asking why no one was smoking or drinking.

"I noticed they were very embarrassed," Sadat later wrote, "so I ordered some tea for myself and lighted my pipe--whereupon they began to smoke and order tea."

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