Playing sports now mainstay Ramadan tradition in Pakistan

By Zia Ur Rehman

Karachi residents play cricket in the street June 20. With the arrival of Ramadan every year, youngsters across the county organise night cricket tournaments. [Zia Ur Rehman]

Karachi residents play cricket in the street June 20. With the arrival of Ramadan every year, youngsters across the county organise night cricket tournaments. [Zia Ur Rehman]

KARACHI -- For Pakistani Muslims, Ramadan is not only a month of religious and spiritual importance.

It is also a time for celebration and, of course, cricket.

With the arrival of the holy month every year, Pakistani youth fast during the day and play cricket and other sports in the streets at night.

These night tournaments occur throughout the country on playgrounds and on quiet roads under streetlights, and they have become an important part of the traditions and celebration of Ramadan.

Mostly youth play cricket -- the preferred sport of Pakistan -- while in some areas, enthusiasts play football and volleyball.

Dozens of impromptu night cricket tournaments are held in stadiums while street matches take place in every neighbourhood, said Muhammad Ammar, a Karachi-based cricketer who has organised a night tournament during Ramadan for the past several years.

"For young cricketers, Ramadan is one of the most exciting times of the year, where they, after daylong fasting, play cricket at night," Ammar told Pakistan Forward.

They usually start playing about 10pm, after night prayers, and end about 2:30am before going home for suhur, the pre-dawn meal, he said.

Enhanced security brings communities together

Taliban militants have a history of attacking sports activities and of increasing attacks during Ramadan.

One of the Taliban's deadliest attacks on athletes was in January 2010 when a suicide bomber killed at least 100 people at a volleyball tournament in Lakki Marwat District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).

In April 2014, at least 45 players were killed in a volleyball tournament in an Afghan Taliban attack in Paktika Province, Afghanistan.

But thanks to security operations targeting militants in both countries, nighttime tournaments during Ramadan have gained popularity.

At the same playground in Lakki Marwat where the January 2010 bombing occurred, a number of youth took part in night volleyball matches this year.

"We have not forgotten the brutalities of the Taliban when they inhumanely killed dozens of athletes and fans in our district," Shafi Marwat, one of the volleyball players in Lakki Marwat, told Pakistan Forward.

Residents now feel secure after the successes of military operations in neighbouring tribal areas, he said.

In Karachi, where ethnic violence had stopped youth of various communities from playing together, a Rangers-led operation dating back to September 2013 has provided opportunities for youth from all sects and ethnicities to reconnect in night tournaments.

"Before the operation, it was not possible to go to Lyari, Liaquatabad or Sohrab Goth because of ethno-political violence," Ammar said. "Now, the crackdown in the metropolis has allowed an increase in the number of night tournaments, with the full participation of all ethnicities and sects."

Terrorist attacks during Ramadan

Terrorist groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) and al-Qaeda have stepped up attacks during Ramadan, despite calls from religious clerics, world leaders and civilians to cease violence.

Last year, ISIS proudly took credit for killing and injuring more than 5,200 people in 14 terrorist attacks carried out in several countries during Ramadan.

An ISIS newsletter, al-Naba, gives a breakdown of the victims, who include almost 2,000 Shia, 1,000 Kurds, 600 Syrian Alawites and 300 Christians, among others.

Fortunately, Pakistan has been spared any major terrorist incident this Ramadan, an achievement that security analysts credit to military and intelligence-based operations targeting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and allied militant groups throughout the country.

Neighbouring Afghanistan, however, has not been so fortunate.

On May 27, the first day of Ramadan, a Taliban suicide car bomber killed 13 people and wounded 6, including children, in Khost city, Afghanistan.

On May 31, a massive truck bomb ripped through Kabul's diplomatic quarter, killing at least 150 individuals and injuring hundreds of others.

On June 3, suicide bombers tore through a row of mourners attending a funeral in Kabul, claiming at least seven lives.

On June 6, a motorcycle bomb exploded near the Grand Mosque in Herat Province, killing seven.

And on June 15, ISIS suicide bombers struck al-Zahra mosque in Kabul, killing one police officer and three civilians and injuring eight -- four police and four civilians.

A month for peace, atonement

Pakistani religious clerics have denounced these atrocities, calling them "un-Islamic" and "inhumane".

"Ramadan is the month of peace, prayers and atonement," Allama Majeed Siddiqui, a Sufi religious scholar in Karachi who monitors militant attacks, told Pakistan Forward.

"In this holy month, the subversive acts of terrorist groups, such as ISIS, show they have nothing to do with Islam and humanity," he said.

In the past two years, ISIS has specifically chosen the holy month of Ramadan for carrying out terrorism and killing civilians -- both Muslims and non-Muslims.

"ISIS has its own agenda: maligning Islam," he said. "But Muslim and non-Muslim communities across the world have realised this and shown solidarity and unity against the terror outfit."

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