To fast or not? Free of ISIS, Syrians in Raqqa mark relaxed Ramadan

A worker drinks water from a container as he stands on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, on May 14, 2018.
A worker drinks water from a container as he stands on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, on May 14, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

RAQQA (AFP) - To fast or not to fast? For the first time in years, Syrians in Raqqa can choose to observe a relaxed Ramadan, without the rigid regulations imposed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their religious police.

"We are free to fast or not," said Mr Ahmad al-Hussein, a resident of the northern Syrian city that was the inner sanctum of ISIS' self-styled "caliphate".

"We used to fast in fear, but now it's out of faith," the stonemason said.

For more than three years, residents of Raqqa were subjected to ISIS' ultra-strict interpretation of Islamic law - particularly stringent during the holy month of Ramadan.

Muslims around the world fast from dawn until dusk, but in ISIS territory, anyone caught eating or drinking water was subject to draconian punishments.

"Those that didn't fast were locked in an iron cage in a public square, under the sun and in front of everyone, to serve as an example," recalled Mr Hussein, in his forties.

A US-backed offensive ousted ISIS from Raqqa in October last year (2017), after months of clashes and bombardment that left much of the city in ruins and littered with explosives.

Still, tens of thousands have cautiously returned to their homes and marked the start last week of what they hoped would be a more festive Ramadan.

Mr Hussein said he will observe the day-long fast, but is excited to resume one custom in particular: gathering around the television with his family to watch month-long drama series aired specially during Ramadan.

ISIS had clamped down on satellite dishes and any form of entertainment seen as contrary to religion.

"We missed these Ramadan traditions. For four years under ISIS, we were banned from watching these series," Mr Hussein said.

Already, Ramadan feels different, with those opting not to fast eating publicly without fear of retribution.

Young men gather at a restaurant in the city centre, sipping on chilled fruit juices under the scorching sun.

An employee carefully slices slabs of meat that will be barbecued for juicy sandwiches.

"During ISIS' reign, we could only open our restaurants two hours before breaking the fast," said owner Dakhil al-Farj.

Anyone seen eating during the day was arrested by the hisbah, or religious police, he recalled.

"Now, we start serving customers at 10am. People are free. Those that want to fast, do, and those that don't, are also free not to," Mr Farj said.

ISIS' defeat in Raqqa came at a heavy price.

Residents are still losing their lives to the sea of unexploded ordnance left behind by the militants.

Bombing raids by the US-led coalition backing the offensive against ISIS flattened entire neighbourhoods, and rebuilding efforts have been slow.

Many districts still have no electricity or running water, and there are barely any jobs.

That means many are unable to afford a lavish iftar, the sunset meal that breaks the daytime fast.

In one street market, Syrians stroll among stalls piled high with fragrant oranges, bananas, bright white cauliflowers, potatoes and deep purple aubergines.

Mr Huran al-Nachef, a 52-year-old Raqqa native, will pick up a few tomatoes, cucumbers, and potatoes for a modest meal.

"It's all obscenely expensive and there's no work," said Mr Nachef.

His children look for odd jobs every day to try to provide for their families, but can barely break even.

"Those with money can prepare iftar, but those poor like me can't help but feel sorry for themselves," he said.

Ms Nadia al-Saleh, another resident, shuffles into a bustling bakery to pick up maarouk, a brioche-like pastry covered in sesame seeds that is ubiquitous during Ramadan.

"We're buying some pastries to make the kids happy, make them feel the Ramadan spirit," said Ms Saleh, whose hair is covered by a dainty midnight-blue shawl.

"We're still homeless. We're living with other people, our husbands have no work. Our situation is really tough," she said.

But baker Hanif Abu Badih is feeling optimistic.

"There's no comparison. Despite all the destruction, people are extremely happy that the nightmare is over," he said.

Under ISIS, he was sentenced to 40 lashes and three days in prison, and his bakery was forced to close for two weeks.

Why? One of his youngest employees tried to hide when the hisbah was rounding up men for obligatory prayers.

"This year, we are going to fast without ISIS. We're going to live however we want, in total freedom," said Mr Abu Badih.