Postcard from Baghdad: Observing Ramadan

Ramadan is a special month of the year for Muslims, marking the time they believe the Prophet Mohammad received the first revelation of the Koran. Muslims forgo food, drink and sex from dawn to dusk during ths period. Anne Garrels visited with an Iraqi family during their fasting and prayer.

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The war in Iraq has extended into another month of Ramadan. We're well into the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. It's a time when Muslims believe the prophet Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran. Muslims are expected to forego food, drink and sex from dawn to dusk. NPR's Anne Garrels sent us a postcard from Baghdad during Ramadan.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FAVEL HUSSAIN AL-MOUSAWI(ph): (Foreign language spoken)

ANNE GARRELS reporting:

As the sun goes down, Favel Hussain al-Mousawi asked God to accept his fasting as a sign of obedience.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: His 31-year-old son Hamid(ph) switches radio channels, looking for word the time has finally come when they can all eat. The al-Mousawi family is almost giddy at the prospect of food, drink and a smoke. Seated on the floor, beneath posters of the Shiite martyrs Hussein and Ali, they gather for iftar, the evening feast; parents, four grown sons and two daughters.

(Soundbite of voices and laughter)

GARRELS: In the Shiite slums of Baghdad known as Sadr City, theirs is a simple existence, their faith woven into the fabric of their lives. Thirty-eight-year-old Jameela(ph), the older daughter, serves the much anticipated meal. First, dates and water, as ordered by the prophet; then yogurt, stuffed grape leaves and a lamb stew.

JAMEELA: (Through Translator) The whole family is together. It's really nice. And whoever is angry at someone forgets his anger and starts anew.

GARRELS: For a brief moment, the family doesn't fight about the fact 35-year-old Abbas(ph) no longer believes and has opted not to fast. The family tries to ignore the violence surrounding them. Political disputes between those who support radical cleric Muqtada Sadr and those who follow Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani are temporarily put aside. Twenty-eight-year old Haider(ph), a hotel cook, says he wishes all year were Ramadan.

HAIDER (Hotel Cook): (Through Translator) Inside, I feel a change. My soul is pure and I feel happy.

GARRELS: For his younger sister, 10-year-old Sahra (ph), this is her first year of fasting.

HAIDER: (Through Translator) The children want to be like us and fast, but without us knowing, they sometimes sneak into the kitchen to get something to eat.

GARRELS: Because of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan moves back 10 days each year and is approaching the hottest time of the summer. This makes abstaining from water for so many hours that much harder. Many wealthy Iraqis escape to neighboring countries where, to the horror of the more religious, the daily fast is capped by raucous nightlife and shopping; hardly the denial of worldly activities prescribed for Ramadan. The al-Mousawis dare not go out to celebrate with friends, but for all the problems, Jameela says life is better now without Saddam.

JAMEELA: (Through Translator) Before the war, the fast was tinged with agony and pain, because all of our young men were forced into the military. Despite the security situation, it's better now.

GARRELS: Jameela never married because, according to her brothers, the eligible Shiite men of her generation were killed.

(Soundbite of voices)

GARRELS: The pleasure of Ramadan is to compare stories of how each nearly broke the fast, then feast, and finally sit around the TV for the nightly Ramadan quiz show, usually involving Iraq's most beloved entertainers. They drop in on ordinary Iraqis and those who answer the questions correctly are rewarded with the princely sum of $500 or a lavish prize, like a generator, something everyone here needs. When the program ends or the electricity goes out, it's time for bed.

(Soundbite of snoring)

GARRELS: At 3 in the morning, while everyone else is still asleep, Jameela groggily emerges to prepare suhoor, the predawn meal.

(Soundbite of drums)

GARRELS: And just in case she or anyone else in the neighborhood failed to rouse themselves in time to prepare food, the last for more than 12 years, a drummer walks the streets. `Wake up,' he cries out, `you, who are fasting, wake up. It's time for suhoor.' The drummer is an 18-year-old student, Haider Humza (ph).

Mr. HAIDER HUMZA (Student): (Through Translator) Some people are poor and don't have clocks to wake them, so they thank us for doing this. The American tanks don't bother us, even though we are out after curfew. They have an interpreter with them who tells them what we are doing.

JAMEELA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: With the food ready, Jameela prays and prepares to read the Koran. It's her duty to reread the entire book during Ramadan. And she only has a few more days left.

JAMEELA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARRELS: Anne Garrels, NPR News, Baghdad.

JAMEELA: (Foreign language spoken)

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