Bittersweet Life for Israeli-Arab Food Vendors During Ramadan

A trip to Lod during the Muslim month of fasting to sample the delights of qatayef and despair at the neglect of this fascinating city.

A qatayef stall in Lod. Offering a chance to break the fast with something sweet.
Ilan Assayag

It’s six o’clock on a Wednesday evening and the streets of Lod are deserted. We wander around the market area and the ancient mosque in this mixed Arab-Jewish city, looking for signs of anything connected to Ramadan. Nothing.

The name “Ramadan” originates in the Arab word ramdha – “intense heat.” In this central Israel city, it’s apt.

The prohibition on eating, drinking or smoking from dawn to dusk during Ramadan means most observant Arab Israelis simply stay home. Which could have provided an opening to romance, except that sex is also forbidden during Ramadan. During the day, that is.

The only sign of Ramadan in the streets is the occasional stand selling the ingredients for qatayef (a kind of baked pancake made with shredded coconut and nuts). The stands only sell the mix. You’re supposed to make the dish at home. After baking with a bit of butter, serve dipped in rosewater to break the fast at 8 P.M. Being around fasting people makes me hungry. I longingly think of the terrific local shawarma and hummus they normally sell here, but the falafel and other food joints are closed. The only game in town is those bags of qatayef mix.

Qatayef is a seasonal delight, just like matza is seasonal to Passover, and sufganiyot (jelly-filled doughnuts) and candles are special to Hanukkah. You can make a living from it a few weeks a year, no more. Though one wonders – if sufganiyot are so good (and they are, as is qatayef), why aren’t they in demand all year round?

Making sweets with a drill

“If they sell you sufganiyot on Passover, would you buy them? You would not. Only on Hanukkah,” says the seller, sitting comfortably while three other people do the actual work. “Until 1983 I had a butcher’s shop, but the city closed it down. Then I learned the profession of qatayef. You need to know how to make the dough, so it’s good.”

One of the workers stands over a large green metal barrel that’s full of the good dough. He’s mixing it using a deafening construction drill, but whose drill bit has been replaced by an egg beater. A second worker is frying the qatayef pancakes on a hot griddle, while a third assists the others. “If I didn’t bring the kids to help after they finish their jobs, it wouldn’t be worth my while,” the seller says. “If I had to bring workers, it would eat up all my money.”

I may be missing something but the more I think about it, the more I suspect that, like with the sufganiyot, the seasonality of qatayef derives from demand being driven by tradition. They’d have trouble competing in the free food market without the relative advantage conferred upon them by religious context.

In both cases, I’d like to believe that the reason they’re not sold all year round is that people have boundaries when it comes to their annual consumption of carbohydrates, sugar and oil.

Qatayef for sale in Lod. The area around the market and bus station have seen better decades.
Ilan Assayag

But at the moment – at the height of a month in which, according to tradition, the verses of the Koran began to be revealed to Mohammed – nobody is fretting about obesity rates in Israel. The only competition to qatayef is awwameh – sweet dumplings, or deep-fried globules made of batter with potatoes, flour and a lot of sugar.

Food Industries Association Chairman Itzhak Tamir, who stated last week that there’s no such thing as unhealthy food, would presumably be very happy with what we’re seeing here.

That said, Tamir – who finished a six-year stint as CEO of Coca-Cola Israel in March, years he spent persuading people to buy as many bottles of a concentrated American mix of sugar and caffeine – would have been disappointed to learn that the most popular drink during Ramadan (after sunset, of course) is tamarind, known locally as tamarhindi.

“People only start buying after 8 P.M., but demand in those hours can compensate for nobody buying all day,” says the seller. “All in all, people buy a little more food during this month – more drinks, more sweets. Dates, nuts, dried fruit,” she adds.

We move on. The area around the market and central bus station is grubby, and it’s hard to ignore the stench of garbage in the air. Good things are happening in Lod, but the city’s look and feel isn’t one of them – at least, not in this area. If the authorities did visit here, it was evidently using the F-35 stealth fighter – that $110-million monster that can reach the farthest corners of the world and come back without a soul noticing.

Meanwhile, this part of Lod looks pretty awful. And until somebody does something about it, nobody’s going to visit this city, which has been continually populated going back 8,000 years. Every people living here left their mark – an ancient khan (resting station) in the center of the city, a Mamluk mosque, a church, all covered in layers of neglect.

Converting a pizza joint

At the end of the street, we stop at another qatayef stand. At all other times, its operator, Hussam, is a handyman. During Ramadan, he hires a local pizzeria, which spends the day hours – as nobody’s eating pizza – making the traditional sweet stuff.

“I don’t work in construction at all during Ramadan,” says Hussam. “This is my pleasure every year. I make the qatayef in this place. I prefer the heat of the oven to the sun during construction work.”

Sales are brisker when the holiday begins. “People get excited,” he says. By mid-month they’ve calmed down, but then in the last week sales spike again, because people realize it’ll be a year before they can buy this delight again.

Workers preparing qatayef in Lod. Like sufganiyot at Hanukkah, the pancake is only popular during Ramadan.
Ilan Assayag

“How could it be anything else? This is a 200-meter-long [656 feet] street with 15 people selling the same product,” points out Hussam’s friend, a welder by trade who declines to give his name.

Do you also take the month off?

“I work in welding all day, how could I take time off? If you stay home a month without a salary, your bank account goes back four months.”

Does everybody fast?

“If you take a family of five, six people, about half to two thirds fast – which works out to 7,000 to 9,000 of the city’s residents.”

Isn’t it hard to fast a whole month?

Hussam: “It’s hard on the first day. Then you get used to it. My boy is 10 and he’s already fasting.” Children start to learn to fast from age 7 and have to fast by age 10, Hussam adds. After that, if they refuse to fast, they get hit.

Isn’t it hard to work in parallel with fasting?

Hussam: “On the contrary. I can work like seven people now. It’s when I’m too full that I can’t get up to work.”

Lod is a mixed Arab-Jewish city, he adds, so the holiday isn’t felt quite so much. He points at a passerby. “Look at that guy, he’s from a village. Ramadan for them is something else entirely. They have special sweets, they’re not limited to the hour they finish their celebrations. They can stay awake until 5 A.M., then sleep until noon, by which time half the day’s fast is over.

“Here, the municipality decided to lower the volume of the muezzin in prayer. People can’t even hear the muezzin’s call – and it matters, because the timing of breaking the fast can differ by a few seconds between one city and another. In Jerusalem, the prayer starts earlier than here. If a person can’t hear the muezzin, he might miss it, and that makes him feel bad.”

There’s an app, of course. “It gives me an alert 15 minutes before the prayer, so I have time to go, shower, get dressed,” says Hussam. “But think about a person who’s fasted 16 hours, and after that misses the breaking of the fast by a minute. It gives him an unpleasant feeling. It’s like a Jew who thinks he has more time before Shabbat comes in and lights a fire and drives his car, but then discovers Shabbat has already come in.”

After the prayer, they spend the evening sitting outside. But then Lod turns into a ghost town, says Hussam. There are no cafes for older people, only for the kids. To have fun, one has to travel to Jaffa or the sea.

Okay, let me have a plate of qatayef.

Hussam: “Here you go. This is from me, on the house.”

C’mon, let me pay.

Hussam: “Nothing. Once we said it’s on the house, that’s it. It’s over.”