Sharing a Ramadan Feast in Wartime
Mohammad Amash sat at the head of a table loaded for Iftar, the evening feast that breaks the daily fast of Ramadan. The food was all traditional Arab dishes — the rice-and-vegetable dish maqlouba, meatballs slathered in tahini sesame paste, fried eggplants baked into a flat tray. The guests were less traditional: eight Jewish Israelis who signed up for a tour of this Muslim village on the coast at a time of sectarian tension and conflict.
“Ramadan is a fasting month, and it’s a special month,” Amash said. “So we want Israelis who come here this month to get to know Ramadan up close. To see the people, what they do, what they eat, how they sit, how they act.”
Jisr az-Zarqa has hosted Ramadan night tours for six years, but this year the tour came in the middle of a war. This town of 14,000 is among Israel’s poorest, and Ramadan tours have been an important attraction for bringing in outside visitors. Ahmed Juha, the tours’ founder, said he was so impressed by interest in Ramadan tours that he opened a guesthouse last year with a Jewish business partner.
The guests came from the Haifa area as
well as from Tel Aviv and Rosh Ha’Ayin. The first stop on the tour was Peace Park, a former Roman quarry that was cleaned up and turned into a national park in 1993, near the beginning of the Oslo peace process, under then-environment minister Yossi Sarid, a prominent dove.
“The whole state saw this garbage, and they took on this area and turned it into the peace park,” tour guide Amash said. “The park was green and flourishing and beautiful, and that’s how the peace was. And today the park is neglected and dry and brown.”
Orit Gat walked the brown dry earth. She came from Rosh Ha’Ayin. Two years ago, she said, she attended a similar Ramadan tour in the town of Umm al-Fahm. Recently, Umm al-Fahm was the scene of protests against the Israeli search for the three teens who were abducted while hitchhiking in the West Bank. Some demonstrators burned tires and hurled stones at Israeli riot police.
“Our curiosity is mainly how they feel about us,” Gat said of her present hosts. Referring to the missiles Hamas has been launching from Gaza into Israel, she said, “I hope they are not happy when there are rockets here.”
Jisr az-Zarqa is near Zichron Yaakov; sirens have gone off here when rockets fly from Gaza. Amash said when he hears the sirens, he hurries his wife and his four young children into a bomb shelter built into his house.
“When we heard there were sirens in Tel Aviv and further south, I didn’t get worked up or afraid,” he said. “But when the rockets fly over me and fall in Zichron and Hadera, I get very nervous.”
Next stop on the tour was downtown Jisr az-Zarqa. In the twilight hours before the breaking of Ramadan’s daily fast, vendors fried falafel, baked pita and scooped eggplant salads into takeaway containers. Amash said would use these as side dishes on the table, because the village women would prepare the lion’s share of food.
Kobi Raifen picked out eggplant salads and hot peppers. He said he checked that the tour would be safe before he drove from Haifa with his wife.
Like Umm al-Fahm, Jisr az-Zarqa also saw protests in recent weeks. Following the murder of the three Israeli teens, 16-yearold Mohammad Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, was murdered in an apparent revenge attack. Three Israeli Jews have been charged in connection with Khdeir’s killing.
Residents of Jisr az-Zarqa held one peaceful protest following this killing. But days later, on July 6, local teens burned tires and hurled rocks on the village’s main road.
By the time of the tour, however, the tension had subsided. Ahmed Amash, 37, slapped thin sheets of dough over a domed griddle called a saj. Jews were welcome in his village, he said. Ahmed Amash is not directly related to Mohammed Amash; the extended Amash clan is simply one of the village’s largest. “Life works out,” said Amash the baker. “We are all people, and we have to get along.” Raifen said he came because he wanted to learn more about Islamic traditions. For example, when do children start the Ramadan fast? Mohammad Amash, the tour guide, said most kids start at age 10, but some volunteer earlier. What if you miss a day? You can make it up during the year, after Ramadan. And why do Muslims sell and buy food all day long, while Jewish shops are closed all day on Yom Kippur? “This is something a Muslim does,” Amash said. “He resists his urges. He doesn’t eat, drink or smoke. You can smell the smell of baking, of falafel frying. When my wife cooks I don’t stay home, I run to the sea.”
The sea was the last stop on the tour before dinner. Ahmed Amash stood at the mouth of the river that flows past his village to the ocean. The waterway is known in Arabic as Wadi az-Zarqa, the blue river, and in Hebrew as Nahal Taninim, the crocodile river. Amash tore off a piece of a reed from the thickly growing green stands on the riverbank. The Jewish immigrants who moved to Israel in the late 1800s sought to drain the swamps and marshes of the coastal plain. The people of Jisr az-Zarqa lived in the marsh, Amash explained, off water buffalo. They used the reeds growing wildly to weave baskets and mats, and to cover their houses in the summer. In the winter the villagers moved up to the hill where the modern-day town sits today. “The people who started the draining of the swamps were not the Arabs who lived here for centuries and knew the swamps like the back of their hands,” Amash said. “The people who tried first were the Jewish pioneers who believed in Hebrew labor. And they couldn’t handle the swamp. Some died, some ran away, some got ill. And… they had to employ Arab workers.”
Today Jisr az-Zarqa is an urban community, but it still has some of its old roots. Small, colorful fish- ing boats bobbed in the water off the coast. There are remnants of a Roman aqueduct and stone quarry. Amash the tour guide said that on holidays, villagers still visit an ancient graveyard just north of Jisr az-Zarqa that was in use until the 1980s.
Gilad Rosenfelder took in the salty ocean smells as Israeli warplanes flew overhead. “They are probably coming back from or going to a strike in Gaza,” he said.
“But in the Gaza Strip, I’m sure there are people who came to relax. You know, the strikes are always in the cities, near the Hamas bases, so the shore is a safe place to be. I’m sure there is an equivalent group of people over there, listening to the waves and wondering what will be the end of this horrible situation.”
Feast after Fast: Israeli Jewish tourists check out their Muslim neighbors’ Iftar meal preparations for the end of that day’s Ramadan fast.
Specialized Tourism: Mohammad Ahmash leads tours of Muslim towns during Ramadan.