On Saum & Savouries
Between the fasting and the feasting of Ramadhan in South Africa, Miriam Akabor relishes the impact Ramadhan has on her community in South Africa.
As a child, I knew that Ramadhan was approaching shortly when we received a large package of kajoor (dates) with “Compliments from the Vawda family” neatly printed on the attached label. Each Ramadhan, the Vawdas supplied the neighbourhood Muslims with dates.
When I think of Ramadhan, I think of a renewed sense of faith, spirituality and hope. Then I think of the food. Fasting, on the most basic level, is about abstaining from food. Yet as wives and mothers we are constantly challenged to provide the tastiest of meals, ironically, during Ramadhan. In South Africa, the majority of Muslim families go through a preparation phase a month or two before fasting begins. Families set aside days to prepare the samoosa and pie filling, make the pur and pastry, then start the daunting task of filling the samoosas and pies, which could take up to a week, depending on how big your family is.
I come from the city of Durban, home to the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere – the Grey Street Mosque. The city has an eclectic mix of Muslims who come together during Ramadhan. A month before the fasting begins, the cramped spice shops begin their “Ramadhan Specials” on spices, almonds, barley, dates and so on.
When Ramadhan dawns, Muslims zealously welcome the month. Islamic radio stations and publications contribute to this fervour, reminding us that this year we can make a change in our lives.
When the night of the first tarawih arrives, I know a month of momentous praying, additional Qur’an reading, attempts to better myself and fasting for one month lies ahead. And I embrace it.
As a child, suhur was always filled with noise – the shouts from my mother to get out of bed, the clattering of dishes, the hum of the microwave. I always woke up to see my grandmother engrossed in prayer. Now, as a married woman, the roles have shifted and I have to wake up first to prepare the food in the stillness of the night. A tradition amongst families is to drink almond milk during suhur, especially the hufadh, to improve their memory.
Work continues as usual for Muslims in my country during Ramadhan. When late afternoon approaches, the delicious aromas begin to emanate from the kitchens – a harbinger of iftar.
I remember the fragrance of my mother’s fresh haleem (a broth made of barley), which was a must at iftar each day. Served with a spritz of lemon juice and naan (bread), haleem is a source of energy. In keeping with the charitable atmosphere of Ramadhan, steaming haleem and naan are distributed freely in mosques around the country during weekends. When you live in Durban, it’s not possible for a Ramadhan to pass without buying, at least once, fresh haleem and naan from Mullah’s Café in the city centre.
Iftar is also made at the mosques with womenfolk sending platters of samoosas, cutlets, pies and fritters served with chutney, and jugs of ice cold sharbat (pink milkshake made with sweet rose syrup) with sabja seeds (basil seeds). There is a genuine buzz amongst the men at the mosques each night for tarawih. Fathers, sons and brothers, from the young to the old, join the congregation. They do so and return home to enjoy a cold dessert, like falooda, before retiring to bed.
The month of fasting continues with Muslims preparing and distributing food parcels to the needy. Before we know it Eid is upon us and we find ourselves saying, “I can’t believe Ramadhan flew by so fast!”
At Home With Ramadhan
After converting to Christianity at missionary school, Hamiidah Kehinde-Muhammad, discovers the homing spirit of Ramadhan.
Great! Another Ramadhan was here and that meant hard labour in the kitchen! I was almost twelve and had just returned from my missionary primary school. I never knew my mum and my dad had sent me there because he felt boarding school was safer for me. I’d become a Christian while at school but I was back home now and my dad ordered me to start praying!
I went on to attend a very popular and secular secondary school which only further alienated me from Islam. Ramadhan then only meant hard work to me. I didn’t like the long hours of hunger and thirst and I didn’t like the chores of preparing for iftar either. I did however enjoy eating suhur in a group and the feeling of belonging that it gave me. All my life I have wanted to belong. I just wanted to fit in and be a part of something.
After graduating from high school, the university of my choice closed down and I had to stay home much longer than I planned. That was probably the best ‘bad’ thing that ever happened to me! Staying at home with my family gave me an opportunity to study Muslims a little bit more. I discovered they weren’t backwards at all. Secretly, I decided to look into Islam. By the next Ramadhan, I was a revert and had found where I belonged!
What could encourage a sense of belonging more than eating meals, especially iftar, from the same plate! In the North of Nigeria, it isn’t a strange thing to see people eating meals from the same plate. They eat together, laughing and exchanging stories about their day. It took a bit of getting used to but after a while, I could dip my hands right into that dish too. The display of food at iftar will always take one’s breath away, and though iftar shouldn’t be turned into a feast, there’s always enough for everybody. There are always dates, fruits, traditional drinks like kunu and zobo before the main meal of different types of tuwo and soups. Tuwo is very much like mashed potatoes but made from grains. People here enjoy spicy and peppery foods.
It isn’t an odd thing to hear a voice, accompanied by a drum, announcing the arrival of the time of suhur in the South of Nigeria. Soon you hear the unmistakable sound of people rising to do his bidding.
Ramadhan has remained extremely special to me since that first Ramadhan even if I wasn’t Muslim yet. In Ramadhan of 2001, I began wearing the niqab and just before Ramadhan last year, I met my husband! I’ve experienced many Ramadhans since that first one and I’ve not only found a sense of belonging, I’ve found a completely fulfilling way of life!
Fasting In The Wild West
Mahdia Chowdhury describes Ramadhan in the cold Canadian city of Calgary.
Experiences during the month of Ramadhan in Canada are essentially dependent on where one resides. Fasting in one of the fastest growing cities (Calgary) in Canada comes with some challenges. Most Muslims in Canada reside in the east while Calgary is situated in the west, inside an oil producing province. I went to a predominately multicultural High School, with a large Muslim population. However that didn’t make my Ramadhan experiences much easier. The majority of Muslims at my school did not fast. I only knew of a few who actually followed the requirements of Ramadhan. Most Muslims went about their lunch hour as they would any other month of the year. Non-Muslims had a difficult time understanding when I described to them that I couldn’t eat because I was fasting. They would usually say “but Ahmed is Muslim and he eats lunch. ” This confused a lot of the non-Muslims, and I never had the courage to ask Ahmed why he didn’t fast.
At work there was much curiosity about my daily routine during the month of Ramadhan. I remember having someone ask if I came from the same religion as the men who wear turbans (the Sikhs). Describing to them the practices of Islam was extremely difficult. To my surprise my co-workers were tremendously supportive and understanding of our differences.
The weather in Calgary can make fasting extremely easy or exceptionally difficult. When Ramadhan occurs during the winter months the days are short and the low temperatures allow for a fairly easy fast. However during the summer months, the heat and the long days make for a more challenging experience. The challenging days make breaking the fast all the more exciting and those are the days I feel the most thankful. The difficult days are the ones that make me stronger. Those are the days I feel the most connected to other Muslims, feeling like we all share common goals and experiences. One sister shared her experience of going to the mosque for Tarawih, and finding so many people there that many men had to pray in the parking lot, in the cold. This is the month that really brings Muslims in Calgary together.
Other than bringing Muslim Calgarians together, Ramadhan also brings my family closer. During this month my family’s dynamic is altered. We are friendlier to each other; we also tend to do things together. My family reschedules its daily routine so that all of us can be together to break our fast. I feel more like a better version of myself during this month. It truly is my favourite month of the year.
Ramadhan On The Corniche
Ramadhan can evoke nostalgia and memories of family now far away. But as Uzma Adnan learnt in her new home in Jeddah, it also offers a great compensatory package!
During my first year in Saudi Arabia, by the time Ramadhan rolled along, I was acutely depressed. And the onset of the holy month made me even more so – I missed my family. In Jeddah, it was just my husband and me. Though I loved preparing food for him, I found iftar to be the loneliest time and I missed my family sorely.
Back home, Ramadhan was a quiet time when families spent their evenings together and slept early so they could wake up early the next day. Only during the last third of the month did things pick up when preparations for Eid would be in full swing: visits to the tailor for Eid outfits and shopping for Eid gifts – all the frenzy culminating in “chaand raat” (night before Eid) when younger members of the family would celebrate by going out for a drive to popular shopping arenas (and get stuck in traffic for hours), and girls would buy bangles to coordinate with their Eid outfits and apply henna on their palms.
In Jeddah, each night of Ramadhan was like ‘chaand raat’ – an endless celebration. Most main roads were lit up with special lights, and there were banners wishing “Ramadhan Kareem” almost everywhere. Malls and amusement arcades were full, and driving along the Corniche in Jeddah it was impossible to find a parking spot because locals and expats would roll out a rug on any spot available, bring out a picnic hamper and sit by the sea for hours – sometimes not leaving until after they had had their suhur and said their prayers. Children enjoyed camel rides, rode on carousels and played endless games of tag. It was hard for me to conceive how they ever got up for school the next morning.
After Tarawih prayers, my husband and I would go out to the malls to walk around or drive along the Corniche area. 2:00a.m. in Jeddah could very well be 7:00p.m. elsewhere. It wasn’t unusual to meet friends for a pre-suhur meal at 1a.m. or go grocery shopping just before Fajr. I had never seen a city so wide awake in the middle of the night.
In Pakistan it was rare and rather unusual to have iftar at a restaurant; we always stayed home and ate with our families. But in Jeddah, not only did every restaurant chain have special Ramadhan offers, but there were offers on suhur too… And though we didn’t have suhur at restaurants, we often picked up fragrant, freshly made Foul Medammas, Mutabbaq (a kind of omelette) and pitas on our way back home.
Being a part of congregational prayers here in Saudi, was also a strangely wonderful experience. Never before had I experienced praying in a mosque, and never before had I been swayed by emotions as strong as the ones I felt standing there – one amongst dozens present in a beautiful white mosque that seems to float over the Red Sea.
During qiyam-al-layl (when we complete the Qur’an in the last ten nights), there wouldn’t be one dry eye around me as the Imam’s voice would break with emotion when he uttered supplications. I could not understand a single word, but I felt his passion and that of all those around me and it made me feel for the first time that I wasn’t alone…
I yearn for Ramadhan when it’s over. It renews my faith and energises me for the next year to come. Somehow, the daily routine makes me feel like I’m in a safe cocoon – and when it’s all over, I’m plunging head-on into whirling confusion.
From A Distance
Juli Herman can still sense the smells and tastes of the Malaysian Ramadhan Bazaar, even from across the ocean!
“Two Ayam Percik!” Already, I hear orders for the famous grilled chicken continually basted to a glistening shine with a spicy, creamy sauce. Voices can be heard over the monotonous drone of the generators. The welcoming din of the Ramadhan Bazaar embraces me.
A sea of people throng the many aisles formed by arrays of stalls, filling the parking lot and side streets normally teeming with traffic during normal hours. I brace myself as I plunge into the crowd, weaving my way through, trying not to bump into anyone.
Suddenly, I smell a nutty aroma, and turn my head towards it. An Apam Balik stall greets me. The seller skillfully ladles the batter into molds and covers them. At just the right moment, he slathers creamy corn on the half done crepes, and tops them with chopped peanuts. Once done, the hot crispy crepes are folded in half. I open my mouth to order, but noticing the standing crowd, I decide to forage for something else.
The deeper in I venture, the steamier it gets. I pass by a stall with hissing and sizzling woks, deliciously tossed with oodles of noodles, squids, shrimps, bean sprouts, and fish balls. It’s little wonder it feels like a sauna! The drink stall displaying plastic barrels sloshing with drinks becomes my next stop. I eagerly watch as my order of pastel pink Sirap Bandung is ladled into a plastic bag, then deftly tied at the top with string.
Ahh… I do miss the joys and toils of a Ramadhan bazaar. It has been eleven years since I last spent Ramadhan in Malaysia. I miss the abundance of culinary pleasures readily available there. Sometimes I pine for traditional Malaysian desserts that my unskilled fingers refuse to recreate perfectly. In the wintry Ramadhans, when there is no pressing need for thirst-quenching drinks at Iftar, I couldn’t help but yearn for the cold drinks that are the most sought after fast-breakers in Malaysia.
How I wish I could skip the cooking and indulge in bazaar food, especially when I can barely find enough time to read the Qur’an amidst the chaos and demands three children and a baby produce.
Ramadhan in the United States is a completely different experience, both physically and spiritually. Though I was rather homesick in the beginning, I have learned to enjoy living in a multicultural Muslim community. Having iftar with my international Muslim sisters has broadened my mindset, taste buds and in turn, has added to my repertoire of culinary skills. In addition to Malay cuisines, our kitchen is now also wonderfully suffused with the aroma of Basmati rice prepared the Somali, Egyptian, and Middle Eastern way.
However, it is probably the deprivation of the Ramadhan bazaar that has brought about beneficial changes for me personally. Where I used to gulp down sweet, cold drinks for iftar back home, I am now content with a few sips of water. Our iftar spread is not as lavish as it is in Malaysia, but it is more than enough to satisfy our hunger.
It is in the absence of easy access to familiar, abundant, and extravagant delicacies that I have learned to appreciate the true essence of fasting.
And, though I can still hear “Two Ayam Percik!” being lauded in an atmosphere I do at times crave to be in, I can also hear my heart telling me “It’s all good.”