Every family has a meal that is their iftar staple. My family’s reflects a Sudanese tradition: fool, bayd u ta3meeya in Arabic, or broad beans, eggs and flat falafel. It might not sound fancy, but the smell of cumin, onion and the chickpea classic has an uncanny ability to take me back to the unique warmth of this special family gathering, any day of the week.
So what is this iftar I refer to? Iftar, in Arabic, technically means breakfast: a curious name for a meal eaten at sundown. But it makes perfect sense. Iftar is the meal that ‘breaks the fast’. In this case, it doesn’t refer to the period of not-eating-due-to-sleep, but instead references the fast that Muslims around the world participate in during the month of Ramadan.
Rama-what? Occurring on the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Ramadan commemorates the revelation of the first verses from the Qu’ranThe Qu’ran (or Quran, Koran) is the holy text of Islam and the sacred word of Allah as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed. It’s 114 <em>surahs</em> (chapters) are written in old Arabic dialect and have been translated in over forty languages. It is considered a guidance for Muslims and humankind, describing social and moral codes and religious philosophy and it is treated with immense respect. to the Prophet Mohammed (Peace and Blessings Be Upon Him), and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam—the faith’s five core and compulsory practices. During this time, Muslims refrain from any eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity from dawn until dusk, for about twenty-nine or thirty days, depending on the moon.
Photo by Beth Wilkinson for Lindsay Issue No. 1
Every Ramadan, the start and end of the month are heatedly debated: a disagreement that’s often a source of bemused frustration for many Muslims. Some parts of the community wait to see the moon before they start to fast, while others look to lunar calendar calculations; some go with their local mosque, others to Saudi Arabia’s schedule. It is an unusual quirk of having over 1.6 billion people following the same religion, without one big boss telling everyone what to do.
Timing technicalities aside, Ramadan is a spiritual detox. It’s a month when you’re encouraged to think about the purity of your soul, learn discipline, and gain an appreciation for what it’s like for those in the community who go hungry on a daily basis. It gives us an opportunity and excuse to practise being a better person, and a better Muslim. For me, it’s a month of mandatory spiritual self-care: a chance to reconnect fully with my faith. Time is carved out for prayer, reflection, and reading the Qur’an in ways that I sometimes find difficult in my regular day-to-day. I spend more time with family, my religious community and the community at large: every few nights sees me at a charity fundraising iftar, or breaking the fast with non-Muslim friends who revel in the novelty. Ramadan forces me to slow down, mentally and physically, and it is this reduction of pace that does wonders for the soul.
“Days filled with huge family gatherings, a slowing down of work and open-door iftars with tables creaking under the weight of delicious food.”
It’s also more than just a religious obligation. It’s deeply tied to family and community—days filled with huge family gatherings, a slowing down of work (particularly in Muslim-majority countries) and open-door iftars with tables creaking under the weight of delicious food. And oh, the food! Fried, fatty, filling: the food made and eaten during Ramadan feeds the eyes and soul as much as it feeds the stomach. In a way, it makes the fasting worth it. Whether it’s samosas, with their oily pastry leaving stains on any paper they touch; salatat roub, a Sudanese version of tzatziki with carrot and cucumber; or fattoush, a mix of fried bread, chickpeas and yoghurt, the foods I love are decadent and nourishing! Invariably, come the end of the month, like many other Muslims, I find myself a few kilos heavier. But it’s worth it, every time.
Fantastic food, spiritual satisfaction and community closeness: Ramadan is a time that many Muslims look forward to and are often heartbroken to see leave. It’s almost clichéd to talk about the power food has to bring people together, but magic is in that truth. Communal living is the norm, and no one is to eat alone; it is a month of popping into each other’s houses unannounced, always with a growling stomach, and sometimes with a dish to share. Meals eaten during Ramadan are so often the cultural comfort foods of those who make them that the act of sharing in Ramadan is an act of comforting harmony in and of itself. In some ways the month is chaotic, messy and noisy, but like a rich chocolate mousse, it’s always delicious.
It’s also, sadly, been a difficult month for me these past few years. Working away from home has meant spending Ramadan away from family and community for the past six years. Observing Ramadan alone leaves a bittersweet taste in one’s mouth, a tang unrelated to the lack of hydration. The solitude reminds me of the importance of community and the energy we get from those around us. It reminds me to be grateful, and also spurs me to call my mother a little more regularly. And that can only be a good thing.
As I write these words I am taken back to the Ramadan of my youth. I’m watching the digital clock on top of our old white fridge, silently counting down the minutes. Mum’s bustling behind me, setting the main dishes on our wooden table in the dining room, while Dad makes fried eggs—his role in this operation—and my little brother sits at the table, legs swinging. The red numbers on the digital clock click over to meet the exact time of the sunset… I hold my breath until I hear the first notes of the adhan The <em>adhan</em> is the Islamic call to worship. come through the speakers on our home computer.
Alllaahhhhhhu-Akbar, Alllahhhhhhhhu-Akbar! <em>Allahu Akbar</em> is an Islamic phrase, called <em>Takbir</em> in Arabic, which translates to English as ‘Allah is [the] greatest’.
I take a date from the bowl on the table and place it on my tongue. Its rough texture feels familiar, and its sweetness makes my mouth water with its first bite of food all day. I mutter a prayer under my breath…
This article was originally published in Lindsay Issue No. 1.