It was sunset in Mosul yet the streets were almost empty, unusually empty. The only person on this particular street is an older woman called Yassin who’s waddling down the road like a chubby duck. The 70-year-old was carrying her Iftar meal and she was on the way to take it to share with her neighbours; it was something she had done for years.
The Iftar meal is a celebratory one which practicing Muslims use to break the fast they have undertaken during each day of Ramadan. One of the traditions of Ramadan – the month long Muslim commemoration during which the religious abstain from eating, drinking and other activities like sex, during the day, and which started this week – is the breaking of the daily fast with friends, family and neighbours.
And usually after a long, hot day of fasting the streets really start to fill up around sunset as people make their way to share meals with others.
But these days in Mosul, where the security situation is still precarious and where insurgent groups have been able to establish a stronghold, the streets are emptier and some of these old traditions have died off. Partially it’s because of the potential for violence and partially it has to do with new technologies.
For example, the msharati drummer, who walked the streets before dawn, waking people to eat before the day’s fasting begins. This job is usually done by a volunteer and back in the days before television, when people went to sleep early and woke early, the msharati drummer was a useful kind of alarm clock. Now, some say, everybody stays up watching television and they use alarm clocks to wake them up in the morning.
“In the past I used to tour the area, knock on doors and wake up my neighbours to eat their meals before fasting,” Yassin says. “But today nobody needs my services. Who would need an old woman like me to wake him up when he has a mobile phone that can perform the role of the msharati drummer.”
The state of security in Mosul has also had an effect. At the end of the day’s fasting, the tradition was to fire a cannon over the city. But after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the cannon stopped being used during Ramadan. And today, because the city remains one of the most dangerous in Iraq - due to its disputed status and the diverse sectarian and ethnic makeup of its inhabitants - the use of munitions, like the Ramadan cannon – continue to be restricted. Now in Mosul, as in other dangerous places like Syria, locals just joke about the cannon fire at Iftar – if they hear an explosion earlier in the day, they joke that surely it’s not time for the Iftar cannon yet.
It’s hard for people to move around freely late at night too, when in the past, they would have been roaming between friends and family to share the Iftar meal. Interestingly for Mosul, this year the curfew that’s in place most of the time to discourage extremists and violence, was lifted for Ramadan.
This is to “alleviate citizens’ burdens and to promote a climate of security and confidence,” the governor of the province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, explained on his Facebook page.
Nonetheless this is still considered a risky decision by many. And in reality, things are not that different. As local journalist Ahmad al-Hamadani told NIQASH, after midnight he and other locals were not allowed to cross the Huriyah bridge.
“The Ninawa Operations Command announced they were lifting the curfew in the media but it doesn’t seem to work that way in reality,” al-Hamadani says.
The people of Ninawa haven’t completely surrendered to their troubles though. After Iftar they still try to entertain themselves, by going out into the forests or to popular places where there are casinos and restaurants and where they can eat, drink, smoke waterpipes and play games or watch television.
And certainly the merchants of Mosul have not allowed security concerns to get in the way of business. During Ramadan in Mosul, the markets are some of the busiest places in the city. Many vendors and traders operating from carts stop their normal business and start selling Ramadan dishes and special holiday foods. It’s far more lucrative at this time of year.
One stationery store owner, Mohammed, makes jokes about his shoe store-owning neighbour in the central city’s Najafi street as he whiles away the daily fast, which can last up to 16 hours. “His shoes are usually displayed in glass cases and treated with the greatest respect,” Mohammed sneers. “But those sweets just sit in the heat and pollution all day long.”
In the busy commercial district of Dawasa, there are only two restaurants that are allowed to open during the day in Ramadan. One of them has curtains covering its windows so that nobody can see inside and on the left, there’s a small doorway so that non-fasting Muslims and others who are not celebrating Ramadan – like Christians or those of other religions - can enter. Patrons come and go like thieves for fear of rebuke.
Watching the customers come and go is a man in his 50s. He’s the restaurant manager and he stands at the doorway so he can inspect everyone who comes in to eat – these kinds of places are a target for extremists, especially radical Islamists because they know that those who eat during the day during Ramadan are not serious believers.
Meanwhile in another restaurant, on another day, it was just five minutes to go before Iftar-o’clock. The journalist al-Hamadani and his brothers are salivating around a table loaded with tasty dishes. Al-Hamadani picks up a plump date from a plate and caresses it; it looks particularly good after a day of hungering. And everyone sat there awaiting the marathon of eating and drinking to follow their fasts.
Just then though, there was a massive explosion outside. Glass shattered and doors buckled. Everyone was safe but al-Hamadani had to put down the date he had been savouring a minute before and run to check whether the women and children were all OK, and to calm them down.
As it turned out, it had been a tough day in Mosul despite the religious holiday. There were a series of car bombs that targeted security services based in residential areas. When al-Hamadani finally returned to the table to eat around midnight, he found that, despite a day of fasting, he wasn’t that hungry anymore. He did manage to eat a date – although it didn’t taste as sweet as it should have, after the pain and fear of another long day in Mosul.