JERUSALEM: Salaheedin, the main business street in East Jerusalem, was busy but not extremely full around noon on Tuesday, the second day of the holy month of Ramadan.
But once you pass the structures planted to house Israeli soldiers at the Damascus Gate, and you get inside the walls of Jerusalem, you get an entirely new feeling.
The tiled streets are narrow and naturally more crowded with people of all colors, faiths and languages. The crucible of the Abrahamic religions reflects the nature of its believers, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.
Some are easily identifiable as celebrating Ramadan by the fact that they are carrying their food, while others belonging to other faiths are eating outdoors at local restaurants without even noticing locals fasting from sunrise to sunset.
On this day, well-known eateries like Abu Shukri’s humus in Wad Street and Bustami restaurants outside the hospice are packed with tourists.
Local tour guides say that this year the number of tourists visiting Jerusalem will break records. The Palestinian restaurant owners are all fasting yet their business dictates that they serve those walking the streets of the old city, visiting the cradle of world religion.
The jewel in the crown of Jerusalem is Al-Aqsa Mosque. And on this second day of Ramadan, the courtyards were full of Muslim worshippers.
Scattered in various locations throughout the 144 dunums that comprise the UNESCO world heritage site, groups of women gather in the shade of trees to carry out prayers.
As you get closer to Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, the crowds of worshippers get bigger.
At the western end of Al-Aqsa two Israeli security officers sit quietly under a tree keeping an eye on Bab Al-Rahmeh, the Golden Gate area which had been barred to Muslims for 16 years.
In recent months Palestinians, with support from the newly appointed Jordanian waqf council, broke the chains and regained use of the area.
Othman Sunqrot sits on a chair outside. He tells Arab News that Palestinian families in Jerusalem take turns in manning the location, which Israel wants to close again.
“We took a decision that every Jerusalem family will nominate a member to make sure that this area remains open, often having to break the chain that Israel has put up.” Ahmad, a local guard, tells Arab News that at first Israel would arrest every person who broke the chain. Eventually, the entire gate was simply ripped from its hinges.
On the second floor of the waqf offices just outside Bab Al-Hadid sits Sheikh Azzam Al-Khatib, the director general of the Islamic waqf — the Jordanian ministry entrusted with running the mosque.
He has just completed a TV interview about the many projects that Jordan’s King Abdullah has funded in the area. Al-Khatib tells Arab News that the issue of the Bab Al-Rahman is not resolved.
“We have a court case on May 15 and we are worried that the Israeli court might take a decision to permanently close it.” Al-Khatib offered compromises to the Israeli objection of turning this site into a mosque.
“We are willing to use the location for office space or for a children’s kindergarten, but we will not accept to have it closed again. This is part of the mosque area and only Muslims have a right to use it.”
The director of the waqf is worried about Israeli extremists entering the mosque under Israeli supervision.
“We have asked them to stop these incursions and for sure we will not allow it in the last 10 days of Ramadan, when the mosque is full of worshippers. This would be a clear provocation.”
He adds that while 87 Israelis entered the mosque on May 6, the number went down to 35 the following day. “What is upsetting is that we keep telling the Israelis not to allow the same extremists to keep coming.”
Preparations for Ramadan can be seen everywhere in the Haram area. Water fixtures are spread throughout the mosque, and large areas have been covered with tent-like material to provide shade for worshippers.
Many believers will spend entire days in the space and will break their fast on the mosque compound thanks to contributions.
The preparations for Ramadan are not restricted to the mosque. Various neighborhoods in the old city of Jerusalem have been fitted with lights in different arrangements that turn it into a wonderful site at night.
The lighting issue has become a sort of competition, where different communities collect money to pay for lighting up their neighborhoods.
Mohammad Abu Omar lives in the Wadi Joz area. “We got together and asked every family to contribute 1,000 shekels ($278) to help cover the cost of the lighting ropes. One family offered to use their own electricity. I made the design and we all worked together to put up the lights and the result is very nice.”
In the Saadia quarter of the old city, a number of men talk about their lights proudly. “This is from Dahlan, he contributed money for these lights,” one of the men standing outside a bakery told us. Dahlan is a former leader of Fatah who is close to the UAE leadership. Other communities say that they got money from the Palestinian government in Ramallah, while in other areas the Israeli municipality supplied and paid for the lighting. The result is that at night the old city of Jerusalem is one amazing site. In the afternoon hours, the streets begin to thin out. Only makeshift locations where fresh qataif pancake patties are being produced attract people, who stand in line to pick up fresh patties to take home.
Slightly before 7:30 p.m. Rajai Sandouka walks up Salaheedin Street and enters the Islamic cemetery. Sandouka has inherited from his family the honor of shooting a canon that signals the end of the fast. For some time this tradition was banned, but eventually the Israelis agreed to help keep it going. Two Israeli security officers meet Sandouka at the entrance of the cemetery, and walk up the hill with him. At exactly 7:30 Rajai is allowed to use a set of fire crackers that make the loud booming sound. As fasting Muslims hear the sound from Rajai they begin enjoying their iftar meal. Hundreds gathered at Al-Aqsa squat in front of lines of pre-prepared food break their fast with a date, and a sip from a plastic water cup followed by a full meal.