Children playing on the banks of the Euphrates River grew up surrounded by love and knew nothing of division. That is the memory that Huriya Um Salem, an Arabic teacher in Doha, holds onto as she is bombarded by news of a Raqqa much different from the one in which she grew up. A Raqqa that is plagued by violence and in the midst of a brutal civil war.
At the outset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan this year, the US-led coalition and an allied group of Arab and Kurdish ground forces prepared for the final assault on a city that has come to be known as the ISIL’s capital in Syria.
Last week, coalition air raids peaked as US-backed ground forces pushed into Raqqa’s outskirts.
Through voice notes on WhatsApp, Um Salem wished her siblings and parents trapped in the city a blessed Ramadan. They will only be read when and if her brother finds time to make it to one of the city’s few internet cafes. His brief responses of “we’re still alive” are the only messages she has received from her family for the past few years.
Last week’s voice note from her brother carried news of her sister’s death. When asked how she felt, Um Salem said she could not fathom most of the war, let alone the latest bit of news.
Her siblings and relatives are scattered. Some still live in Raqqa, while others have fled to Turkey and Europe.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, known as ISIS) group took complete control of the city in early 2014. Since then, it’s been nearly impossible for Um Salem to keep in touch with the remaining members of her family in the city.
Even genuinely happy memories of Ramadan before the war fill Um Salem with melancholy – a city lost, family members lost, a life that once was. But she has not given up.
For the past two Ramadans, Um Salem has hosted iftars – the meal that breaks the day-long fast during – in her house for Syrians living on their own, so they do not miss out on home-cooked Syrian food and the traditional gatherings so closely associated with Muslim holy month.
“We cook Syrian food, trying to relive Ramadan gatherings and traditions of eating iftar as one,” Um Salem said.
Ramadan in Raqqa was a simple affair. Um Salem grew up in the suburbs of Raqqa, in a very tight-knit neighbourhood. The mothers would prepare food for iftar together.
“Every single neighbour in the ‘hara’ (neighbourhood) has to be invited over at least once,” she said.
“A cannon signalled the time for breaking the fast. As little kids we used to run out with our cousins and friends to listen for that boom sound, then run back to the house to join our families for iftar.”
“When we were little they used to encourage us to fast half the day by giving us gifts. We called it the little bird fast,” Um Salem said.
Dishes of “kubbab” (stuffed bulgur dumplings), “mahashi” (stuffed vegetables), “yabrak” (stuffed vine leaves), and apricot drinks for hydration were laid out on a cloth specifically used for Ramadan.
Once everyone was done eating, the men would leave for “taraweeh” (nightly Ramadan prayers) and the women would bring out the sweets because it was visiting time.
“The door was kept open so that women and their daughters from the surrounding houses could come in,” Um Salem said.
She remembers how her parents bought everything before the holy month started, even Eid clothes, to avoid the price surge that happens when Ramadan starts.
“Ramadan erased the problems between us,” explained Um Salem. Neighbours and relatives reconnected and put their quarrels aside to welcome the holy month.
Every family had their own special suhoor (meal before the day’s fast started). Um Salem’s family partook in a simple fare of “ma’arook” (a brioche-like bread), “laban” (yoghurt) and dates.
“Dates were not really a traditional part of our diet in Raqqa until I was older. Syria started importing them from the Gulf region and they quickly became a part of both iftar and suhoor,” Um Salem said.
When the alleyways started to smell like bakeries around her neighbourhood, Um Salem knew that Eid was approaching.
“Eid’s sweets had to be baked at home, so the smell wafted out of the open windows, and one would smell the ‘kleja’ (pastry stuffed with nuts), ‘ma’amoul’ (biscuit-like pastry stuffed with dates), ‘kaa’ak al-eid’ (variety of biscuits) and ‘birzaq’ (sesame seed cookies).”
The women of the neighbourhood competed with each other to make the best sweets. After they were baked, the different sweets were placed in special dishes, so they were ready to be served during Eid.
It has been a couple of years since Um Salem’s last Ramadan in Raqqa, but she finds comfort in the iftars she hosts in Doha.
“It’s the closest I can come to reliving Ramadan back home,” she said.
Her iftar invitations are open for anyone who yearns for Syria, where she serves plate after plate of traditional fares.
“I try to make everything that would revive that feeling of home, so I make ‘mahashi’, stuffed grape leaves, grilled and fried kibbeh, kebabs, grilled eggplant and ‘shish barak’ (a local Levant dish similar to ravioli).”
These iftars maintain Um Salem’s connection to her hometown.
“When I bring together Syrians estranged from their homes, we create an extended family that hopefully fights the divisions forced on us.”