A Ramadan Closer to Normal for 2021

CAIRO — Compared with Ramadan 2020, when mosques around the world were closed for prayer during the holiest month of the year for Muslims, and curfews prevented friends and family from gathering to break the fast, the religious holiday this year offered the promise of something much closer to normal.

“Last year, I felt depressed and I didn’t know how long the pandemic would last,” said Riyad Deis, a co-owner of a spice and dried-fruit shop in Jerusalem’s Old City. On Tuesday, the first day of the Muslim fasting month, its narrow alleys were alive with shoppers browsing Ramadan sweets and worshipers heading to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Mr. Deis, 51, who was selling whole pieces of turmeric and Medjool dates to a customer, recalled how empty and subdued the Old City had felt last year as virus cases surged and the authorities closed Al-Aqsa to the public. “Now, I’m relaxed, I have enough money to provide for my family and people are purchasing goods from my shop,” he said. “It’s a totally different reality.”

Across the Muslim world, the authorities have imposed limits on Ramadan customs and festivities at mosques this year: telling worshipers to bring their own prayer rugs and wear face masks, putting time limits on taraweeh, the special extra prayers that some worshipers observe every evening of the month, and imposing other rules.

And yet. In the days before Ramadan, many in the region embraced the festive traditions that create crowds — a potential surge in cases notwithstanding. Worshipers surged into mosques. Shopping districts in Cairo were thronged.

For many, unlike last year, Ramadan 2021 was to be a communal experience with many people planning to break the fast with family and friends over elaborate evening iftar meals, even if in smaller groups than usual.

Such plans seemed to be proceeding regardless of vaccination status, which varies widely from country to country. (The religious authorities in several Arab countries have announced that receiving the vaccine will not violate the fast.)

Vaccination efforts in Syria and Lebanon have been hobbled by poor organization, poverty and corruption, while they are cruising forward in the United Arab Emirates. Israel has quickly vaccinated most citizens, but has been heavily criticized for not doing more to vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

With the spread of vaccines uneven, the spread of the virus remains a danger.

In Egypt, government officials and prominent television hosts warned Egyptians of a third wave of infections in the run-up to Ramadan. Health officials are especially concerned about cases rising during the holy month given that Ramadan this year also coincides with Orthodox Easter, which is celebrated by Coptic Christians in Egypt, and another national holiday, Sham El Nessim.

The Ramadan restrictions may hit hardest in low-income Egyptian neighborhoods, where in other years, residents depend on the tables laden with iftar food donated by wealthy individuals, mosques or other organizations. This year, like last year, those free feasts are prohibited, though in Cairo some charity groups are distributing boxes of pantry staples.

Muslims in Lebanon and Syria, too, are entering Ramadan with dramatically scaled-back expectations because of worsening economic crises in both countries that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, rather than because of public health restrictions.

In East Africa, Ramadan comes amid rising coronavirus infections across many countries.

In Kenya, the authorities have introduced longer curfews, closed bars and schools, restricted gatherings at spaces of worship, and limited travel in and out of five counties including Nairobi, the capital.

For Nairobi residents like Ahmed Asmali, this means a prolonged inability to break the fast with loved ones or attend prayers with larger congregations.

“It’s the second year now that we are in a lockdown,” said Mr. Asmali, a 41-year-old public relations worker. The experience, he said “feels weird. Feels out of place.”

In Syria, where experts say the official infection and death numbers for Covid-19 (more than 20,100 cases and 1,360 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic) are far below the reality, the government has few restrictions in place. Worshipers will be allowed to stand inside mosques to pray together after breaking their fast, the Syrian Ministry of Religious Affairs said.

In Lebanon, which recently emerged from a strict lockdown, the currency has lost more than 80 percent of its value against the dollar over the last 18 months, and unemployment has soared. Food prices have risen so swiftly that a month’s worth of meals to break the fast for a family of five — one date per person, lentil soup, a simple salad and a chicken-and-rice dish with a little yogurt — now costs two and a half times the country’s minimum wage, according to the Lebanon Crisis Observatory, a project by the American University in Beirut.

The pandemic still shadows much of the festivities. Shop owners in Jerusalem’s Old City said they were worried that Israel would not allow large numbers of Palestinians from the West Bank, where few have been vaccinated, to visit the Old City this Ramadan, depriving the area of their holiday spending.

Prepandemic, Israel usually allowed tens of thousands of Palestinians from the West Bank to visit Jerusalem on Fridays during the fasting month. The arm of the Israeli government that liaises with the Palestinian Authority said on Tuesday that Israel would allow 10,000 vaccinated Palestinians from the West Bank to pray at the Aqsa on Friday. It also said authorities would permit 5,000 vaccinated Palestinians from the West Bank to make family visits in Israel between Sunday and Thursday next week.

Omar Kiswani, the director of the Aqsa Mosque, said he was overjoyed that the compound was open to worshipers — an estimated 11,000 attended the taraweeh prayers at the compound Monday evening — but he emphasized that people would still need to be careful. He said masks and two meters’ distance between worshipers are required at the mosque, and the indoor and outdoor spaces will be sterilized daily.

“These are times of great happiness,” Mr. Kiswani said. “We hope the blessed Aqsa Mosque will return to its prepandemic glory. But these are also times of caution, because the virus is still out there.”

Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Adam Rasgon from Jerusalem. Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting form Beirut and Abdi Latif Dahir from Nairobi.