08/15/2012 05:11 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

An Unholy Egyptian's Experience Of Ramadan In Jerusalem

Even for a non-believing Egyptian, Ramadan in Jerusalem -- where the three Abrahamic faiths coincide and sometimes collide -- is a fascinating cultural experience.

Chance -- or fate, if you prefer -- has ordained that my unholy "soul" should find itself surrounded by holiness in both time and space, in the shape of the holy city, Jerusalem, and the holy month, at least for Muslims, Ramadan.

Although I gave up fasting many years ago, I still enjoy observing Ramadan, that is, its cultural and social aspects, from a comfortable secular distance. And I have encountered the multifaceted yet universal spirit of Ramadan, as a child, youth and adult, on three continents, in Muslim, non-Muslim and hybrid lands.

In its basic character, Ramadan in the Palestinian quarters of Jerusalem is similar to how it is in my hometown, Cairo, or elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. It is a bizarre ying-yang of contradictions and contrasts: fasting during the day and feasting after dark with family and friends, like a whole month of Christmases. There is also charity and goodwill towards others, which coexists side-by-side with the uncharitable loss of temper among the fasting and furious motorists.

Although Ramadan is about austerity and frugality during the day, at night it is a different matter. After a hard day of fasting, many feel it is their just deserts -- or desserts, if you like -- to consume prodigious amounts of mouth-watering seasonal delights. But even for the more spiritual and ascetic, conspicuous consumption, albeit of the immaterial variety, is still the order of the day: marathon nocturnal prayer sessions and the constant reading of the Qu'ran.

The religious aspect of Ramadan may be similar in Jerusalem and Cairo, but the secular spirit is quite different. Although Palestinians too hang out the decorative trappings of the season -- including the famous fanoos or Ramadan lantern and even give the month that extra bang with sorties of unauthorized fireworks -- the night-time revelry of Cairo is missing.

In the Egyptian capital, one of those cities which truly never sleeps, night truly becomes day, where throngs stay out to the wee hours in specially erected Ramadan tents and cafes, both traditional and modern, expensive and cheap, while the true night owls head off to Cairo's ancient quarters to eat a traditional dish of fuul (fava beans) just before dawn to line their stomachs for the fast ahead.

Ramadan is a much quieter affair here. This is partly because Jerusalem is small, lacking Cairo's plethora of hangouts, and Palestinians tend not to be as outgoing as Cairenes. But Jerusalemites say that the city used to be much livelier, but the Israeli occupation has throttled the social and cultural life of East Jerusalem, which has shifted to cosmopolitan Ramallah.

That said, Jerusalem possesses a trump card Cairo does not. Although the Egyptian capital possesses some of the most impressive mosques in the world and Islam's most respected religious authority, al-Azhar, Jerusalem is home to what was once Islam's holiest site and is now its third holiest, the "Holy Sanctuary" of the sublime Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa mosque.

Every Friday during Ramadan, an uncountable torrent of worshippers -- disproportionately old and female because of the restrictions Israel often imposes on young Palestinian men -- weaves its way through the alleyways of the old city to pray at the place where Muhammad is believed to have visited on his winged stead Buraq during his nocturnal trip to heaven.

Momentarily casting aside my rejection of organized religion and my skepticism of god's existence, I decided that I could not miss this unique cultural experience and, one Friday, joined the throng. Inside, the outdoor esplanade, which is so huge that it normally looks empty, was packed solid, with many of the fasting faithful stuck in the blazing heat of the direct sun.

The area immediately around the magnificent golden dome, which dominates the Jerusalem skyline, was reserved for women, while men occupied the Aqsa mosque and the area outside it. I was struck by the irony that here I was participating in a ritual that, though impressive to behold, did nothing to shake my skeptical 'soul' out of its a-religious spiritual lethargy -- in fact, living in the Holy Land has made me even more suspicious of religion -- while many true believers are deprived of the opportunity to pray here for want of an Israeli permit.

By one of those sleights of fate, that Sunday, Jews too were fasting to mark Tisha B'Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which stood where the Holy Sanctuary (or Temple Mount to Jews) is today, though they were not destroyed by the Muslims.

What could have been an occasion to express interfaith solidarity through fasting, rapidly descended into confrontation and animosity, as Muslim worshippers feared that Jews would "violate" their sacred space, while extremist Jews made some troubling pronouncements, including one Knesset member's call for the al-Aqsa mosque to be dismantled and moved.

But this sense of distrust and animosity was not always so overwhelming. Older people, such as my 90-year-old neighbor, remember a time when people of different faiths celebrated each other's festivals in a spirit of good neighborliness.

During the late Ottoman era, a carnival outside the old city's walls to mark the festival (Eid) at the end of Ramadan was attended by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, where they enjoyed fairground rides, horse races, Arab sweets and, apparently, even peepshows. Likewise, Muslims and Christians dressed up in Jewish costumes to celebrate the flamboyant Purim.

Centuries before, the Temple Mount/Holy Sanctuary was an interfaith space where Muslims and Jews could worship. In fact, the early caliphs who ruled Jerusalem even appointed Jews as custodians of this holiest of places, which was seen as the spiritual center of the world.

Some of this spirit of interfaith solidarity still lives on in Ramadan, in the form of joint iftars when Jews join Muslims during the breaking of the fast, and I've even met a Jewish Sufi who fasted Ramadan in full.

Some time towards the end of Ramadan is Laylat el-Qadr (Night of Destiny), when Muslims believe that the Gates of Heaven are wide open to the prayers of the believer. Though I am not one of those, I do hope and "pray" that one day peace will, as the city's name suggests, make Jerusalem its abode and the Holy Land will finally find a way out of its unholy mess.