The Ramadan tent has become one of the main traits characterizing the holy month in the Arab world, as venues are especially erected to provide a convenient meeting place where people gather after sunset, the time when the daily fast is broken. However, does this phenomena have its roots in religion or is it simply a tradition which has developed over time?
The Islamic historian Hassan al-Halak told Al Arabiya that the tents seen across the Middle East during the holy month have little to do with religious values of Ramadan.
He shed light on the traditions’ origins, explaining that the popular tradition may have begun in Egypt many years ago. It first gained popularity in the country’s capital, Cairo and eventually spread throughout the country. Originally such tents were erected as a venue for people to present their condolences, and were known as “saradek” in Arabic.
Over time, associations and businessmen began to make use of these “saradek”, and often, especially during the winter months, would serve as venues for provision of food and shelter for those in need. This transition was the beginning of the Ramadan tents that we know today.
Soon after, Ramadan tents, in their modern sense, began to provide the experience of Arabian hospitality, boasting a lavish Iftar where guests could indulge in a delicious variety of traditional and international dishes every night.
Halak said that Lebanon’s history of Ramadan tents began after one prominent businessman, hailing from the Tabbara family, introduced the popular idea into the heart of Egypt. Soon after the end of the civil war, Ramadan tents in Lebanon began embracing a more contemporary design.
According to Halak, after the reconstruction and development of the central district of Beirut, tents began to appear in Downtown and in west Beirut regions such as Rawshe and Manara. At a later stage, famous hotels of the town began to set aside lounges in which to build Ramadan tents. These tents, which sprouted primarily in Beirut, have since prospered and spread across the suburbs, even appearing in regions where the majority of residents are Christian.
“Consequently, this tradition has contributed to the unity of Lebanese from different sects, who can enjoy this new ritual together,” said Tania Samneh, assistant sales manager at Beirut Phoenicia Hotel.
“Some of our clients that regularly attend iftars and sahours in the hotel are not Muslim, but enjoy sharing an Islamic ambiance with their compatriots,” Samneh added. Tania herself is a Lebanese Christian and often goes with her colleagues and friends to Ramadan tents. “Yesterday we went to a place called Dalida in Ashrafieh, a district which is considered Christian, to enjoy offers especially provided for the holy month.”
However, “this year because of the heat, tents are not being built on streets; they have mainly been erected in hotel restaurants which is why we don’t really feel that it is Ramadan,” said Aida Nsouly, as she savored her Iftar in one of the fancy Beirut restaurants.
Halak reiterated that such tents are not related to Islamic values, which preach asceticism and temperance. According to him, tents embrace extravagant practices which are incompatible with the holy month, considered one of the pillars of Islam.
“Ramadan is a primordial religious ritual that should be preserved,” he said, adding that the holy month should be dedicated to praying and meditation. Similarly he stated that during this month mosques should be enlightened and open for to those who would like to share in Islamic rituals.
Halak added that there are still some foundations and NGOs that contribute to establishing Ramadan tents, as can be seen in regions such as Verdun, Sidon and other parts of the country, where the purpose is to provide those in need ─ including orphans and the elderly ─ with the necessary food and drink. However nowadays, the majority of people regard such tents as a place to mingle, eat, drink and smoke shisha.
Companies may also use these venues to host partners and customers in a comfortable environment, at a time when business typically slows down.