Real Ramadan


Ramadan - the food

It’s 5.30 am, and the house is understandably quiet. But Ibrahim’s mother, a woman of incredible stamina, will undoubtedly be up again soon: when I went out from my room at 9.30 yesterday morning, she had evidently just done some laundry, which dripped from the line under the grey sky. I got up at 3 this morning to help her to prepare the sahur, the meal eaten before first light during the month of Ramadan, and found her sitting in front of the oven on the stairs, sweating slightly from the heat, having just finished baking our bread. Back in the kitchen with me, she started to chip potatoes and eggplant and to peel and slice tomato, while I assembled plates of all the other food we consume at sahur: apricot jam, halva, yoghurt and two of its local derivatives, cream cheese and a kind of ghee, and other dairy items currently in the house. At 3.30 we roused the rest of the household, and ate.

I was determined to wake up in time to help Umm Qassim this Ramadan as I knew from last year that my sisters in law, the main actors in the kitchen during daylight and the rest of the year, do not regularly rise for that first meal, their sleep patterns being more dictated by their small children than by their stomachs. I am fortunately not in that position, and have discovered the perhaps obvious fact that getting up to help prepare the food makes me much more eager about eating it than when dragged straight from sleep to the tray. Or perhaps after five months here I have become acclimatized to the fat and sugar in the diet, and am no longer horrified by the idea of eating chips with soft bread at 3.45 am. I haven’t missed a sahur yet, and those of you who know me can well imagine that I am not likely to pass up anything that constitutes a meal, even at that hour. Water is the other thing of which I am consuming copious quantities before the muezzin sings ‘enough eating and drinking, enough eating and drinking’ and breaks into the full call for the first prayer of the day. Autumn took over only two days ago, having made half-hearted overtures for a month - last week temperatures were still well inside the ‘hot’ category - so this water was an essential part of the pre-fast store inside me.

My sisters in law are protagonists in the cooking of iftar – the fast-breaking meal at sunset, which, since the clocks changed on the 5th day of the month, has been at 4.45 pm. For iftar we enjoy dishes that we would in normal months eat for lunch, the main meal of the day, but iftar is more special: we have fattoush salad and thick lentil and meat soup every day, and the main dish is often well-loved local favourites like seffayeh, mini pies stuffed with tomato, coriander and mince, or fettayeh, best described as enclosed pizzas. Otherwise, we might eat rice, or what is known in Haurani dialect as ‘fareeche’ – green cracked wheat, to be distinguished from burghul – with a sloppy sauce. The other day we consumed a stew made from the large red beans that had grown and dried on their stalks in the garden over the summer. And the bread to accompany our main dishes when not eating one of the bready favourite dishes is always home-made, while during the rest of the year it is often bought (but also fresh and delicious, I must add).

This second meal inevitably leaves me drowsy and stupefied, almost faint – especially if I am particularly hungry and thirsty before it. After the washing up is done, we sink back down and wait for digestion to occur, stimulating the process with a shot or two of strong unsweetened coffee with cardamom. After a small amount of space has been created, we might fill that with home-made maamoul (biscuits stuffed with dates), a specialty of one of Ibrahim’s brothers, or with fresh fruit – another brother brought home some very sweet and juicy pomegranates the other day, incredibly the size of netballs. I've now seen how walama, the balls of syrup-drenched deep-fried dough are made. Later in the evening, we might sup lightly, or munch on seeds, but often our bodies don’t want or need anything else - iftar is quite enough for it to contend with, after fasting throughout the day.



Ramadan - the fast

Why am I fasting? And how does it feel? Ibrahim was very keen to stress to me that although I fasted last year, trying it out for the first time, I shouldn't feel compelled to fast again, even though I am here in Syria with his family for the duration of Ramadan this year. And I don't, but I wanted to do it again, for several reasons. Largely it's part of my ongoing effort to assimilate myself into my new family and surroundings - I am sure, if Ibrahim and his family were not fasting, that I would not be either; and also there is a wish to 'know how it feels' for them and everyone that fasts here. I am eager to gain the benefits of the month, and to join in. The fast, and the breaking of it, is much more fun with others than when among those that don't fast. Despite the hunger, and resultant inevitable grouchyness and tension in the time shortly before sunset, everyone loves the month. Constant reference is made to 'Ramadan karim' - generous, noble, beneficent, precious Ramadan. Abstinence is an aid to spiritual life, and hunger is an opportunity for sympathy for those who lack food at all times. Those who can read try to read the whole of the Quran during Ramadan, a little every day. Families gather for special iftars, and the spirit of hospitality and welcome is even stronger than during the rest of the year, with a camaraderie among those fasting. It is not surprising to find children under ten eager to participate too. To be invited to share iftar with friends in another household is a more meaningful invitation than a meal together at any other time of year. However, I can't see purely physical benefits to eating so strangely, especially on the days when I sleep again straight after sahur, though there is an argument for providing the stomach with extended periods of rest!

And in fact, notwithstanding the continuing heat, I haven’t suffered during the fast, mainly because my daily activity reduced the day the month began. My final exam for the second 2-month course of Arabic at the university took place the day before Ramadan. I chose not to study a third consecutive course as I dreaded the idea of the toil to Damascus and back five times a week while fasting - it was quite exhausting enough when free to eat and drink what I wanted! Not to mention the effort of concentration in class as the level being taught increased again, and the crush and rush at the end of the day (early afternoon) while everyone hurried back to their homes in the south of Syria in time to eat at sunset. Instead, I have been able to alter my sleep patterns, often using time like this, after sahur, while digesting, to my own purposes, then if need be sleeping during some of the late morning, and helping with the preparation of iftar during the afternoon. I ate well this morning, in the knowledge that I have a full day ahead of me getting to, from and around Damascus! I've realised that with less food in my stomach it is impossible to be constantly rushing, to work at full steam.

I have been hungry, thirsty, tired, and short-tempered on some days - especially those when I have had to do more than just activities at home. And I am often tempted to break the fast, with a voice inside me saying 'you're not Muslim anyway, you don't have to do this' - there is a pineapple yoghurt and a bottle of water beside me right now that have sung to me even in the short time since sahur this morning! But in fact, I've found it not too difficult to ignore that voice, probably more because my usually quick appetite has deadened somewhat through fasting than on account of a powerful will. Harder is avoiding licking my fingers or tasting the food in the final half hour of the fast. These are small details, things that are hardly likely to quell hunger at that point, so perhaps trivial. But equally, that is how the fast is practised here, with discipline - just occasionally, food is tasted and spat out!

God willing, the Ramadan fast will become a lifetime practice for me.



Magdus and Olives

The food at sahur is fairly similar to what we would otherwise eat at breakfast (futur) and supper (asha) during the rest of the year. But two items are missing from the tray: magdus, and olives. These staples are an essential part of the daily diet here, and each family in the countryside prepares its own annual supply of each. They are both salty, so vital during the sweaty months of summer, but therefore also to be avoided when about to fast for thirteen hours.

Magdus, eggplants stuffed with walnut and red pepper, is a food that I have loved since my first night here in the Hauran in December 1999, when I tasted it for the first time. Therefore I was exultant when, in the break between my two language courses in late August, Ibrahim's mother deemed it time to buy up big in eggplants and peppers from the Thursday market, and for us to prepare the family's magdus for the year. And I mean big. She bought two hundred kilos of eggplants, forty kilos of red peppers, and a couple of kilos of walnuts, with more coming from the tree in the garden, and some large quantity of salt. Ibrahim's sisters came to help us for the day, and we set about destalking the eggplant mountain, while a fire was built in the garden and a cauldron of water placed on top of it. The eggplants were boiled to soft, then rinsed and spread to cool, while in surgical gloves we broke and minced the peppers, which were a combination of sweet and hot. The mincing was the only (semi-)automated part of the process, so all that took us till well into the afternoon, and our clothes became pinker and browner. After a late lunch, the pepper mush was mixed with a large quantity of salt, and with the walnuts (now shelled and roughly crushed) in a huge plastic tub. Despite the burning itch on my fingers and wrists - the gloves could not keep out the heat indefinitely - I helped to slit open the softened eggplants, and stuff them with the mixture. They had shrunk in the boiling, and were to shrink a further 50% or so over the next few days, as they were drained in huge upturned glass jars and plastic pitchers. Having been rearranged tightly packed into the glass jars, oil was seeped into the remaining cracks and after just one day we could start to eat them again. The supply from last year had run out more than a month earlier, and it was with relish that we tucked into the new magdus a couple of evenings later. I noticed a banana quality to the taste that previously I hadn't distinguished, and have realised that it is this combination of faint sweetness, oil, salt and hot, with an occasional bit of crunchy creamy walnut, that makes magdus such a relish.

But what about the olives? We consumed the end of last year's crop as the Indian summer of September and October wore on, and I slogged through my study. Impatient to be part of that process too, I kept asking when they were going to be prepared. Later, soon, November, I was told. One day in late October Ibrahim's sister Fatima brought a tub of huge olives round here to be salted - she wasn't sure how much salt was needed. There was an experiment involving a floating egg to determine the correct quantity, that I didn't quite get. But this was a pointer to me that the time to collect the olives here, too, must be coming. Sure enough, on the third day after my study was over, being the first morning of Ibrahim's leave and the second day of Ramadan, a loud clanging ensued from below our window as we lay snoozing, adjusting to the new daily format of the fast. This was Ibrahim's father's call to work - it was time to start on the olive trees in the garden! Ibrahim was regretful and apologetic, and suggested that I relax, inside, but I was eager to know how this was done too. Little did I realise that the job was going to take the family virtually a week.

The sun renewed its vigour as day after day all free but hungry hands picked, and picked up. Ibrahim and Khalil were in the trees, or up the ladder, and olives rained down on us like soft hailstones as we picked at lower levels from the drooping branches, or sat underneath them in the welcome shade to collect those that had already fallen to the earth naturally, as well as those now being picked and dropped from above onto the rugs we spread. We partitioned some - olives of particularly good quality, unblemished, or large, but by and large we were indescriminate in our collection, and even the dry and shrivelled were gathered for pressing. Two trees in particular were killers, each taking several days. Barrow after barrow was wheeled to the cool storage room for the interim. I marvelled at the quantity, and was told it was nothing compared to the past, before the new houses that brothers have built on the old garden went up. An hour before sunset each day we would stop, to shower before eating.

But for the women at least the work did not stop then - because evenings after iftar were the time to prepare the olives that were to be eaten in the year ahead. Given the volumes coming off the trees, I was relieved at this point (remember my sluggish drowsiness after handsomely breaking the fast) to realise that the family's annual consumption of olives as fruit is only a small proportion of the whole, with the majority becoming oil. But still it took a few evenings for these tasks, of slashing olives individually, or bashing them with stones, in each case so that they are able to absorb the preserving brine, to be completed too. The pitchers have now held the olives in salt water, lemon, and in some cases small hot green peppers, for the past two weeks, and their contents are just about ready to start to be eaten, I think. Perhaps we will wait another week till the end of Ramadan for this, I salivate.

I contributed little to these nightly tasks, for my hands, which a year ago had been a local marvel for their softness, were beginning to feel the toll of country domesticity. It started with me foolishly and repeatedly burning my finger pads on the unhandled aluminium dishes in the kitchen in June, something I had already done in February so I knew it took months to heal. The healing process is delayed by soap powder, as the semi-automatic nature of the washing machine means that unless you wear gloves while doing laundry (which I rather belatedly am doing), your skin will come into contact with detergent. This may be fine if your fingers are not burnt, but in my case laundry day has come to be followed by a day of annoying pain, even with the gloves, if I am not careful about rinsing everything very clean so that collecting and folding dry laundry doesn't irritate too. Hot red pepper doesn't help, and then the dust of the earth as we collected olives got into the cracks too, at least until I started to bind my fingertips with tape, having exhausted countless supplies of plasters.

I should stress at this point that Ibrahim's family, especially his mother, have been worried and concerned about my poor fingers, and at all moments are trying to stop me from doing things! I have not become indentured! It is just this available time is a huge opportunity for me to learn many new things, in preparation for the future. Experience is the best way to learn things in households and I don't like sitting around like a princess. This kind of 'hard' work (it is relaxing to collect olives, even for hours on end, only a bit more taxing on an empty stomach) is new for me. I may be mourning the passage of my business woman's hands, but that life ended years ago now, and it's time the hands went too, perhaps. I just need them to heal sufficiently well that I am able to participate here to the extent that I want to, and so now am daily applying pharmaceutical creams, with visible results. And a month in England with a fully-automatic washing machine may be all that I need to seal those cracks effectively!



So what's next?

I'm returning to family and friends in England for Christmas and New Year this year. It seems the obvious thing to do while Ibrahim is still in service, as it provides me with the chance not only to celebrate and spend time with some of those closest to me but to gather yet more belongings to bring back to my new home - I can see that 'moving' is going to be a process over years, but I feel I have more excuses than sisters who have moved to marital abodes rather more capacious, furnished and closer to the Flynn family nest. So the trip to England was a further reason for delaying my formal study of Arabic in Damascus, as well as the Ramadan fast and the unappealing cold draughts in the local buses in the mornings as winter inevitably arrives. I have decided to go back to the university in March, probably, when the rain that has not yet started has finished again. I'll use time at home in the New Year to absorb and practise the constant barrage of vocabulary I have met in class to date. I have found Arabic hard, harder than Chinese. The grammar is just grammar, I'm familiar with that, but the script, even using the calligraphy that is simplest for beginners (as texts books and teachers do) , makes it fiendishly difficult to attain fluency in reading! And that slows comprehension. Furthermore, having now been trained as an EFL teacher, I was frustrated in some classes, particularly listening, which as far as I was concerned didn't help my, or anyone's, listening skills but were used merely as an opportunity to throw yet more vocabulary at us. So consolidation is in order before continuing. And I need to improve my dialect, and learn to reconcile the differences between standard Arabic (undoubtedly useful for general communication and for reading and writing), and Haurani (fairly essential for village social life). They are quite different!

Beyond my general aims to further advance my domesticity (I still can't be classified as a housewife, at least by local standards! I've yet to be allowed onto the cleaning rota!) I think I'll commit to nothing else in writing, at this time..... I have become now so comfortable with not looking more than a couple of months ahead. Though being married does change things somewhat, we are both happily getting used to that too! I suspect my next website update will be in the New Year, just before coming back to Syria, though I may be able to put up some more photographs between now and then. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the wedding photos that I am loading from here, now. They were all taken by Michelle Timoney and Nanette Levy, two of my best friends who were looking after me at our wedding in the summer.

Friends that will be in England during December, please get in touch if you have spare time! It would be great to meet while I have the chance! And otherwise, a very early Happy Christmas everybody!

Lots of love,



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