The fact that the extremist Islamic State group controls the northern Iraqi city of Mosul has had a major impact on how Ramadan is being observed there this year. The Islamic State, or IS, group's first victim has been the Iftar table. This is the table loaded with food and special edible treats at which family groups and friends break their daily fast during Ramadan.
Traditionally 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 tenets 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 a week ago – is the breaking of the daily fast with friends, family and neighbours.
However in Mosul this year, Iftar tables have only offered slim pickings.
“I used to enjoy buying special food and drinks and pickles for Ramadan,” says Ibrahim Mahmoud, who used to be a member of the police in Mosul but who is now unemployed. “But today there's no money to do anything like that. We can afford nothing but the basics.”
In the past, Mahmoud, a 35-year-old father of five, used to put aside money to buy special treats during Ramadan; he was earning around US$1,000 a month then. “But today I only earn around US$100 a month from driving a cab owned by a relative. When I run out of money I have to ask my brothers for help,” he told NIQASH.
“We are fasting,” Mahmoud adds, “But it does't feel like a real Ramadan at my house because we are too worried about how to feed our family.”
And then there are the new rules that the IS group is enforcing in Mosul over Ramadan. Some of these have turned out to be just rumours – for instance, the one about women not being allowed to leave their houses at all and another about younger women being forced into temporary marriage – that is, sex – with extremist fighters. But there are some rules that have been spread by word of mouth that are genuine.
Some relate to how and when to worship during Ramadan. Special prayers traditionally said during Ramadan evenings have been reduced in size and worshippers have been banned from certain kinds of acts while praying in mosques – this includes the tasbih, which involves repeated prayers (it has been described as similar to counting prayers while using a Catholic rosary). This is because the IS group think some of these types of acts and prayers were more modern inventions and therefore are heresy.
Perhaps not unsurprisingly another new rule says that anybody over the age of 14 must fast – and that no excuse is acceptable for not doing so.
In the past Mosul was not all Muslim – for example, there were Christians and Yazidis living here – as well as non-practicing Muslims. Mostly those who did not fast were told not to eat out in public and a lot of restaurants closed during the day. But because the non-fasting groups were still eating normally during Ramadan there were some restaurants in the central city that were allowed to stay open, to serve them food. However under the IS group all of these restaurants must now close.
Saeed Thanon was one of the city's non-practising Muslims who never used to fast during Ramadan. He would usually go to a restaurant called Furat in Mosul which had a license to serve meals during the day, during Ramadan.
“I went to see the restaurant in Aleppo Street this week,” he tells NIQASH. “But it was closed – like all the others. It also had an “N” painted on the outside of it.”
The “N” is the IS group's code that the place had Christian owners, with the letter “N” standing for Nazarene, how the IS group describe Christians.
Thanon also said that the members of the IS group's religious or morality police, known as the Hisbah, have been watching locals very carefully during Ramadan to ensure that they are all obeying the rules.
“They say that there is a reward of US$80 for anyone who reports someone who is not fasting,” Thanon told NIQASH. “However nobody knows what sort of punishment there will be for those reported. But everybody also knows that lesser offences have already been punished with death.” This is why, Thanon says, he pretends he is fasting while out in public.
Another of the Ramadan traditions that has decreased because of the IS group is the practice of umrah - that is, making a pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, considered the most holy place in the world for Sunni Muslims. The trip costs about US$2,000 and after a lot of effort, apparently one convoy was able to leave Mosul for Saudi Arabia and Jordan. But nobody else has been able to leave as Mosul is now isolated from most of the rest of the world.
Ramadan activities have changed a little too. It is summer in Iraq now and extremely hot – this makes 16 hours of fasting, which often involves not drinking either, much more difficult. Most of Mosul only gets about two hours of publicly-supplied electricity and then further hours can be purchased from private generators. The lack of electricity makes staying cool while fasting even more difficult.
A lot of Mosul locals have been meeting on the banks of the Tigris River to cool down. One university professor in the city writes that he went down to the river and saw many people swimming and playing in the water under the fifth bridge, “the water making their hearts full of hope and contentment, the fresh, sweet air making a mockery of their cars' air conditioning”.
A group of friends were gathered there by the river side and they were commiserating each other on the beginning of this year's Ramadan. “Ramadan is much heavier this year,” they all agreed, noting that the month-long tradition had lost its special flavour in their city.