“Kul aam wa antum bkheyr”
Every year, these words become a chorus, flying from smiling lips around the globe, on the occasion of Eid al-Fitur, which took place on June 24 this year. Along with salaam alaikum, it is one of those rare Arabic phrases many non-Arab Muslims learn by rote. The meaning is universal: may you and yours be well, this year and always.
Eid al-Fitur marks the end of Ramadan, that somber, holy stretch of fasting, moon-marking, prayer and alms-giving. Roughly translated, the holiday’s name means “the feast of breaking fast” and signifies the celebration of fullness after one month of contemplation and self-denial.
Each Eid, between well-wishes and supplications, mouths around the world fill with rich foods. In many households, preparations begin days in advance. In Malaysia, bamboo torches are lit alongside tables heaped with rice cakes. In Afghanistan, deep-fried jalebi, a twisted pastry soaked in syrup, follow morning prayers. Russian Muslims eat dumplings as memories of a month-long hunger fade, and in Egypt, fingers are dusted with the powdered sugar of kahk biscuits.
Yet food is, ultimately, but a small part of this holiday. It is the visiting—the hand clasps, cheek-kisses and clinking teacups—that makes this day sacred. Around the world, even in the ragged year of 2017, Eid al-Fitur means doors and hearts are opened wide. It is a day of universal invitation and abundance. New clothes materialize in defiance of poverty, while children run amok in a rare atmosphere of permissiveness. Coffee flows, as do blessings in many tongues.
But, for many Syrian refugees, the sacred season of Ramadan and Eid have taken on new meaning – the holy days are a reminder of former, now-severed, lives, and of a country engulfed in raging conflict.
Displaced and Scattered
For the last five years, Somia and her sisters have had a new Eid tradition: “On the first morning, we wake up and we weep.” Somia, forty-one, fled Syria during Ramadan 2012, after waking up to the sound of bullets in the pre-dawn hours. At the time, she was living with her sisters and their families in their hometown of Dera’a. The household’s eleven children, awakened by the din, dove into their mothers’ arms. Their fathers crept to the windows to see the dark shape of tanks rolling down the city’s streets. Somia’s niece, Lana, then four years old, crawled under the bed and froze.
By the time Ramadan had ended that year, Somia, two of her sisters, several in-laws, and a half-dozen children had fled their Dera’a homes for Jordan. That first Eid in exile was spent tucked into a small, overpriced apartment just south of the Syrian-Jordanian border. The family cried quietly, and said prayers that, at the time, still felt plausible: next year, we will celebrate at home again.
More than fifty moons later, Somia dreads another Eid and the magnified loneliness it brings. “We try to forget, but on Eid, all you can think about is everyone you’ve lost, how alone you feel.” Her voice wavers as she draws a verbal map of her family: a brother disappeared in Syria (“we think the regime took him”), while another escaped by raft from Libya to Germany. Three of her sisters are still trapped in Syria. They waited too long to flee, she says, and now “the way is closed to them.” Her ailing mother lives in Saudi Arabia, under the care of another brother, and her father lays buried by the house he built in Dera’a. “That was the hardest day of all, leaving our home and his grave,” she says. “God rest his soul.”
Just a few years ago, the family would have shared sweet tea in a single, bright room, Somia tells me, as she tugs at the sleeves of her light cotton robe. Her eyes remain downcast as she murmurs warm memories: “All day, we were together, coming and going to each other’s homes, eating sweets, and everyone looking beautiful.”
She glances around the room. We are sitting in the airless salon of the two-bedroom quarters she shares with ten other Syrian girls and women. The walls are scuffed and the curtains hang by nylon strings. The only furniture is a set of flat, flimsy cushions. “We would decorate so carefully,” she recalls, “we would spend a week making everything perfect for receiving guests. Not anymore.” She gestures at our bare surroundings, “after the azma [the crisis], came to us, we learned that you can spend a lifetime building something beautiful, and in one night it can be gone.”
Still, Somia and her neighbors work to stave off their sadness. On one of the final nights of Ramadan a few weeks ago, a dozen women, trailed by children, crowd into her salon. Each woman enters the room draped in an abaya—a loose floor-length gown—their arms laden with platters of warm home cooking. Somia spreads a plastic tablecloth on the ground, and the women arrange their fragrant dishes.
Outside, Jordan’s desert sky is draining light, but the shabby walls grow bright with bouncing voices. With the sound of the adhan signifying sunset and the end of the fasting day, they break their fast with wrinkled dates and chilled tap water. After murmured prayers of thanks, they turn to serve each other heaping piles of food. We take our time, working through fatoush, cabsa, and sheikh al-mahshi, repeatedly dipping our spoons in shared plates of savory rice and yogurt-drenched delicacies.
There are no men at the gathering. Most of the women were widowed by the war, their husbands buried in hasty graves between curfews and firefights. A few last saw their husbands—or brothers or fathers—when Bashar al-Assad’s men dragged them away, without warning, to prison. These, however, are not the stories they share tonight. With Eid drawing near, the women are defiantly cheerful. Their talk is all of Syria, of the good times, and the tastes and rituals they left behind.
“Do you remember how we’d pick our own grape leaves from the garden to make dinner?” “And the olive oil—from our own tree!” The women groan with pleasure as they recall the sweetness of homegrown tomatoes, creamy pickled eggplant, and fresh goats milk. “The air, the soil, it was all so rich, like God touched the very earth,” Maysaa, a forty-five-year-old, widowed mother of five, tells me. Her short fingers grasp my knee. Umm Mohammad, the oldest and most mischievous in the group, pinches my arm, and tells me, “if you stayed one month with us in Syria, we’d make you fat and beautiful. And married.”
Buoyed by food and stories, the women move the leftovers aside and send one of the children to fetch a tabla drum from a neighbor. When it arrives, Umm Muhammad grabs the round, hollow frame and sets it deftly across her knee. Her strong fingers pound rapidly across the surface. Her normally hoarse voice is suddenly strong and clear as she sings a folk song of a Syrian bride:
Get up with the sun
Beautiful daughter of Damascus
May your life be long
And your children prosperous
Your beauty makes glad our hearts.
Isra’, a tall, twenty-seven-year-old mother of two, begins dancing. Her daughters, ten-year-old Lana and three-year-old Deema, skirt shyly around her feet. Yousra, forty-eight and stout, rises to her feet, clapping and yipping her encouragement. Around the room, fleeting smiles flick from face to face as everyone claps along. “The fruit grows thick on the trees. Daughter of Damascus, your people sing for you.”
The song is interrupted by the robotic melody of a ringing iPhone. “It’s my sister!” Isra’ cries, diving towards her phone. The drumming ceases; the room collectively draws in breath. On the screen, the grainy outline of a woman’s face appears and a garbled voice emanates from her pixelated lips. Her hair is uncovered—there are no men where she is, either—and, even on the tiny screen, the contours of her exhaustion are evident. “Kul aam wa antum bkheyr” she calls out, the words cutting in and out. She is in Dera’a, still an active warzone, and Isra’ has been trying all day to reach her.
Isra’ scoops up her two daughters and the trio attempts to stuff their faces into the small screen as they call out well-wishes for the coming Eid. They do not ask about safety. Instead, they ask her what she is making for the coming feast. Sweet bread, she answers. Isra’ smiles, her glasses half-screening her tears. “Don’t burn it this time, sister!” she teases. The rest of us chuckle cautiously. Later, Isra’ tells me that her family in Syria “lives under death every day,” losing track of which warplanes and tanks belong to which faction of the indecipherable conflict.
The call quickly drops. “They don’t have much signal there,” Isra’ explains to me, staring at the silenced phone, “and they lose their electricity a lot, too.” Deema takes the phone from her mother’s hand. “Where’s aunty?” she asks. Deema was born in Jordan, just months after her father was lost. Somia scoops up the girl: “Aunty went to go feed her babies: your cousins!” Deema nods, blankly.
Umm Muhammad tries to strike up another tune, but the women have lost their desire for song. She lays aside the drum. Somia kneads her hands. “I think it’s time for tarweeh.” The women mumble agreement, pulling their scarves back over their heads in preparation for prayer. Silently they stand, lining up to face the nylon-strung curtains, and Mecca far beyond. Somia stands in the middle of the line, an open Qur’an in her hand. They all close their eyes as she leads them in supplications for guidance, for peace and protection, and for mercy upon the dead.