When eating becomes an affront

When eating becomes an affront

Curtains and newspaper on cafe windows are part of the street scene in Tunisia during Ramadan. An unclear legal situation and social prere mean that many non-fasting Tunisians go into hiding.

"Of course Ramadan restricts me if I can't smoke or drink in public." Oussama Ouerfelli is one of the Tunisians who do not fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan. This is his right, says the 23-year-old with long black hair tied in a ponytail. "Our capture guarantees personal freedoms, but the police don't care about that," he grumbles.

"Offense against good customs"

In recent years, people have repeatedly been arrested in Tunisia for eating or drinking in public during the daytime fasting month. From a purely legal point of view, this is a gray area, since they were convicted of "offending public morals". A rubber paragraph exploited by conservative judges to put non-fasting Tunisians on trial, critics say. Because no law prohibits eating or drinking in public during Ramadan.

Despite the unclear legal situation, many cafes and restaurants in Tunisia remain open during Ramadan. However, they rely on discretion: To avoid problems, they hang curtains in front of the windows or cover them with newspapers.

Ouerfelli, himself the tenant of a cafe in the capital Tunis, also opens during Ramadan. "I am even obliged to do so," he laughs. Because his Cafe Ariha, just a stone's throw from the neighborhood mosque, is attached to a small hotel and doubles as a breakfast room. The license as a "tourist restaurant" saves him from problems with law enforcement officials.

Reprisals against restaurant owners

Another innkeeper who runs a restaurant not far from Ouerfelli's cafe and also opens during Ramadan, but without a tourism license, does not want to be mentioned by name. He reports excessive controls by the health department.

"Of course they don't find anything, but they keep coming around during Ramadan to cause us problems," he complains. Every year it is the same. He does not get a clear answer from the authorities whether he is allowed to open or not.

Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem announced at the end of last year that he would continue to restrict the opening hours of cafes during Ramadan. He refers to an internal directive ied by one of his predecessors in office in 1981. This regulation is necessary, they say, to ensure public safety and not to hurt the religious feelings of fasting people.

Exchanges of non-fasters on Facebook

Meanwhile, many Tunisians who are not fasting are organizing themselves via the Internet. In a Facebook group called "Fater" (The Eater), they exchange information about which restaurants are open during the day in which cities. Whether to fast should be up to each individual, they argue.

Moreover, Islam itself explicitly exempts entire groups from the fasting requirement. This includes, for example, children, pregnant women, sick people or travelers. Meanwhile, those who are physically able are required not to eat or drink anything, not to smoke and not to have sexual intercourse from sunrise to sunset.

Meanwhile, cafe owner Oussama Ouerfelli is busy promoting his cafe in the Facebook group. Although, unlike many other businesses, he does not raise prices during the fasting month, the Ramadan business is profitable for him. "Often all the tables are then occupied," he says with a smile.

Change in mentality in recent years

His gaze wanders through the cafe, which otherwise often remains half empty during the week. He also wants to attract a different clientele with film screenings, cultural events and video games. "Often only older, smoking men sit here during Ramadan. Young women in particular do not feel particularly comfortable there."

Many Tunisians still do not dare to say publicly that they do not fast. But Ouerfelli is convinced that the mentality has changed in recent years. Public discussions and social media exchanges have created more tolerance between fasting and non-fasting people, he said.

Sarah Mersch

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