Ramadan Memories

In Islamic tradition, Ramadan is a 30-day period of fasting (no eating, drinking, smoking, or having sex) during daylight hours. Each day, Muslims eat sahoor before the first call to prayer at sunrise. They suffer through thirst, hunger, headaches, and caffeine withdrawal until the sunset call to prayer, but happily endure because, as they explain, fasting is a way to place yourself in the poor people's shoes and to truly understand what it's like to only have thoughts of your next meal on your mind. Most of my villagers won't even brush their teeth or take a shower during daylight hours, fearing they might swallow the toothpaste or water.
Once the imam's voice resonates from the mosque to announce salaat magrib (sunset call to prayer), entire families gather on the floor around the enormous iftar that the wives have spent the last five hours preparing: steaming bowls of bean soup, salads made from picked-that-day tomatoes and cucumbers, freshly baked bread, and traditional Jordanian cuisine that sometimes has mixtures of ground lamb, parsley, onions, and coriander, other days layers of marinated vegetables paired with tender chicken. The next half hour is spent in complete silence, save for the occasional slurping, burping, and clanging spoons.
As an ijnabee-a (foreigner) and woman living alone, I received countless daily invitations to eat iftar with my neighbors. No exaggeration: I would have a line-up, and would often find myself responding to a neighbor's invitation with, "Well…Monday I am breaking fast with Fatima, Tuesday with Zain, Wednesday with my landlord's family…maybe Thursday I could come over?"
The entire month of Ramadan was as busy as I have ever found myself in Jordan; each day, school would let out at noon. Teachers would rush home to start cooking, students to take an afternoon nap, and I to change out of my ghastly skirt and closed-toe shoes. After about two hours of playing Spider Solitaire or free-reading in the comfort of my home, I would march over to my scheduled appointment's house. For the next five hours, I would cut vegetables, wash the chicken with lemon and soap, watch the yeast make the bread rise, and marinate the meats. It was tortuous to smell the delicious scents of sautéed onions and garlic, or cumin bubbling away in the homemade chicken stock. I never believed the expression "makes your mouth water" until Ramadan.
And, everyday, there would be sweets. My favorite was gat-ie-ef, a fried pancake filled with coconut, walnuts, cinnamon, sugar, and sweet raisins. Sometimes, the women would stuff them with dates, or with sweet cheese. Each pancake was dipped in sweet syrup that was a 1-to-1 ration of sugar and water. If gat-ie-ef wasn’t on the menu for that day, the women and I would whip up cake (which they often flavored with orange soda), hareesa, or kanafah (both traditional Jordanian sweets).
Once everyone had stuffed themselves and the dishes were washed, I would sit with the family, belts unbuckled or buttons unbuttoned. We'd soak everything down with a steaming cup of black tea or strong Arabic coffee, and, for the next two hours, the conversation would revolve around how delicious the meal was, how lucky we were to have had this meal, and what tomorrow's iftar would include.
After retiring for the night to my house, I would let my stomach digest in silent solitude and elapse into a food coma. It wasn't uncommon during Ramadan for me to wake up – groggily – at 3 a.m. to insistent pounding on my door. After appropriately covering myself, I would peek out the door, often to find a neighbor or her daughters delivering that morning's sahoor, a simple concoction of fresh bread, lumpy jam, fried eggs, and yogurt. They'd urge me to hurry up and eat breakfast before the sunrise call to prayer.
Ramadan has been my most positive experience of living in an Islamic community. The iftar meals prepared are buffets of authentic Jordanian cuisine, the women happily rise to the challenge of preparing the best meal, there is meat on the table (er, floor) every day, and families always eat together (usually, men, sons, and uncles eat separately from the women). The moments after sunset are worth every minute of suffering during the daylight hours, wishing you could sneak in a sip of water or a bite of savory cheese.

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