In the few remaining parts of Syria still under "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) control, the holy month of Ramadan has been stripped of traditional customs, social activities and joyous festivities as the group forces people to adhere to its radical ideology.
In years gone by, al-Raqa used to be adorned with decorations and lights and resonant with the sounds of tawashih (religious songs), as vendors spread out in the streets selling special food and sweets, city natives told Diyaruna.
Now, they said, all of this has disappeared, and this month is no different than the others.
ISIS has distorted the rituals and customs of Ramadan, said Sheikh Moaz Abdul Karim, a former preacher at Aleppo's al-Omar mosque who now resides in Cairo.
Religious rituals and social customs used to create a "beautiful atmosphere" during Ramadan, he told Diyaruna, but "the group’s actions during the month of fasting and its clampdown on citizens" have robbed it of its joy.
While customs differ from one part of Syria to another, he said, the common feature has been familial and social solidarity, family visits and joy and happiness.
"However, ISIS forbids the manifestations of joy, as it has, for example, banned Ramadan decorations, traditional songs and mixing of the sexes, even among relatives," he said.
Gone are the overflowing banquet tables that used to bring families, friends and people of the same area together, he added.
A month without joy
The people of al-Raqa have forgotten the beautiful rituals of Ramadan, said Nasser al-Ali, a native of the city using a pseudonym out of fear for his safety.
"Comparing the streets of al-Raqa during Ramadan in past years with how they are now is saddening," he told Diyaruna.
The atmosphere used to be joyful and the streets filled with decorations, lights and vendors selling sweets and foods, he said, while now there is none of that.
This Ramadan will be tougher than those of previous years, as the current situation is much more difficult, al-Ali predicted.
"The effects of the siege have begun to appear clearly in the daily lives of the city’s residents, some of whom had started preparing for the month by storing some of the few items that can be found in the markets," he said.
These include sugar, rice and some types of grain, he said, noting that due to the high price of meat, many residents are breeding livestock.
With the spectre of approaching battles, he said, people have been stockpiling food in the event that the siege is protracted and the food supply is cut off.
"Some families are trying to maintain their usual rituals by meeting in one of their homes for iftar and staying up for suhoor," he said.
They do so in utmost secrecy, he said, due to the group's ban on mixing of the sexes and because they watch TV serials loaded onto flashdrives and viewed on computers.
Gloom and misery prevail
The clearest sign of how ISIS is affecting Ramadan is the "state of gloom and misery civilians are living in in the areas under its control", Syrian journalist Mohammed al-Abdullah told Diyaruna.
The joy over the advent of the holy month has disappeared, he said, as have all manifestations of amity and social solidarity that used to prevail, not only among Muslims but also between Muslims and Christians.
ISIS "has turned the month of joy and worship into a month of blood and murder, as not one year has passed since the group emerged without it calling for bloodshed during Ramadan", he said.
Hesba ("religious police") elements have been detaining civilians and meting out punishments that range from floggings to executions for those the group claims have not been keeping the fast, al-Abdullah said.
These sad scenes now replace the Ramadan decorations and traditional and religious celebrations that were common before the group's arrival, he said.