Holy month of Ramadan a welcome distraction for weary Syrians
As the country reels from the deadly tremor that shattered large parts of the north amid a brutal economic crisis, Syrians have found the month of Ramadan a refreshing sight, helping avert their minds from the mounting traumas of regular life in the country.
Eager watchers jostled for a position on the rooftop of the Al-Zahraa observatory Complex, a hub of the Syrian Astronomy Center, to try and spot the ‘Ramadan moon’ or ‘crescent’ from mounted telescopes mid-March, ultimately signalling the arrival of the holy month.
The crowded centre is run by employees and volunteers who gather equipment before Ramadan every year to enable the sighting of the moon, an activity that has — according to workers — increased in popularity with Syrians seeking more alternative traditional activities to occupy their time as finances plummet and income worsens.
"Ramadan is a special time. When people come together and we all focus on bettering ourselves, it’s a time of self-control and trying to stop our bad habits"
Amjad is a volunteer, he told The New Arab: “It seems with every passing year more and more people come to get a glimpse of a crescent moon and with everything that is going on, who can blame them, it’s a chance to get out and see something different.”
As people took turns looking through the telescopes, widely used to aid moon sightings and make more precise predictions, Amjad smiles, “For many of them, and us, life has become grim, every day is a struggle with the economic predicament and a lack of money.”
Although the Muslim world typically views Saudi Arabia as the chief authority that ultimately decides the days for specific major religious events, the responsibility still falls upon each individual country to independently verify the dates.
At the Al-Zahraa Observatory Complex, the verification process is done with committees and members from the Ministry of religious endowments and the Astronomical Society. It often comes down to whether the Moon appears in the sky for a short period.
It is necessary that the observatory be situated in a high position during that window, preferably free of visual pollution and on land that is elevated.
"The blessed month is therapeutic for me, it’s custom for us to bring the whole family for the initiation [of Ramadan], so they learn about it and hopefully they can tell their children and continue this tradition in the future"
Amjad added that the process is done with detailed efficiency every year. “After verification, a member of the Astronomical Society reveals the results, for instance, this year the shortest day in Ramadan in relation to fasting hours in Damascus is 13 hours and 44 minutes, while the longest day in the month will be 14 hours and 37 minutes.”
The association of Syrian Astronomer’s other branches in different governorates carries out the same monitoring process elsewhere.
Talal Diab  comes to watch the crescent of the blessed month of Ramadan from the observatory every year. For him, in difficult times, it is a welcomed distraction.
“Ramadan is a special time. When people come together and we all focus on bettering ourselves, it’s a time of self-control and trying to stop our bad habits. This year, it's time, because it takes our minds away from the suffering, the earthquake, the economic situation the hardship we all face in our day-to-day lives, we see the moon and make sure, we’re always looking to catch a glimpse of it.”
Syria has recoiled for over a decade of fighting and a worsening financial collapse, which has seen the Syrian pound hit an all-time low of 7,000 pounds to the dollar. Living standards have dropped with households receiving just a few hours a day of electricity at best, meanwhile, the cost of food and daily necessities has skyrocketed.
Talal added: “The blessed month is therapeutic for me, it’s custom for us to bring the whole family for the initiation [of Ramadan], so they learn about it and hopefully they can tell their children and continue this tradition in the future.
“The finances are tight but we must find alternate means of having fun and going out, for watching the holy month come in on the telescope is the best feeling.”
Kinda al-Khateeb  has a look of excitement on her face, “I wait for this experience every year, the whole community is out, we come to see everyone else, joined in celebrating the holy month in an authentic way, it really makes you forget, for hours even, your own problems and issues,” she says.
“Ramadan, for me, is the one month I wait for in the year. Fasting can be hard, but you make up for it. Religion is a vital part of our lives.”
On the other side of Damascus, the holy month’s traditions are well underway as a unique dance-like ritual begins at the famous Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi Mosque, a worldwide symbol of Sufism.
"Without everyone coming together where would we be? How can we all be fine if one of us is hungry or in need of help or shelter? It’s our duty to be a family, a bigger community. It’s a responsibility"
Attendees form a circle and start the ‘Hadra’ — an unbreakable chain of spiritual energy where each individual is a link — the landmark mosque is the scene of this aesthetic ritual for hours similar to the Mawlawiyya dance.
The mosque is a hub of Sufism [Islamic mysticism] in Damascus and the region. The mosque is directly named after Sheikh Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi, in reference to the great Sufi sheikh, where a shrine to Sheikh Muhyiddin is located.
Strongly considered one of the most prominent Muslim philosophers, Ibn Arabi has a large following to this day. His supporters believe that attainment of proximity to God can be done by belief and practice of direct personal experience of God.
The Hadra is an extension of this concept. The local imam led the ceremony, warning of anything that would disturb the possibility of reaching the moment of serenity.
Hassan Saleh, a regular at the mosque, says it's always a tradition to do this. “Every year it's our thing, it’s more than just a mosque, it’s a community," he reveals.
"Without everyone coming together where would we be? How can we all be fine if one of us is hungry or in need of help or shelter? It’s our duty to be a family, a bigger community. It’s a responsibility."
Danny Makki is an analyst covering the internal dynamics of the conflict in Syria, he specialises in Syria’s relations with Russia and Iran.
Follow him on Twitter: @danny_makki