Despite years of war, Ramadan in Yemen remains a blessed affair

Despite civil war, Ramadan in Yemen remains a blessed affair
7 min read
25 March, 2024

Even though Yemen remains mired in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises — after nine years of war and the resultant economic collapse — its ancient Ramadan customs remain strong.

These time-honoured traditions, handed down over generations, continue despite the difficulties ordinary Yemenis face, including the lack of jobs, suspended salaries, soaring prices, and currency devaluation.

Yemeni families begin preparing for Ramadan at the start of Shaban (the eighth lunar month in the Islamic calendar, which precedes the month of Ramadan), by buying and storing the various ingredients and foods they will need for the many recipes which are specially reserved for the holy month.

Even though the costs are too high, and prohibitive for many, most Yemenis have faith in the popular expression: "Ramadan brings blessings".

On the final day of Shaban, housewives clean and tidy their homes, purifying each room with incense, before hanging decorations up in preparation to welcome the "month of giving". After the crescent moon marking the start of Ramadan has been sighted, fires are lit on the peaks of the mountains in an inherited tradition known as al-tanseer.

"Even though Yemen remains mired in one of the world's worst humanitarian crises – after nine years of war and the resultant economic collapse – its ancient Ramadan customs remain strong"

Lighting fire on the mountaintops

Ahmed Shamsan says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition: "Lighting fires on the mountaintops is a custom handed down from our fathers and forefathers. It was used in the past to tell the people that the Ramadan crescent moon had been sighted — in every village when the people saw the crescent moon, they would go and light a fire on the mountaintops, so people would know that tomorrow it would be the first day of Ramadan. Despite the advent of the media, this custom is still used in many parts of Yemen."

After the start of Ramadan is announced, Yemeni families will eat dinner together, which will often be a full Ramadan table. Then families will head to the mosques to perform the first taraweeh prayers (special prayers during Ramadan which involve reading long sections of the Quran – the whole Quran is completed over the month).

After this, the men gather in the maqam, as it is known colloquially. This is a large sitting room which is usually used by men for qat chewing sessions.

However, during Ramadan, these rooms transform into meeting places to perform dhikr during Ramadan (a form of Islamic worship where phrases or prayers are repeated to remember God), as well as readings of the Quran and other religious texts. Prayers and supplications are made, and qasidas (a form of Arabic poem) and Sufi poems are sung and recited.

Date merchants man their stalls in the old city of Sanaa during Ramadan 2023 [Mohammed Huwais/AFP via Getty]

The Yemeni custom of staying up until suhoor (pre-dawn meal during Ramadan) has prompted successive Yemeni governments to shorten the official working day during the holy month to between 10 am and 2 pm.

The social rhythm of Yemenis changes completely too: people go to the markets after work to purchase their daily essentials, and then spend their time between the asr prayer (afternoon prayer) and the maghreb prayer (sunset prayer) reading the Quran, or visiting relatives.

Yemen's Ramadan recipes

During these hours, the women are busy preparing iftar (the meal after sunset to break fast). Dining tables during Ramadan are characterised by a wide range of distinct and unique Yemeni dishes which are associated with the holy month. Another prominent custom during Ramadan in Yemen is the exchanging of homemade dishes between neighbours and relatives, which is also a way to ensure that poor families are looked after, which reflects Yemeni social and communal values of care and compassion for each other. 

Before the sunset call to prayer, the family gathers at the iftar table and the fast is broken with dates, water, hulba (a fenugreek-based dip) and aseed (a ring of cooked dough with a dumpling-like texture served in a meat broth).

After this, the men go out to perform the sunset prayer in the mosque. Afterwards, the main meal is served, and the table will be laid with an array of mouth-watering dishes such as sambusas (parcels of thin pastry stuffed with meat and vegetables), bagya (Yemen's falafel equivalent, made with black-eyed peas), shafuta (a popular Yemeni appetiser made with shredded bread, buttermilk, a chilli-based sauce called zhug, and leek), soup and saltah (a traditional Yemeni stew), rice and chicken or meat.

Desserts are served afterwards. These might include sweets such as basbusa (a sweet, syrup-soaked semolina cake), turumba (similar to churros), shaabiya (a soft, layered syrup-soaked pastry), bint as-sahn (a layered honey cake), rawani (a light sponge cake made from semolina flour), mahalabia (a milk-based dessert), a Yemeni sweet called mushbik, jelly and pudding.

Housewife Sahar al-Haddad says Yemeni women take on a lot of extra work in Ramadan, due to the huge amount of food they have to prepare, as well as the various household chores they need to do, which means that, unlike the men, they have to wake up early.

"Over the last few years Ramadan hasn't been like it was in the past, because of the deterioration of people's living standards, as well as the high prices, which has left the majority of families unable to provide the main essentials," she says.

Immersing their children in the Ramadan spirit

Faisal Abdulaziz emphasises: "Yemenis are living through challenging economic conditions in light of the war, the cuts in salaries and the high prices, However, [Yemeni] families are distinguished by their love and compassion for each other, so families will prepare dishes and offer a portion of them to their neighbours. Also, most of the wealthy will do good deeds, and take care of the poor families, and this makes us believe that there is still goodness in people."

"Another prominent custom during Ramadan in Yemen is the exchanging of homemade dishes between neighbours and relatives, which is also a way to ensure that poor families are looked after, which reflects Yemeni social and communal values of care and compassion for each other"

Yemeni families are also eager to immerse their children fully into the special atmosphere of the "generous month". Children brim with excitement as they await Ramadan and the unique pleasures it brings, as during this month all their daily routines are flipped upside down.

Most families are keen to train their children to fast and allow them to stay up late, waking them for suhoor with the family. In general, children under 8 years old will fast until the zuhr (noon) prayer, and children under 11 will fast until the asr prayer, although at this age, some children succeed in fasting the full day.

Usually, the children get together after the afternoon prayer to play football until shortly before the sunset call to prayer. They resume their games after the taraweeh prayers until the middle of the night, and the families will light up the neighbourhoods to help the children play outside. Some of the most popular games during Ramadan are ghamaya (hide-and-seek), fatateer (marbles) and a game called al-tamash.

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Khattab Emad (11) says he started practising fasting when he was seven: "I would fast until the midday [prayer], and after that, until the afternoon [prayer], and last year I succeeded, with my mum and dad's encouragement to do the full fast for 24 days, and this year I am keen to do the full fast for the whole month.

"Ramadan is the most beautiful month because we enjoy playing games in it, and watching drama programmes, and we learn to fast like adults. I also love going to do the taraweeh prayers with the men in the family."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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