Shia, Sunnis, Ibadis or ‘just Muslims’ (as some followers of Islam identify themselves), no matter their differences, all celebrate Ramadan – the most sacred month of the year in Islam. Despite mainly being associated with fasting in predominantly non-Muslim countries, Ramadan is a time of prayer, reflection, empathy, charity and a deep connection with God. After living in the Middle East for three years, I noticed that Ramadan preparations and the practical side lies heavily on women’s shoulders, or speaking the language of traditional Ramadan sweets, is carried in ‘women’s arms’ (znoud el sit is a famous Iraqi and Lebanese dessert, which translates as ‘women’s arms’ – the name associated with the shape of the pastry).
As soon as the call to the Maghrib prayer announces the end of fasting for the day, you are invited to join me and virtually visit the homes of three Muslim sisters from different countries who have agreed to share with us their precious traditions and the delicious dishes they cook for Iftar (the evening meal with which Muslims end their fast at sunset). I asked all my interviewees the same questions, the answers to which will help you to picture the celebration of Ramadan around the world.
Omani homes, usually fragrant with the scent of Frankincense, during Ramadan are filled with the aroma of loqaimat (crunchy deep-fried dumplings or small balls of pastry, covered with date syrup or honey). Sometimes loqaimat is infused with saffron or cardamom (imagine the aromas then!)… It is one of my favourite Omani dishes, and I could eat it the whole year… But first things first… Traditionally in Oman the fast is broken by eating a few dates and drinking laban (fermented milk), often followed by a refreshing bowl of shorba (blanched wheat and meat soup), sambosas and some type of dish with rice and meat, such as chicken majboos for example.
“My favourite part of the day during Ramadan is when my whole family gather together after breakfast to pray and drink tea with something sweet” says the host of my virtual visit to an Omani home. (If it is with loqaimat, it will be my favourite too!) “Ramadan for me is an opportunity to strengthen my spiritual side, which comes through prayer and reading the Quran. Fasting makes the mind clearer, and I am more able to concentrate on thinking about others who are less fortunate. One of my sweetest childhood Ramadan memories is of helping my mum to cook special dishes and her praising me in front of the whole family. That feeling that I had become older, a special atmosphere of unity with my mother and other women”.
I am fascinated by the fact that Muslim women are able to abstain from tasting the food they are cooking during their fast, making sure that everything is ready for the family breakfast. “It takes years of practice”, says my Iraqi culinary expert, who knows the exact amount of turmeric, cumin or nutmeg to add to each dish with her eyes shut. I admire all the women who cook during the Ramadan fasting – often in scorching temperatures (especially in the Middle East).
Ramadan is one of the most anticipated events in Iraqi households. A few weeks before the holy month, my Iraqi hostess fills her freezer with kibbeh (minced meat and rice patties) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves and vegetables), her kitchen pantry with pulses for lentil soup, rice for quzi (rice-based dish, served with lamb) and dates paste for klecha (the national cookie of Iraq filled with a smooth paste of dates or an aromatic mixture of walnuts, sugar and cardamom). Despite the richness of the dishes eaten during Iftar, the Iraqi dish most associated with Ramadan is lentil soup, as it soothes the stomach after fasting and prepares it for heavier courses of fried or stewed meat and platefuls of rice. And this does not include the sweet treats, washed down with strong Iraqi tea, like zalabia (crispy deep-fried dough in the shape of a spiral) or the aforementioned znoud el sit!
“At night, after Iftar, is the most peaceful time for me during Ramadan, reading the Quran and feeling calm and near to God. There are not enough words to even begin to express what Ramadan means. A time of sharing with others in need, deeply empathising with how the hungry and displaced are feeling. A time to pray for everyone to refrain from bad habits and sins. I am trying to pass on the same values to my children, as during my childhood in the war years in Iraq, we didn’t have much, but that special time spent with my siblings and cousins, gave me such a feeling of happiness – even from the word ‘Ramadan’” narrates my hospitable Iraqi friend.
During this important religious festivals mums decorate the home, cook special delicious meals, pass on ancestral traditions and values, and make Ramadan memorable by giving a voice to children during celebrations – just like they do in Morocco.
Morocco, Ribat Alkheir
“When I was 9 years old, I fasted for the first time in my life on the twenty-seventh day of Ramadan, known as Laylat Al Qadr (the ‘Night of Power’), considered to be the holiest night of the year for Muslims. My mum went to a special effort; dressing me up in beautiful clothes, giving me a glass of cold milk flavoured with blossom water, and arranging a breakfast in my honour. Even now I remember the feeling of love and pride I had on that day. The tradition of celebrating a child’s first ever fast is treasured by all Moroccans. The month of Ramadan is the time when the prayers of a fasting person are answered, this is a time of psychological comfort” thus one of the proud daughters of Morocco answers my questions.
Talking with my friend about Ramadan in Morocco, I feel transported to her home – the small Berber town of Ribat Alkheir, which lies in the foothills of the Middle Atlas mountains, drinking tangy mint tea and tasting an array of unique Moroccan bakes famously associated with Ramadan – chebakia (a honey-coated sesame cookie folded into a flower shape), sellou (a rich, nutty, uniquely unbaked dish of a selection of toasted nuts and flour), msemen (a flaky, square-shaped pancake made from the combination of semolina and flour), baghrir (the light and comforting ‘pancake of a thousand holes’, served dipped in a honey-butter mixture).
Sipping my tea overlooking the mountains, I keep questioning how the mountains stand so firm for millennia, and I think it is their deep geological roots – just as women ‘hold up half the sky’ with their znoud el sit (women’s arms) during Ramadan and all the other months of the year.