Dinner for 3,000?
Throughout Ramadan, the Umayyad Mosque -- also known as the Great Mosque, Damascus’ oldest and largest -- provides free meals at sunset to any comers. I came on Saturday evening.
I arrived an hour before sunset with an American Christian friend, dressed in the traditional Muslim black robe called the abayah, and black hijab. (All women must dress according to the Muslim traditions of modesty when entering this, or any, mosque.) We happened by chance upon some American Muslim friends, also taking part in the ritual at the mosque for the first time.
As we waited in line to enter the “family section” -- where men and women may sit together -- of the large courtyard, one of the mosque officials asked me where we were from. (I gave us away, as the only tall, pale-skinned person among us.) America, I responded. Come right this way, he told us. He led us to the front of the line. For our American friends, he said.
We were directed to one of hundreds of piles of food spread evenly in rows throughout the vast stone square, which is located in the mosque compound, but outside the mosque proper. As the courtyard filled, a group of ten men, wearing red tarboushes, stood on a stage and sang religious hymns, amplified through the premises. A television camera on a boom captured the scene, broadcast live throughout Syria.
Then, the imam began to recite the Quran, a signal to the faithful that the time to eat was close at hand. At the words, Allah Akbar -- God is Greatest -- the several thousand people sitting on the ancient cobblestones at once broke their fasts, some with dates, some with juice.
Each family received two large trays of rice, with peas and chunks of tender lamb, along with four containers of yogurt, bread and apples. The rice and bread were still warm, despite the wait. I ate as much as anyone else, despite the fact that I wasn’t fasting. Afterward, people filtered into the mosque to pray and poor people collected the leftover food to take home. And I walked the 20 minutes, through the Muslim Quarter, then the Christian Quarter, home.