Next week Ramadan begins in the Muslim world. The word comes from the Arabic word meaning scorching heat or dryness – never more appropriate than this year when the fast coincides with the height of summer. Throughout Ramadan, Muslims refrain from consuming food, drinking liquids or smoking – part of an effort towards “self-purification and moral excellence.” But in recent years, Ramadan has coincided with some of the bloodiest episodes of violence, first in Iraq and more recently in Syria. Last year, Ramadan was one of the deadliest in years. More than 670 people were killed in Iraq – and with ISIS’s renewed campaign in the country over the last 10 days, it’s feared violence could escalate still further this year.
Jailed Al-Jazeera Correspondents
After 12 hearings, and nearly six months behind bars, on Monday three journalists from Al-Jazeera’s English network will learn their fate. Australian correspondent Peter Greste, Egyptian Canadian producer Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Egyptian producer Baher Mohamed were detained Dec. 29 by Egyptian authorities on terror-related charges. All have strongly denied any wrongdoing. Last week, the prosecutor announced that an Al Jazeera staffer held since August in a separate case would be released for medical reasons. Reporter Abdullah El Shamy, who worked for the broadcaster's Arabic affiliate, had been on a hunger strike since January, and photos circulated recently on social media showed him looking haggard and enfeebled. Seventeen other people, some with no connection to Al Jazeera, are also charged in the case and face sentencing Monday. If convicted, the defendants could face three years to life in prison.
The greatest show on Earth reaches the half way stage next week. The World Cup first round matches reach the end of the road, and the tournament goes into sudden death. The US men’s national team face a double header – first on Sunday when they play Portugal in the jungle stadium of Manaus, before completing their so-called “Group of Death” with a game against Germany on Thursday in the coastal city of Recife, the biggest city in Northern Brazil. Two teams from each of the eight groups will qualify for the knock-out stage. Our Five Thirty Eight friend Nate Silver puts the USMNT’s odds of progressing to the round of 16 at 56.5 percent.
Of course, truly the greatest show on earth is about to take place in the skies above us. Saturday at 6:51 a.m. ET is the Summer Solstice: when the Earth tilts 23.5 degrees on its axis, the sun shines directly on the Tropic of Cancer and we in the northern hemisphere are directly facing the sun. Many summer solstice traditions include bonfires, originally a pagan custom, although it has been adopted by Christian denominations to celebrate Saint John's Day – the birthday of St John the Baptist, which is believed to coincide with the Summer Solstice. In Greece, men leap over the flames, while in Bulgaria, a barefoot dance on hot embers called Nestinarstvo is performed. Here, for many of us, it’s a great excuse for a BBQ.