My earliest memories, like all children perhaps, comes in flashes with considerable blank periods between them, possibly spanning months. My earliest flashback goes to a time when I guess I was slightly above 4 years and definitely less than 5 years old (my father could not help on this one!). I was climbing down the stairs of the house where we used to live, knowing that we were moving to a flat across the road which we were renting from my mother’s uncle. I recall nothing of the actual move but I remember weeks later that the flat was so new so that there was still a small mound of building gravel inside the living room. I recall looking at my mum and she was in tears. My father must have been away overseas at the time. Everything goes blank after that until a few weeks after my second sister’s birth. I was just over 5 years old. My mother’s great aunt had come from the nearby village of Eidoon to stay with us and there was such excitement surrounding her arrival. The next morning, I recall very clearly how she proceeded to give my newborn sister a salt bath in a plastic tub - a ritual for all newborn children in Jordan called Tamleeh (Salting, from the root word milh, meaning salt). I was mesmerized by the scene: my naked sister being bathed and my great aunt reciting verses from the holy book of the Quran. This ritual has by now almost disappeared but then it was done for health reasons, using copious amounts of salt as a way of either perhaps boosting the child’s immunity or maybe sanitising them.
Next, my first conscious memory of Ramadan: the month of fasting for Muslims during which we abstain from food and drink, as well as other worldly pleasures, from dawn to dusk (and which we are observing now). A devout and fasting Muslim must also abstain from swearing, gossiping, lying, smoking and fornication, amongst many things. Not unlike all types of fasting across religions, it is a month of contemplation, of rethinking our ways of life and social perspectives, including how we conquer things like hunger, thirst or desire. It is also a month where we need to think more of the poor and the have-nots and extend a brotherly or sisterly hand to them. It is too a month of intensive prayer and recitation of the holy Quran.
The usual greeting at the advent of Ramadan, coinciding with the birth of a new moon, is “Ramadan Kareem!” or “Ramadan Mubarak!” (Blessed Ramadan). At the end of the month of Ramadan we have the first feast in the Muslim lunar calendar – Eid El Fitr (the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast). This lasts for three days and it is sometimes called Eid Al Sagheer (the Small Feast) to distinguish it from Eid Al Kabeer ( the Grand Feast), which follows the pilgrimage to Mekkah and comes just over two months after the first feast. The usual greeting for both feasts is “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Feast).
The fasting of the month of Ramadan together with the pilgrimage to Mekkah are two of the five Pillars of Islam. The others are the attestation of faith, prayers (five times a day) and Zakat (giving alms to the poor).
As a child witnessing his first Ramadan, I wondered how my elders managed to refrain from food or drink all day. Naturally I wanted to emulate them even though Islam does not require children or sick people, among many exceptions, to fast. Organizing and managing the fasting of the children of the extended family was entirely left to my maternal great grandmother. She was a wise woman; kind but also full of authority when the situation demanded it. Our flat was in a building overlooking my maternal grandfather’s house and between the two buildings there was a courtyard. My grandfather erected a wall of bamboo to separate it from the water-well and from any prying eyes in the road beyond it. This courtyard was almost 20 metres long and 4 metres wide and other than the winter months was the meeting place of the extended family on my mother’s side.
Every morning, after performing her Dawn prayers, my maternal great grandmother would sit outside in the courtyard on soft wool mats, leaning against pillows made from hay and wool, smoking her hand-rolled cigarettes and drinking her Bedouin coffee. It was here that she would receive guests from nearby villages. And she would keep an eye on us, the children of the house. Sometimes we would play Mankala or cards with her; sometimes she would rebuke us if we behaved badly; on other occasions we would sleep near her when exhausted. She was very well loved and respected by her sons and daughters (my grandfather amongst them) and often consulted by them on family matters, including marriage, as well as by relatives from her clan in the nearby village.
Mankala being played near Petra in the early 20th Century. Variations of this game, one of the oldest in the world, are still played across the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean.
As children wanting to fast like the grown-ups, we would come to her asking for her permission. On some days, she would allow us to fast from dawn till noon and on the next day, say, she would allow us to fast from noon to sunset. When we protested that this was not what the grown-ups did, she would assure us that she had the authority to stitch together the two half-days so that God would accept them as full days. We trusted her unquestionably. When fasting was getting too tough for us, we would run to her and show her our tongues to demonstrate our thirst. Depending on her assessment she would allow us to break the fast or would tell us to wait a bit more. That is how you as a child in those days learnt to fast and gradually over the years adapted your physical aptitude to the full fasting ritual. As children it was a game; as adults it was our communion with our creator, the Almighty Allah.
In the 1960s Ramadan was far simpler then it is now. To start with, the only drink other than water which those fasting had available was Erqsoos (or Erk Sous), a drink extracted from Liquorice root. It is very savoury and as children we used to think it was more of an adult drink. As time passed by other drinks began to be consumed during the Ramadan Iftar (the meal for breaking the fast) such as tamarind and, later, tamarind with hibiscus, as well as natural or artificial juices from lemons to cherries; so much so that Erqsoos is almost no more.
As every fasting person knows, as the time for breaking the fast comes closer and closer, the excitement builds and so does the rush of adrenaline. As children, waiting for the time to break the fast, we would gather by the water-well beyond the bamboo wall and listen out for the firing of the Iftar cannon. This got us out of our parents’ way so that they could get on with preparing the Iftar. As soon as we heard the cannon being fired, we would run like mad to get our first dates (and rush of sugar) and water or the other way round. The cannon as a signal for breaking the fast, instead of the Azan (call to prayer) is believed to be an Ottoman tradition that was born out of a mistake but adopted later in many Arab cities. I do not know how many Arab cities have kept this tradition these days but perhaps Cairo is one of them. The reality today is that people now wait to hear the Azan either directly or via TV, radio or even the alarms on their smart-phones’ applications.
The time between Iftar (breaking the fast) and sunrise the next day is usually a time for family gatherings and inter-family visits. Devout Muslims will go to the mosque where Taraweeh prayers are performed. Normally during Ramadan mosques in the Arab and Islamic worlds are packed with worshippers but during the Covid-19 pandemic mosques have been at best only partially filled.
It is inevitable that over 1400 years of Islam certain traditions have become an integral part of the ritual associated with Ramadan and food is no exception. Some traditions are pan-Islamic while others are family-based. It is impossible to give a comprehensive review here, but I will try and give some flavour of what happens.
Most Muslims will try and break their fast by eating three dates, following in the tradition of Prophet Muhammed. This is most sensible given that sugar levels will be low for most if not all fasters. Soup is very common as the first course of the meal across the Arab World, preferably something nourishing, containing many ingredients. Some will eat and drink in moderation, consuming no more than dates, soup and water. They will then say their prayers before having their main meal hours later, so as not to shock their stomachs and suffer indigestion. Others though will gorge themselves with food and drink, which the devout state is against the spirit of Islam and the intentions of Ramadan. The fact is that this is human nature, and we cannot expect uniform behaviour across approximately 2 billion Muslims worldwide.
Within my family, we like to make sure that our first Iftar on the first day of Ramadan is a white dish (signifying peace and purity) in which the main ingredient is some sort of dairy product cooked with red or white meat and some vegetables.
In the olden days, a permanent fixture for the Ramadan Iftar and/or Sahoor (the meal before sunrise) was Qamaruddin. This is a Damascene (Syrian) mixture of dried fruit (mainly apricots) made into a paste and then dried and sold in thin layers. As a cheap nourishing dish it is usually soaked in water and made into a bread dip. Although one can still find it in the markets today it is no longer as popular as it used to be.
By far the most popular type of dessert today in most Arab countries (perhaps not North Africa apart from Egypt) is Qatayef. The nearest British equivalent in taste is the Scotch pancake or drop scone, though it looks like a Cornish pasty. Traditionally Qatayef is stuffed with crushed walnuts mixed with a little sugar and a hint of Cinnamon. Another type of stuffing is white cheese, preferably with a hint of salt in it. Both types are either fried or baked in the oven then dipped in syrup and eaten, preferably hot. Today some like them with coconut stuffing or cream stuffing and still fried or baked. Other modern versions will partially stuff them with cream with a sprinkle of crushed pistachios but not fried or baked. Whatever the sweet, the emphasis is that fasters need to compensate for having no sugar during the day. How that consumption of sugar impacts on waistlines amongst Muslims during Ramadan varies tremendously. Suffice to say that some people will struggle to keep their weight down. How that is compatible with the spirit of the month is a source both for jokes and serious discussion on social media.
Ramadan is a time for celebration, for community and for giving. There are many Arab cultures, in the Levant at least, where in the modern world you will find young men standing at traffic lights just before sunset. They don’t want to sell you anything or beg but instead to give you a bottle of water and a few dates just in case you miss the start of Iftar at home. Society abounds with funds and charities that seek to give to the poor in this holy month; anything from cash handouts to parcels of dried food, canned food, oil and dates. In the days before COVID-19 tents varying in size would be put up in various spots around town giving free food to anyone who passed by. These are sponsored by rich people as well as companies. Every Muslim who can afford to do so must give alms to the poor of specified amounts determined by the Grand Mufti (Chief Clergyman). In some Arab cities do not be surprised to see Christians fully or partially participate in the rituals of Ramadan. This can be anything from taking part in the giving away of dates and water at traffic lights to inviting fellow Muslims to Iftar, sharing traditional dishes, drinks and sweets. They will often fast as well.
In the early days of TV in the Arab world – the 1960s and 1970s - the most important event on TV used to be Fawazeer Ramadan (Ramadan Quizzes). A question was put to the public every day and you had to keep a record of every question and your answer daily and duly send the answers by post at the end of the month in the hope of winning quite a reasonable prize. Today, Arab TV stations abound with these quizzes every day of Ramadan. Prizes can be very generous, though these days you just phone and win prizes on the spot. Many of these quizzes are commercially sponsored and the questions too easy. More prominent today are the Ramadan TV dramas that most Arab producers will spend 11 months preparing for the month of Ramadan. There is a fierce competition between Arab TV stations, directors and actors to produce the most popular TV dramas. They touch on every subject imaginable and it can be said that the best productions in the Arab world are left for Ramadan.
For devout Muslims the last ten days of Ramadan (the time you are probably reading this article) are the most special. It is during this period that their worship is most intense and mosque attendance obligatory. For Muslims, the holy book of the Quran was first revealed in the month of Ramadan, specifically in the last ten days. Fasting on Lailat Al Qadir (the Night of Revelation), the night when the skies open for worshippers’ supplications, is stated in the Quran to be better than one thousand months of praying and fasting. There are those before the pandemic who used to spend the last ten days of Ramadan permanently inside the mosque, taking time away from work and the pleasures of life. Today with the closure of mosques in many Arab and Islamic cities this is no longer possible or largely restricted. However, most governments have faced considerable public pressure to open mosques during the current Ramadan despite the pandemic not being over.
As you would expect, fasting takes its toll on people but in varying degrees. Hunger and thirst can make people irritable and unable to do their jobs well. For heavy coffee drinkers the very smell of coffee can drive them mad; so too the smell of tobacco for smokers. For all of these reasons, the rhythm of life does slow down in Ramadan where working hours are reduced across both private and public sectors except for those doing essential work and those in the emergency services. For this reason, it is wise that one tries to get important business done before the onset of Ramadan. Foreign business people too should avoid visiting till after Ramadan has finished.