Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 1

By Nabi Abdullaev

The prices for groceries at the food markets in Russia’s Muslim republics doubled during the last week of December. The women doing their shopping desperately scolded and loudly cast the spells over the adamant traders but went on buying abundant amounts of eggs, flour and butter at the punative prices. Uraza-Bairam, the last day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, was coming on December 27, putting an end to the month-long fasting obligatory for all true Moslems.

It was an easy Ramadan this time. The fasting period coincided with December, which made abstaining from food and drink during the daylight hours, which is required of members of the Islamic Umma–as Russia’s Moslems call their community of 20 million–not as painful as it would have been in June, for instance. The Islamic calendar differs slightly from the Gregorian one, and every new Ramadan starts ten days earlier than in the previous year. In December the days are short, and those abstaining did not have to wake up early in order to have their meal before the sun rises. Those who overslept would have to wait until the first star appeared in the evening sky not only to enjoy their first food and drink of the day, but even just to brush their teeth. During the day, the devoted Moslem must not put anything in his mouth for fear of involuntary swallowing it, even if it is toothpaste.

Besides abstaining from food and drink in the daytime and sex at any time during Ramadan, true Moslems are also obliged to pacify their feuds and restrain themselves from committing impure deeds or engaging in impure talk. (Smoking and alcohol abuse are to be eschewed by true believers at all times.) As a reward, those who happen to die during Ramadan are given much a better chance to find themselves in paradise then those who opt to pass away during other months.

At the beginning of Ramadan there is a special day when Moslems are obliged to visit the graves of their deceased relatives. The tombs are taken care of, cleaned and painted, and in the North Caucasus the graves are usually scattered with rice and other seeds, sometimes even with candy. The town beggars and hundreds of children occupy the cemeteries, collecting spacious sacks of candies and stuffing their pockets with the generous alms the visitors eagerly give out. On this day sentimental generosity is comme il faut.

Dagestan, a tiny Russian republic in Northern Caucasus, may be considered the flagship of the Moslem Renaissance in Russia. The largest mosque in the country, a replica of the mosque of Suleiman in Istanbul, was built here in the beginning of the 1990s. Dagestanis comprise two-thirds of the quota for pilgrims to Mecca imposed by Saudi Arabia for the whole Russia.

The number of the believers is growing steadily, especially among youth. Given the opportunity to choose whether to believe, young people are opting in favor of religion, deliberately and independently imposing rather strict regulation over their own behavior and way of life. Uraza–the traditional Ramadan fasting–is one among the severest ordeals. Only small children, aged people and those who cannot fast because of health problems can be excused for violating the fasting. But even they try to keep Uraza for at least one day of Ramadan, and it is widely considered that somewhere in the heavenly accounts department they will get an additional plus for this.

Uraza is a voluntary affair in the secular republic of Dagestan. But not long ago–before the Russian military shelled the Wahhabi enclaves of Karamakhi, Kadar and Chabanmakhi to rubble in September 1999–fasting in certain rural areas of the republic was strictly supervised by the self-styled Islamic militia. The Wahhabis–followers of a purist strain of Islam–were visiting their less fundamentalist neighbors and demanding that ultimate respect be paid to Ramadan, forbidding them from even listening to pop music. Although the Wahhabis were dispersed in the 1999 Russian military operation and others were persecuted afterwards, the order they had been imposing still proliferates in Dagestan’s mountain villages.

Naturally, Ramadan reaches its climax on its last day–Uraza-Bairam, the celebration of the end of fasting. This day is dedicated to respect of the elders and in Dagestan it was made an official holiday by a special governmental decree ten years ago. Earlier, during the Soviet era, the celebration of Uraza-Bairam was forbidden and special commissioners from the local Communist Party committees visited schools and enterprises to register those who were absent that day.

A great deal of food is prepared in advance of this day, mostly meat dishes and confectionery. Just like the Russians celebrating Easter, the Dagestanis paint traditional eggs, and add the obligatory homemade halvah of flour and honey to the variety of dishes on the table.

The festivities begin early in the morning when groups of children, each one with a large sack, start tormenting the doorbells demanding candies and pastry. The rules of the good form don’t permit waiving these candy-terrorists away without a handout, and their gangs cruise all over neighborhood until late in the evening. The traditional wishes that the children are supposed to recite before being rewarded are remembered only in the mono-ethnic mountainous villages. In the more cosmopolitan towns the children simply greet the residents with congratulations for Islam’s holiday, in Russian.

Aults visit their older relatives and all those who respected the twenty-eight days of fasting. Missing someone would be considered an offense, especially given the expensive and arduous preparations made for receiving guests. The usual greeting on Uraza-Bairam for those who observed the month of fasting is to wish that the tortures of have not been useless and will be looked upon favorably on high. Everyone is then invited to the table and the guests reward themselves for their month-long patience. This scene is repeated numerous times throughout the day, so that by the evening, when the visits come to an end, the visitors return home satisified–their bellies sticking out a mile and some of them even with a specific tipsy gaze. Islam, of course, doesn’t welcome alcohol abuse, but the Dagestanis live in the secular state.

Dagestan is, after all, a Russian republic, isn’t it?

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.