As each of the three main religions of the Middle East celebrates one of its major feasts this month, many a gathering place and ceremony has been transformed; not for the occasion as they normally are, but in adaptation to the unprecedented global wave of shutdowns hitting virtually every worship space in the region’s countries and beyond.
Between the end of Lent and Easter week in Christian calendars, Passover for Jewish communities, and the beginning of Ramadan for Muslims, the majority of people in the region, as well as their co-religionist brothers and sisters around the globe, are struggling to maintain practices that offer the intensely important assurances they have come to rely on. Not only has daily life been disrupted, but also the notion of life itself, and with it inner experiences of meaning.
For many people in the region, attending gatherings for religious worship, typically with family, only takes place on such major feasts. Commemorating significant moments in the history of one’s faith may (or indeed may not) be of particular spiritual significance for seasonal worshippers (who go to church, for instance, on Easter and Christmas). But being able to do so, to carry out the seasonal ritual, in specific places or with particular people is of such significance that it is meaningful, and important, on more levels than one.
Social scientists have noticed that religiously non-practicing couples often become more observant when they have children. Even for individuals who said they did not find religiously inspired rituals particularly meaningful, bringing these practices to their new families added a sense of togetherness they wanted their children to have. Some have found that drawing on religious stories provides helpful tools to teach their children about trust and love. It is those feelings that are recalled when grownups speak warmly of how they celebrated religious occasions with their grandparents and other relatives.
Typically marked by communal or familial gatherings that involve some form of food, song and stories, religious celebrations are an important part of an individual’s history and identity. Where these things exist alongside feelings of safety and love, they become a foundational element of one’s past and worldview. Similarly, when they exist in a diverse social setting where gestures of care — like food and stories — are shared with people from outside the small group, such as neighbors or members of another confession, these symbolic ways of living out the good things felt inside a person’s smaller community become influential in their outlook on the world and others in it.
For the first time, at least in my lifetime, images and sounds from empty churches, from seemingly deserted mosques, and from intimate Passover gatherings are shared in a steady stream on global platforms. Christian clerics called on worshippers to stay home during the week before Easter — the most important time of year in Christianity. Unable to travel or be together, Jewish families are commemorating Passover via video links. And, instead of reminding people to gather for prayer, the muezzins are telling people to stay at home and pray.
Instead of reminding people to gather for prayer, the muezzins are telling people to stay at home and pray.
It is not only the streets and places of worship in the Middle East that feel unusually different these days. The soundscapes of the region’s cities, towns and villages are out of season, and the inner spaces of faith and feeling are craving much-needed peace.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of the Middle East is the tangible prominence of religious faith in the individual and collective lives of its people. Now that the region’s air, places and social spaces are so empty, feelings of isolation are more acute in the season of remembrance. Ironically, even for families that are in lockdown together and with countless digital devices, the need for connection is greater than ever — hence the abundance of religious live streams and ceremonial recordings online.
Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Yale College.