This year in Mosul, Ramadan is different. During the Islamic holy month, observant Muslims usually abstain from eating, drinking, and other activities like sex, during the day so that they can contemplate the spiritual instead. Then, when night falls, they break their daily fast with friends, family and neighbors.
But after being under ISIS rule for over two years, the people of Mosul feel the freedom to celebrate Ramadan a little differently.
Under ISIS, anyone who didn’t fast had to eat in private. But now, more people are going public with their snacking. And cafes that used to cover their windows—if they were even open during Ramadan—are staying open all day.
Even before ISIS took over the city, Mosul was a relatively conservative place. When Saddam Hussein was in power, police would penalize anyone caught eating during fasting hours. Sometimes this involved prison, other times it was just a fine. After 2003, some parts of Mosul were under control of Al Qaeda. Then, in 2014, ISIS took control of the whole city. While the extremists were in charge, eating during the fast was extremely dangerous and could even result in execution.
But today, in parts of Mosul that were recently liberated from ISIS, more people than ever before are eating during the day.
Some have genuine physical reasons for doing so. During the last few months, during the battle to take back the city, some families had very little food and were only able to eat one meal a day. Others were starving—and they are simply too weak to fast during the day now.
That is the case for Haj Khader al-Hussein, a 70-year-old man from Mosul. He has fasted every Ramadan since he was eighteen because it is one of the most important religious duties. But this month he has not been able to.
“The war has had a negative physical and psychological impact,” he explains. “When our neighborhood was liberated, about three weeks ago, friends came to visit me and they barely recognized me. I tried to fast this year too but after five hours, I fainted. I realized it was a bad idea,” he notes, showing a bag of vitamins and supplements he was given after fainting.
Other people in Mosul are not fasting for different reasons. Most of them are young people who are rebelling against the religious ideal after being under the control of an extremist group who, they say, claimed to practice Islamic law but in fact, only spread death and injustice.
Younes Abdullah, 33, is eating lunch at a restaurant during Ramadan for the first time in his life. Abdullah and his family escaped ISIS by running towards the Iraqi pro-government forces—he was shot in the process but escaped with his life.
“In the past, I always used to fast, but I’m not so keen on it anymore,” he told us.” I feel like I want to show that I am not obeying religious rituals anymore and I do not think anybody around here would blame me. Everyone knows what the extremists did to us in the name of what they said was Islam.”
Abdullah raises a spoon to his mouth. “If I had done this during Ramadan, ISIS would have cut off my head,” he adds.
The fact that so many restaurants are even open is also a strange new phenomenon for the city. Before ISIS took over in 2014, the Iraqi government allowed only three or four restaurants in the city center to stay open during the day in Ramadan.
Restaurants could open, but they were required to hang a curtain over the front of the restaurant out of respect for the fasting people outside, who shouldn’t see others eating.
After ISIS took over, no restaurants or cafes were open during the day in Ramadan. The owners knew they would end up dead, probably strung up on a power pole, if they opened for business.
This month though, the local police are not enforcing any such rules about fasting. On the contrary, they appear to be more focused on keeping the restaurants that do open safe from extremist attacks. There is still fierce fighting going on in parts of the city, where thousands of civilians remain trapped and potentially starving.
The police have issued a number of rules to keep Mosul safe from militants. This includes a ban on the niqab, the full-face veil that ISIS required women to wear, due to fears that the extremists will use this as a disguise to launch attacks against civilians.
The police have also urged restaurant owners to check their customers carefully during Ramadan – as they believe eateries would make good targets for the extremists.
It is clear to locals that there is more freedom in the city than there was before ISIS took over. Some are welcoming these signs of secularism. Then again, as others say, the situation here is still unstable; nobody knows how long these newfound freedoms will last.
This post originally appeared on Niqash.org.