Shar­ing a Ra­madan Feast in War­time

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Daniella Ch­es­low Jisr az- Zarqa, Is­rael

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.

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