Ghada al-Haj Hamoud grew up in the town of Jdeidat Artouz in Rif Dimashq Province. Her family was Muslim in a predominantly Christian neighborhood, where ties of goodwill and love bound the whole community together.
The first social occasion Ghada remembers attending was her sister’s wedding held in the family home. Ghada was seven years old.. “On the wedding night, the women all adorn themselves in preparation for the women’s celebration, which is separate from the men’s,” says Ghada. “Meanwhile the groom goes to get ready at a relative’s house in the neighborhood, surrounded by a festive atmosphere, where a troupe of traditional Syrian wedding dancers sing and dance around him, outfitted in Levantine dress: a shirwal, a fez and a Syrian vest. Some beat on drums while others brandish swords and shields, and some carry candles and Korans, repeating special wedding folk chants. Surrounded by the men, the groom is accompanied to his own house where the wedding will take place, and where the bride is now waiting for him at the threshold, her face covered by a veil. Together they take a seat on the aksi, the special seat for the bride and groom. The atmosphere is joyous, with everyone singing and dancing and the women decked out in their very best. The bride changes her dress several times during the night. The celebrations continue for hours until the newlyweds go off to their room, and on the next day, the families of the two newlyweds, as well as some neighbors, gather together for breakfast in an atmosphere of joy and celebration.”
Ghada talks about the traditions and atmosphere during the holy month of Ramadan, where preparations among Muslim families in the town begin before the start of the month, particularly on the night before Ramadan is set to begin. “People would go to the market to buy all the necessary household items, dairy products and cheeses,” she says, “especially those things traditionally served during the suhoor meal. Suhoor is eaten just before the dawn prayers, so that those who are fasting can keep up their strength for the next day. During Ramadan, the markets would be packed with people into the night, right up until suhoor time, and the atmosphere was always joyous. The streets would be decked out in Ramadan decorations, with lanterns hung overhead throughout the streets and lanes, and the musaharati would walk through the streets chanting traditional folk sayings to wake people and warn them that it was time for suhoor.”
Preparations for iftar, the meal which breaks the daily fast right after the end of evening prayers, would begin after the noon prayers. During the mornings, the women would spend time fasting, praying, worshipping and reading the Koran. Some of the traditional foods usually found on the iftar table are a dish of fava beans, a dish of fatteh (chickpeas, bread and yogurt), which in Syria is called tese’ye, as well as all sorts of different kebabs, mansaf and kabseh (both dishes of rice with meat) and much more.
“The most beautiful thing about Ramadan,” says Ghada, “is how the family gathers every night around the table during evening prayers, no matter how busy they are.”
As the month of Ramadan draws to a close, the preparations begin for Eid al-Fitr, which marks its end. Houses are thoroughly cleaned, traditional sweets are prepared and families go shopping for food and clothes.. As Jdeidat Artouz is so close to Damascus, Ghada’s family would go to the famous Souk al-Hamidiyah in the Old City to buy supplies and new clothes for the Eid celebrations. “Souk al-Hamidiyah was especially crowded,” says Ghada, “and it would only increase during Eid. There were vendors selling tamarind juice and licorice juice circulating through the crowds, and this always added to the Eid’s special sense of excitement.”
During the first day of Eid, which lasts three days, families set out offerings for their guests on a long table: plates of sweets, either ready-made or homemade, fruits, candies and chocolate and Arabic coffee.
In the morning the men head to the mosque to pray, and then go to visit the graves of relatives, where they place garlands of myrtle and distribute sweets to passersby to honor the souls of their dead. Afterwards, friends, relatives and neighbors all pay visits to one another, wishing one another well for the year to come.
“The first day of Eid,” says Ghada, “was the one where you visited family, while in the next two you saw other relatives and neighbors, including all our Christian neighbors, who celebrated all our special occasions with us, just as we celebrated all their special occasions with them, going to visit them on Christmas, during the Easter and on New Year’s.
Eid al-Adha is quite similar to Eid al-Fitr in terms of preparations and celebratory atmosphere.
“What distinguishes Eid al-Adha,” says Ghada, “is all the rituals of welcoming back the pilgrims from Hajj (their pilgrimage to Mecca). The returning pilgrims would dress in white and welcome well-wishers into their homes. They would hand out dates and Arabic coffee and rosaries from holy Mecca as gifts. The families of pilgrims wouldn’t really feel the full effects of the Eid presence until their loved one had returned safely from their journey.”
In addition to Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, the Muslims in the town would also celebrate the Hijra New Year and Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in a similar flurry of joy, excitement and preparation. The Prophet’s birthday in particular was marked by religious celebrations at the mosque as troupes of dervishes came to visit and prayer circles were formed to commemorate and pray for the Prophet.
“Some of the ways in which holidays and special occasions are celebrated have changed among certain families in the name of becoming more modern,” says Ghada, “but I prefer to raise my children on the same habits that were passed down to us by our fathers and grandfathers. We will never forget our habits and traditions. We were born by them and we will die by them.”