BAGHDAD, Iraq—In a city in which people are virtual prisoners in their own homes, even the preparations for the year's biggest celebration reminded the al Tmimi family that there was little cause for joy.
Karima al Tmimi, the heavyset 62-year-old matriarch, walked to the neighborhood market early in the morning, trying not to think about the bomb that had detonated just outside it the day before.
When she got home, she began heating the oil for the main course—a traditional spicy fried fish with rice—hours before the lunch that marks the end of the Ramadan holy month of fasting. Cooking takes much longer now because, like many Iraqis, Tmimi has switched to a weak kerosene burner. Gas for the family stove costs more than 10 times its prewar price, a problem that also has sparked a boom in sales of primitive, wood-fueled mud ovens.
As she dropped the chunks of fish into the hot oil, one of her daughters lighted a stick of sweet incense so that holiday visitors would be greeted by a pleasant smell.
They knew there'd be no visitors, though.
Across Iraq, the three days of celebration called Eid al Fitr—Festival of Breaking the Fasts—started Monday for Sunni Muslims, Tuesday for Shiite Muslims.
After a month dedicated to emphasizing the spiritual, it's a time to eat, give gifts, pray, visit friends and family, and refocus on worldly things.
But in Baghdad, the world is dominated by sectarian cleansing of whole neighborhoods and death squads that hold impromptu roadblocks to snag victims, who are quickly added—sometimes with the help of a power drill—to the nearly 3,000 killings a month.
Eid is usually a social occasion, with almost ritual visits to different branches of family, friends and neighbors.
Not in Baghdad, not this year.
"It's not really Eid, because we can't leave the house to visit our relatives or friends in other neighborhoods," Tmimi said as she flipped the fish with a big spoon.
She's famed among friends and family for her tasty traditional dishes, a skill honed since her girlhood in a small rural village.
This year, though, there were fewer to appreciate it. Among the missing were her three married daughters and their husbands and children. They live in Babil province, about 70 miles away, and the road to the capital has become one of the most perilous in Iraq.
"I wish I could see them," she said, her voice turning husky. "They couldn't come and I didn't want them to try. It has to be enough to say `hi' by telephone."
Also missing is her neighbor, Qais al Bahadli, a father of five who'd dropped by for each of the past 20 Eids. Insurgents shot and killed him a few weeks after the last one. She'd walked next door before she started cooking to pass holiday greetings to his family.
The Tmini family is Shiite. Several dozen people have been killed in their neighborhood in the past year, including 13 in a single week this summer as Sunnis were forced out.
While she cooked the fish, her other two daughters and two daughters-in-law prepared rice, salads and traditional Iraqi pickles called turshee. Her four sons watched television.
By 1 p.m., the meal was ready. At least the fish, an expensive treat, was a festive touch.
Between bites, there was talk about which family members had checked in by telephone. Then, as conversations often do in Baghdad, it turned to the things no longer possible, to the eroding social networks they're trying to keep alive via e-mail and telephone and to how Iraqis had to turn to new television versions of a popular Ramadan group game because they can't gather in person.
Mohammed, a government worker and, at 38, the eldest son, said he couldn't help but be bitter at being robbed of time with friends during Ramadan and Eid al Fitr.
"I used to gather with them every night during Ramadan, and we would have fun and play many popular games all the night," he said. "Now when we enter the house we don't leave it at all, because no one goes out at night and we are still afraid that something could happen."
His brother Hussein, 30, a math teacher, said that even if he could go out, he couldn't visit his Sunni friends because so many had left the city.
Then lunch was over, with not even the fish anymore to show that it was a special day. The family moved to the living room, where the incense still burned. They drank tea and pondered the coming year.
They agreed it wouldn't be a good one.
"I'm sure the coming Ramadan will be even worse than this year," Mohammed said. "I hope that I'm wrong, but I can't lie to myself."
Then, only half-joking, he repeated what's become a universal line in Baghdad when talking about a date in the future. "I don't know whether I will be alive then," he said.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.