BEIRUT: Muslims across the globe woke Friday to the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, with the omnipresent threat of COVID-19 foreshadowing a Ramadan unlike any before. Traditionally Ramadan ushers in an atmospheric period for mosque prayers, fasting and gatherings between friends and family. In Lebanon, the reality of the lockdown extended to May 10 prohibits much of this, alongside the deteriorating economic situation, and threatens to dampen the spirit of the holy month.
Khaled, 24, from Tripoli, believes his habits and routines will have to change. ''Normally I would go the mosque for all the prayers and later for the taraweeh that happens after iftar. But this year I think I will pray at home,'' he told The Daily Star. For Khaled and thousands of others, praying at home is a sad decision that must be made. ''I will miss the environment of people praying together and gathering outside mosques, '' he added.
Yet with the declining rate of coronavirus infections in Lebanon, some may wonder if such closures are still needed. ''With the decreasing number of cases, there are people asking for the mosques to be opened with some measures for social distancing and hygiene,'' Khaled said. While AFP has reported a religious backlash in Bangladesh and Pakistan against mosque prohibitions during Ramadan, Lebanon's Islamic community is largely supportive of the measures. Dar al-Fatwa, Lebanon's governing Sunni authority is encouraging people to abide by the lockdown.
Speaking with The Daily Star, Dr. Hasan Moraib, assistant inspector general at Dar al-Fatwa, emphasized Muslims' duties amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying, ''we are compelled and religiously commanded,'' to abide by the lockdown measures. ''Believers' spiritual preservation is more important than whether they can come to the mosque. Prayers will still happen,'' he adds. Others reaffirmed this conviction. Dr. Ali Muhammad al-Sheikh, imam and preacher of Al-Wafa Mosque in Tripoli, told The Daily Star, ''the general mobilization plan is required for health, safety and self-preservation. These are the directions of our religion during this epidemic.'' Sheikh Bakr Muhammad from the village of Aydamoun, Akkar agrees. ''God has commanded us to protect ourselves and our souls and to take the precautions. For every disease, this is what the messenger of God taught us.''
While Khaled expects the majority of mosques to remain closed, he thinks some might open. ''Not all mosques follow Dar al-Fatwa, but have private donors, so maybe more of these will be open,'' he says. Rami, a Sidon-based sheikh, concedes that this may be the case, but insists such decisions run contrary to Islam, stating that, ''the public interest comes first,'' and Islam's principles are clear in relation to the COVID-19 threat.
Apart from mosque closures, the lockdown is sure to affect other unique aspects of the Ramadan experience. Perhaps most notably is the unique nocturnal atmosphere that comes alive after sunset. For Khaled, Tripolitans excel in this respect. Spots like Bab al-Ramel, in the city's historical quarter typically brim with life. ''After taraweeh prayers, you see lots of people sitting outside, smoking shisha, playing cards, chatting and eating ice cream. Many people stay up until dawn. I don't know what the secret is but I feel everyone is happy that Ramadan has finally arrived.'' Yet with the nightly curfew in place until at least May 10, such activities will not be possible.
''After iftar people are accustomed to leave the house for taraweeh, and then visit friends, staying up late so this year people will be sad at missing the places where friends usually gather,'' Moraib added.
Yet with the Lebanese pound in free fall and increasing poverty rates across the country, for many the major crisis facing them this Ramadan is economic survival. These difficulties have been intensified by a lockdown depriving people of their daily livelihoods and prompting many to openly disregard the quarantine measures. Anti-government protests occurred for the third day running in Beirut Thursday. In Sidon and Tripoli over the past week, minor skirmishes have broken out between security forces and demonstrators demanding a return to work.
''Every Ramadan is harder than the last,'' Mohammad, 32 and a father of four from Qibbeh, Tripoli, told The Daily Star. Having lost his job six months ago, Mohammad has scraped by occasionally selling kaak. The prospect of the lockdown depriving Tripoli of its Ramadan atmosphere is not at the forefront of his mind. ''Generally there is not this thing called 'quarantine' in Tripoli. The biggest worry people have in this country right now, especially in Tripoli, is looking after their families, home and kids. People have to go to the streets to make a living or they will starve. I am paid daily just to make a living,'' Mohammad explained. ''There are people who really need to work and feed their family,'' Khaled says. ''In poorer districts you will not see people abiding by the rules.''
For some businesses, the cessation of commercial activity may come at a particularly high cost during Ramadan. Khaled, who usually works at Abu Sobhi, a prime shawarma spot in Tripoli, recalls how busy the place was when it opened after renovations last Ramadan. ''It was open for iftar until midnight and sometimes till dawn. It was so busy that people made reservations for tables. They will definitely not have so much business as last year,'' predicts Khaled, adding that Abu Sobhi is one of many restaurants and cafes that will be affected. He also imagines clothes vendors will lose out. ''Usually, in the last 10 or 15 days of Ramadan, shops selling clothes, shoes and jewelry stay open till dawn and the souks are full of people buying items for the Eid celebrations.'' Yet with no definite end to curfew or social distancing measures, coupled with ongoing currency collapse pushing more below the poverty line, vendors may not be too optimistic.
Last week the Social Affairs Ministry announced the postponement of a once-off cash handout to families in need. One could be forgiven for naively hoping that the government's failure in this respect will be somewhat alleviated by zakat - the Islamic duty obliging wealthier people to donate to the poor - that is commonly carried out during Ramadan. ''There are lots of initiatives in Tripoli for collecting donations, buying food and distributing to the poor,'' Khaled points out, having participated in such initiatives last year. ''I saw many people offering lots of food, it works well and many people donate. I think these will still happen this year.'' If that is a silver lining for some, it is unlikely to pacify growing numbers of Lebanese who simply want to get back to work.