Someone Else's Simcha / Ending Ramadan Festivities at the Alian Home

An Arab Israeli family sits down at the end of the holiest month of the Muslim calendar to take a breather, just one second before the next holiday kicks in.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
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Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

Location: Beit Safafa, Jerusalem

Time: 7:45 P.M.

In the neighborhood: A father and his two small children walk down one of the many winding, steep and tightly housed streets of Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood on Jerusalem's southern tip. Colorful laundry sways gently from lines in the late evening breeze, a welcome reprieve from the day's blistering heart, as a nearby mosque's call to prayer hovers above the mossy stone walls.

Venue: A one-story home, part of a larger complex of apartments and homes housing members of the Alian clan, situated among fig trees and near a newly constructed municipal park running along the path of the old Jerusalem railroad. Indoors, a wide living room, painted in dark peach, is decorated with black-and-white family photos and a tapestry of the Dome of the Rock. A statue in the shape of Palestine, with a large golden key affixed to it, sits in the corner.

Simcha: The last night of Ramadan in the Alian household

Number of guests: 5

A brief history of time: Hashem, 72, and Fathiya, 63, Alian, are both scions of the Alian family, one of the three original clans or khamulas in Beit Safafa (along with the Salmans and the Husseins). They were married in 1984, giving birth to four children: Rushdi, 28, Muhammad, 21, Noor, 19, and Zenab, 24, along with two older kids from Hashem's first marriage. Part of a long line of butchers ("My father had a shop in the German Colony, where the Discount Bank is now"), Hashem led a long career in hospitality and truck-driving through many wars and conflicts during his lifetime ("I've see many things in my life. I say I'm 200 years old"). He retired in 2007.

Ramadan: The ninth month of the Muslim calendar, Ramadan is considered the holiest month of the year, marking the time in which the Prophet Muhammad began receiving the revelations that make up the Quran. Muslim believers fast from sunrise to sunset every day during the month, breaking their fast in festive family dinners and visits to their relatives and friends.

The Alians preparing post-Ramadan tea and watching television in Beit Safafa, August 2013.
Youth engaging in capoeira in Beit Safafa, August 2013.
A boy in the marching band celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast in Beit Safafa, August 2013.
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The Alians preparing post-Ramadan tea and watching television in Beit Safafa, August 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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Youth engaging in capoeira in Beit Safafa, August 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
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A boy in the marching band celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast in Beit Safafa, August 2013.

While actually marking the first evening of the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, the last night of Ramadan usually allows families to wind down a bit, before resuming celebrations first thing in the morning as part of the three-day festival. Rushdi: "There isn't any special meaning, but you could say it’s the most fun dinner, since you know that that's it, and in the next morning you can wake up with your coffee, start a regular day."

Rites: An-ever smiling Fathiya and Noor take care of the finishing touches in the kitchen ahead of the official end of the year's last day of fasting. In the living room, Rushdi, who works at the city's Biblical Zoo and instructs capoeira, a type of Brazilian martial arts, and Muhammad, a communications student now home for the holidays, sit with their father, wearing T-shirts and loose trousers, and watch the large flat screen TV showing live coverage of the Islamist protests near Cairo's Al Adawiyah mosque. Muhammad: "The media doesn't cover the Muslim protests at all." Fahiya: "We go to the Sinai every year for vacation. But not this year; too much going on."

Suddenly, the silence outside is broken by the sound of the muezzin, announcing the end of the fast with a melody used only on special occasions. On a large couch in the living room, Hashem, wearing a striped galabiya and white head cover, blesses the first post-fast glass of water, with the entire family sitting down at the dinner table.

As the plates and pitchers quickly pile up on the table (Fathiya: "Eat, eat! Don't be shy!"), Hashem relates his life story from a boy refugee following fighting in 1948 ("The Arabs promised we would be back home in a week"), through returning to Beit Safafa after it was divided into Israeli and Jordanian sections, until the village's reunification in 1967.

In the early 1990s, following years in the hotel business, that included a stint on an Israeli cruise ship called the "Jerusalem," Hashem, secular until that point, decided to strengthen his religious faith. "A friend of mine returned from Hajj to Mecca, and I was jealous. So I went on Hajj for the first time, and I have been going to Saudi Arabia every year since," says Hashem, adding with a smile: "It's my vacation." However, when the family, busily loading food onto their plates, is asked how the change impacted their lives they answer with perplexed looks and smiles. Fathiya: "Doesn't work like that for us. It's really just him"; Hashem: "I don't force my religion on anyone."

As the table is cleared, Hashem excuses himself from the living room to perform his prayers. Placing his prayer mat in the direction of Mecca, he kneels in prayer facing the Dome of the Rock tapestry, the cord of a cell phone charger dangling on the wall nearby. A small child walks up to the door, and leaves following a short exchange with Rushdi: "He's in my Capoeira class. We're having a show tonight."

By the time prayers are up, coffee and sweets are already prepared on the table, along with a pitcher of florescent-yellow lemon juice. Muhammad: "These juices are a Jerusalem specialty." Sipping on coffee, Rushdi talks about his trip to South America a few years back, very much a post-military Israeli tradition and something of an aberration in Beit Safafa. Hashem, smiling: "He has a lot of Jewish friends, they influence him." Rushdi: "I worked with a lot of people that for them that was the dream, so I guess it rubbed off."

As Hashem excuses himself to go to the mosque, the TV quietly switches from protests in Cairo to the Israeli version of the hit reality TV show "The Amazing Race."

Walking outside, the Alians point out the street that used to serve as the Israeli-Jordanian border until 1967 (Fathiyah: "We'd exchange coffee and gasoline between the bars of the fence"), as Jewish joggers and Arab kids play in the park under the Alians’ porch. Rushdi, absent for a few minutes, returns wearing his capoeira outfit, and walks down to meet the other instructors and kids.

Down on the newly constructed boardwalk, connecting Jerusalem's Jewish and Arab southern neighborhoods, the instructors, all Jewish except for Rusdhi, smilingly welcome their pupils below, all Arab, and start a small exhibition of Brazilian music and martial arts, as the Mosque's green lights flash in the distance and as Haredi, Muslim, and secular families stroll by. Over at the parallel street, a Beit Safafa youth movement holds a festive parade to mark the end of Ramadan, marching-band drums piercing the night ("Allah hu Akbar!"), as colorful holiday lights twinkle in the distance.

Music: The sound of the muezzin, Brazilian music, and marching-band drums.

Food: Dates, hummus, and falafel (Muhammad: "It isn't Ramadan without them"), salad, rice with nuts and ground beef, stuffed vegetables (mahshi batiri), grilled chicken, and a mixture of pan-fried vegetables (misa'a). Dessert: Baklava and date-filled cookies, or ma'amul.

Drink: Water, iced-tea, florescent-yellow lemon drink, and black coffee.

Word in the ear: Hashem, on the resurrected peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians: "I'll tell you a story. One time, I was picking figs at my tree and a Peace Now activist went by me on the street. She said: 'Aren't you happy? There will be peace soon!' So I told her: 'There will never be peace.' I never saw her again."

In my spiritual doggy bag: That Israeli Arabs, or Israeli Palestinians, are, whether surprisingly or not, as Israeli as it gets, sometimes including expensive trips (see next section).

Random quote: Hasem and Rushdi on financial impact of the latter's exotic travels: "That trip cost 100,000 shekels!" Rushdi: "It was only 60,000!" Hashem: "Oh yeah? What about the money you would have made at work!? He's crazy."

Want to take part in Someone Else's Simcha? Want to invite Haaretz to your family celebration? Send word to: HaaretzSimcha@gmail.com

The Alians enjoying their post-Ramadan meal in Beit Safafa, August 2013.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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