NOEL KING, HOST:
After last night's sighting of the crescent moon, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts today. The holiday's marked by dawn to dusk fasting and then prayer and celebration at night. This year, though, of course there's the coronavirus, and that means lots of restrictions.
NPR's Jane Arraf is on the line from Amman, Jordan. Hi, Jane.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, there.
KING: So you've been looking all across the Middle East and you have found there are lots of special rules for this Ramadan. Tell us about some of them. What do they mean for people?
ARRAF: Well, Ramadan is the month when Muslims believe that God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. So the most important part of all of this is prayer. And normally, those are communal prayers. In almost all countries though now, because of the pandemic, mosques are closed and large gatherings are banned. So that basically means that people are praying at home.
Now, the other part of Ramadan - the big part is the social aspect because, after 14 or so hours of abstaining from food and even water, the fast is normally broken just after sunset when you gather with extended family and friends. So that's curtailed as well. And then normally into the night, there are Ramadan shows with live music or people gathering in cafes to play dominoes and other games. And all those venues are shut. So while the spiritual aspect remains, Noel, it doesn't have that festive atmosphere that it normally does.
KING: Yeah. One of the lovely traditions is an emphasis on feeding poor people. And in some places, that's done in these big public gatherings. Is that going to be possible this year?
ARRAF: Not in the traditional sense. In Egypt, for instance, which is the most populous Muslim country in the region, well-off people normally set up these big colorful tents with long tables where everyone's welcome to come and break the fast. And a lot of the poor rely on these meals, particularly in times like this when a lot of them don't have work. We spoke to a furniture shop owner in Cairo, Jad Abdul-Rahman (ph), and he says he used to do an iftar table outside the shop but because of the restrictions on social gatherings, he can't this year. Let's listen to a bit of that.
JAD ABDUL-RAHMAN: (Non-English language spoken).
ARRAF: So he's saying that they packed up food and they tried to distribute it, but he's not sure he's reaching everyone they used to. And he says it's just not the same. He says this year, we feel that Ramadan isn't the same as it used to be.
KING: Hmm. Ramadan also means a lot for countries' economies. People travel. They buy special foods. Is any of that happening?
ARRAF: Well, that, too, is really limited because there are those bans on travel. And some countries have relaxed curfews; some places like Dubai have even opened up shopping malls. But it's difficult. People are trying to adapt, though. We went through the south of Jordan in the town of Shobak (ph) yesterday on the eve of Ramadan, and that's where we found this pop-up bakery.
UNIDENTIFIED BAKERY EMPLOYEE: (Non-English language spoken).
ARRAF: It's a tiny little place. The guy who's shouting is actually welcoming people. He's saying come and get qatayef. That's this crescent-shaped sweet that's traditionally eaten at Ramadan. One of the workers, Khalid Love-Dore says they just opened because the hotel they normally work in was closed. This is him.
KHALID LOVE-DORE: (Non-English language spoken).
ARRAF: And he says for anyone who has no money, they'll give them anything they want for free because Ramadan is really a time of sacrifice and thinking of others. And even though a lot of the other traditions have gone by the wayside, charity remains one of the most important traditions.
KING: Jane Arraf in Amman, Jordan. Jane, thanks so much.
ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.