Oh Palestine, my beautiful homeland, how I miss you. Writing this post stirred up so many emotions and evoked so many precious memories of my two months spent in the motherland. One of those two months happened to be the holy month of Ramadan. And with Ramadan quickly approaching us, I decided to compile a guide on what a Ramadan in the Holy Land is like.
Before we dive into the meat of this post, I wanted to give a quick disclaimer. This post is not intended to ignore the issues surrounding Palestine. It’s intent is to humanize Palestinians and provide insight into their beautiful country and culture. That being said, let’s begin!
A Ramadan Backstory:
For those of you unfamiliar with the month of Ramadan, it is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar in which Muslims around the world observe the pillar of fasting. It’s a month consisting of prayer, worship, charity and of course, fasting. To fast, means to abstain from, and throughout this particular month, Muslims abstain from eating and drinking during daylight hours. This includes chewing gum, or smoking of any sort, as well as sexual intimacy. Fasting begins at sunrise and ends at sunset, so the time frame ranges from country to country. Before the sun rises, Muslims wake up and have a light meal called suhoor. This is where I’ll try and get my daily intake of caffeine to help suppress my caffeine withdrawals throughout the day. After sunset, Muslims break their fast with some dates and water, following the steps of the Prophet (pbuh). Many Muslims continue their worship into the evening with tarawih prayers. These are supererogatory prayers that are only conducted during the holy month of Ramadan.
A Ramadan Guide:
To observe Ramadan in the Middle East has always been appealing to me, because in a way it’s similar to celebrating Christmas in the West. It’s very visible and observed by the majority of the population, making the holiday that much more special. Although I’ve celebrated Ramadan in a few Middle Eastern countries before, this happened to be my first experience of it in Palestine. Here’s a brief insight of what that was like:
- In Palestine, fasting begins with the fajr (sunrise) prayer, around half past 4am, and concludes with maghrib (sunset) prayer, a little past 7pm. This is an hour shorter than fasting times in the States. Times may vary depending on the time of year.
- In the West Bank city of Ramallah, a huge fanoos (lantern) is placed in one of the roundabouts in commemoration of the holiday.
- Colorful lanterns and Ramadan lights transform the narrow archways and walls of the Old City with light. Damascus Gate, otherwise known as Bab Al-Amoud becomes the hub of the Ramadan nightlife.
- Daytime activities tend to decrease. Although the street markets continue running, everything is much quieter in the morning.
- Many restaurants offer buffet style food instead of their regular menu during iftar time.
- As sunset approaches, shopkeepers begin closing up their shops. The city becomes a ghosttown as everyone closes up to go break their fast. The hustle and bustle reawakens shortly after dinner as locals spill out to shop and eat dessert from local street vendors. This continues into the late hours of the night.
- During Ramadan, many locals living in the West Bank get tasareeh (documentation) to go pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem for Friday prayers. This causes a huge influx in the amount of people headed towards Jerusalem, creating a lot of traffic. It’s best to avoid that by making prior arrangements.
- Praying tarawih at the Al-Aqsa Mosque is a must. As the first qibla (direction of prayer) in Islam and the third holiest site, the Temple Mount grounds hold, as the French would say, a certain je ne sais quoi.
Modes of Transportation:
It’s very difficult to get around in Palestine without a car. However, it’s also very difficult to drive in Palestine. Picture driving in a place where no traffic laws exist, and everyone drives as they please. While I was visiting, I did not have a license and therefore could not rent a car. (What can I say, I’m from New York, LOL!) And even if I did, I don’t know if I would have been comfortable driving there. There are various way to get around depending on your preference.
During my visit, I didn’t really have another option so I got around using different methods of transportation. Getting to Ramallah was fairly easy for me. I would take a cab or a Ford which are small buses that carry a number of people for only 5 shekels per ride. That’s equivalent to about $1.50. For other cites, I’d walk to a nearby bus location that would then transport me to the main bus center in Jerusalem. Bus centers are scattered throughout the side streets of Damascus Gate. These buses take passengers to various West Bank cities, including Bethlehem, Beira, Ramallah, Beit Hanina, Nablus, etc. My cousin and I would use these buses to get from place to place, and then explored on foot once we were at our desired location. In order to get to cities like Haifa and Yafa, we were lucky to have family members residing there who were able to take us and show us around.
Many people opt to rent a car from the airport, because it is the most convenient. My sister, Israa, who was in Palestine a few months ago, took this option during her visit. GPS doesn’t work in the area, so she would stop and ask for directions from the locals, or take a local family member with her for assistance. Parking is also not the most convenient, especially in cities like Ramallah and Jerusalem. However, a car is the best option if you’re visiting and hoping to see many areas of the country. Cities like Nablus, Bethlehem, Haifa, Yafa and Akka are best accessible via car.
Palestinian food is an identity. It is something that we hold very dear to our hearts, since it is drenched in history from the generations that have passed. – Joudie Kalla, Palestine on a Plate
Local Foods to Try:
- Knafeh, perhaps the most iconic Palestinian dessert, is synonymous with the city of Nablus. Best described as a cheesy orange pastry, soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup, it comes in two different forms, na’meh (soft) and khishneh (course). One of the most infamous locations for trying this sweet dessert is Jaffar Sweets in the heart of the Old City at Khan Al-Zeit Street. A second location is also available in the neighboring town of Ramallah, Al-Beira. Another highly recommended knafeh spot is El Mahroum in Ramallah City.
- Ka’ak, a long oval-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds is a Jerusalem specialty. Sold in various West Bank cities, Jerusalem is reknown for this bread. Try purchasing it early in the morning while it’s still fresh. Eat it with some falafel or cheese. It’s great to have for suhoor before a long day of fasting.
- Katayif, a dessert usually only sold during Ramadan, is a sweet batter filled with nuts or cheese, deep fried and served with hot syrup. Al-Asal Sweets in the Old City of Jerusalem offers some great alternatives on this dessert.
- Pick up some taboon bread from any street vendor (pictured above). This delicious bread is baked in a clay oven and has a chewy texture.
- If you’re visiting during the summer months, make sure to pick up a tub of figs and cactus pears from any street vendor. There’s nothing that compares to the flavor of locally grown fruit.
- Last but most definitely not least, purchase some of the soos or halal gummy candy from the marketplace (pictured below). These colorful candies are the perfect gift to take home to your loved one. And the most requested.
A Few Tips:
- Bring comfortable shoes with you. No matter where you stay, a lot of walking will be involved. Streets can be dusty and there’s a large possibility that your shoes will get dirty.
- The Dome of Rock (pictured below) is commonly mistaken for the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Know the difference between the two.
- Palestine is not a tourist playground. Be mindful of the locals. The people and the land deserve a certain level of respect. If you would like to take photos of the people, kindly ask them first. They’ll likely agree and be happy to give you a story with the photo as well.
- Carrying a camera around does attract unwanted attention. Outside the surge of Palestinian Americans that come visit every summer, the country is not exactly swarming in tourists. It’s completely fine in areas like the Old City, but is not common in cities like Ramallah.
- If you’re looking to purchase some traditional goods, like a Palestinian thoub (an embroidered dress) take a local with you. It’s easier to haggle with someone who is familiar with the prices. Accents are easy to spot, even if you’re fluent in Arabic. Locals can spot a foreigner right away and may charge you a high price. Local thoub shops are scattered throughout Ramallah, but a highly recommended one is Ma’rad Al-Qahera.
- Make sure to check out the spice shops in the Old City. There is a famous store located between the narrow alleyways that hosts a pyramid built of spices at it’s storefront. Atop it lies a miniature sized monument of the Dome of Rock. This store is a small gem holding mounds of spices on display. They also sell bottles of natural essential oils for a few dollars. Some of these include garlic oil, which is great for the nails, onion oil, which is great for the hair, and ant oil, which is great for hair removal.
- Hebron is home to the last factory (Hirbawi) creating authentic Palestinian keffiyehs. If you’re interested in purchasing one, a store or two in the Old City of Bethlehem still sell the authentic one.
- Zamn Cafe’s iced coffee is like a drink straight from heaven. Introduced to me by my friend Jasmine who was residing in Palestine at the time, this drink quickly became my everyday addiction. Their chickpea salad also happens to be my favorite as well.
- Pay a visit to Rukab or Balady, both located in the heart of Ramallah and try the delicious homemade ice cream.
- Sindyan, a restaurant that opened up during the last ten days of my visit offers amazing seafood and views of Ramallah.
- Jasmine Cafe offers some great traditional Palestinian breakfasts. It’s also highly popular for it’s hookah as well.
- Sheeshapresso serves some really great cappuccinos and lattes. The best part is, they offer soy milk which is a rare commodity in the West Bank. This place is also very popular for it’s hookah.
- Darna Restaurant offers a classic take on authentic Palestinian foods. Located in the heart of Ramallah, it’s a great choice for a special evening out with the family.
- Syraan is a rooftop restaurant located in the center of Ramallah City with quinessential Middle Eastern decor. It offers some great views overlooking Ramallah, and even has a sister restaurant that opened up in Paterson, New Jersey.
- Skyline, although I personally did not get to try this place out, my sister did rave about the mezze platter and mint lemonade they served here.
- Abu Shukri, a popular Jerusalem restaurant nestled between the Old City is also the rave. The hummus and falafel are in high demand.
I hope this guide proves helpful to anyone spending a Ramadan in the Holy Land. Feel free to leave me any other questions you may have.