This year in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Ramadan is different. During the Islamic holy month, the religious usually abstain from eating, drinking and other activities like sex, during the day so that they may contemplate the spiritual instead; then, once night falls, they break their daily fast with friends, family and neighbours.
But after being under the control of the extremist group known as the Islamic State for over two years, the people of Mosul are feeling the freedom to celebrate Ramadan a little differently. Where once, anyone who didn’t fast had to eat in private, away from fasting eyes, now more individuals are going public with their snacking. And cafes that once covered their windows with curtains - that is, if they were even open during the day at Ramadan – are now opening their doors to all and sundry.
Abdullah raises a spoon to his mouth. If I had done this during Ramadan, the IS group would have cut off my head, he says.
Even before the Islamic State, or IS, group took over the city in June 2014, Mosul was a relatively conservative place. When former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in charge of the country, police would penalize anyone caught eating during the fasting hours. Sometimes this involved prison, other times it was just a fine. After 2003, some parts of Mosul were under control of another extremist group, Al Qaeda in Iraq, who based their ideology on Sunni Islam practices. Al Qaeda in Iraq were followed by their offshoot, the IS group, who took control of the whole city. While the extremists were in charge, eating during the fast was extremely dangerous and could even result in execution.
But today, in the parts of Mosul from which the IS group have recently been expelled, the casual observer will see more people than ever before, eating during the day.
Some have genuine physical reasons for this. During the last few months, while the city was under siege from pro-government forces fighting the IS group, some families were only able to eat one meal a day. Others were starving – and they are simply too weak to fast during the day now.
Mosul man Haj Khader al-Hussein is one these. All his life he has fasted, every Ramadan since he was 18, the 70-year-old told NIQASH, because it is one of the most important religious duties. But this month he has not been able to, for the first time.
“The war has had a negative physical and psychological impact,” he explains. “When our neighbourhood was liberated about three weeks ago, friends came to visit me and they barely recognized me. I tried to fast this year too but after five hours, I fainted. I realized it was a bad idea,” he notes, showing a bag of vitamins and supplements he was given after the fainting episode.
There are also other Mosul locals who are not fasting for different reasons. Most of them are younger people who appear to have rebelled against the religious ideal after having been under the control of the extremist group who, they say, claimed to practice Islamic law but in fact, only spread death and injustice.
Younes Abdullah, 33, is eating lunch in public during Ramadan for the first time in his life. Abdullah and his family escaped the IS group when they left home and ran towards the Iraqi pro-government forces – he was shot in the process but escaped with his life.
“In the past, I always used to fast but I’m not so keen on it anymore,” he told NIQASH.” I feel like I want to show that I am not obeying religious rituals anymore and I do not think anybody around here would blame me. Everyone knows what the extremists did to us in the name of what they said was Islam. Everybody also knows that the moderate clerics just stood by, observing passively, and said nothing about what was going on.”
Abdullah raises a spoon to his mouth. “If I had done this during Ramadan, the IS group would have cut off my head,” he adds.
The Mosul local is eating lunch at the Najim restaurant in the northern Majmouah-Thaqafiyah neighbourhood. The fact that the restaurant was even open is also a strange new phenomenon for the city. Before June 2014 when the IS group took over, the Iraqi government allowed only three or four restaurants in the centre of the city to open during the day in Ramadan.
They could open but only if they put a curtain over the front of the restaurant to hide the diners inside, out of respect for the fasting people outside, who shouldn’t see them eating.
After the IS group took over, no restaurants or cafes opened during the day in Ramadan. The owners knew they would end up dead, probably strung up on a power pole, if they opened.
This month though, the local police are not enforcing any such rules about fasting. On the contrary, they appear to be more focused on keeping the restaurants that do open safe from any further extremist attacks. There is still fierce fighting going on in parts of the city that the extremists still control, where thousands of civilians are still trapped and potentially starving.
The police have issued a number of rules to keep Mosul safe. This includes a ban on the niqab, the full-face veil for women that the IS group demanded. There are fears that the extremists will use this as a disguise to launch attacks against civilians.
The police have also urged restaurant owners to check their customers carefully during Ramadan – the eateries would make good targets for the extremists.
It is clear to locals that there is more freedom in the city than there was before the IS group took over. Some are welcoming these signs of secularism. Then again, as others say, the situation here is still unstable; nobody knows how long these newfound freedoms will last.