HOLIDAY FOOD – A Ramadan iftar at Abu el-Ezz
04 Dec 2001
During this month the cities of the Arab world adopt a special rhythm, based on the cycles of the sun and moon. Fasting is observed from sunrise onwards and the iftar (the meal that breaks the fast) is consumed almost immediately after sunset. ‘You can eat and drink until the moment when you can distinguish a white thread form a black one. From then on you must fast until night-time” (from the Koran – II:183).
During the daylight hours, when a white thread can be distinguished from a black one, Muslims may not eat or drink; meanwhile food is prepared for later. The suk is filled with ingredients, flavors and colors like in no other period of the year.
The profound essence of Ramadan can only be experienced by following this ritual for a whole day, beginning at dawn, or even earlier. Just before sunrise, a light breakfast is eaten – suhur – which represents the last chance to nourish the body before a whole day without food. Damascus provides an ideal vantage point from which to take part in the atmosphere of an authentic day of fasting, because for centuries this city has proudly experienced this important month ‘better’ than others.
Damascus was capital of the first Muslim dynasty (the Ommayyadi) and is considered to be a holy Islamic city due to its many sacred places, and also because it is the point of departure of the hajj, the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca.
In the el-Hamidyieh suk, the heart of the old city, the story of Ramadan is clearly visible. As you enter this place at various times of day or night, you can discover diverse ways of experiencing this special month. The morning seems to last longer than usual. Indeed, the day begins before dawn, with the suhur. Shop-owners, craftsmen, butchers and pastry chefs walk slowly, with no great hurry. The suk only really gets busy at about 10 am.
Vegetables, fruit, cakes, dried fruit and other delicacies are displayed at their best during Ramadan. But the whole suk takes on a different atmosphere, because the shopping fever is not limited to food and drinks.
In the daytime, shopping is done for the iftar because everything must be ready when the moment arrives. As soon as sunset prayers are over, it is time to eat, and no-one wants to be stuck in the kitchen cooking: everything must be on the table, hot and ready to eat.
As the moment of iftardraws near, the tension rises. Two hours before, everyone is literally running home. It is total chaos, you can’t find a taxi, the roads are blocked with traffic and people are on the verge of a nervous breakdown. These are the usual scenes you will witness during Ramadan.
Welcome aboard … at the right moment, the fast is broken with a date, helweh, which means sweet, and is sweet on the empty stomach. Next two dishes that are never missing from iftar: a hot soup (often with lentils or vegetables) and fatush, a mixed green salad with raw vegetables. Then the meat dishes, which are more substantial.
Ramadan is also an opportunity to eat out. Often families get together, or go to a restaurant.
Abu el-Ezz is a recommended place to visit in the Damascan suk. In this restaurant local clients (bàladi) eat alongside lucky tourists in search of an exotic experience.
The restaurant has an original entrance, with a butcher’s stall and an oven: here the house specialties are prepared: sfihaa, a sort of little pizza with chopped meat. The dishes served here provide a pleasant example of local cuisine especially the tender hamawyieh meat, mutton from Hama, and stews and other house specialties.
The long corridors and stairs open out into a large dining room, furnished with rugs and sofas, of course, for local color. Don’t miss the wonderful view from here: the domes and minarets of the Ommayyadi mosque, and the rooftops of the old city. Obviously sunset, and iftar, are the best possible moment to enjoy this kind of view.
For total immersion, it is best to be in the suk and in the restaurant at sunset, jostled in the crowd of clients trying to find a place to sit, and waiters bustling about among the clients who still need a table and chair.
The table is laid: there is a date on every plate and the mezzé are ready: fatush, hommos (puréed chick peas with sesame paste) mutabal (eggplant purée). Orders are taken straight away for the hot dishes. Then all there is to do is wait for the end of the prayer that announces the end of the day, and therefore the moment in which the fast is broken, and eating can begin.
Now the poor waiters can serve the hot soup, and everyone wants to be served first.
Date, soup, fatush and mezzé are followed by a hot dish. Then cakes and sweets.
Those lucky enough to have found a place at the table on the upper floor will be rewarded with the view, and the colors of the sunset and nightfall over the city rooftops and the mosque.
Everything revolves around the rhythms of day and night, sun and moon; the fast lasts from dawn to sunset, and Ramadan lasts a whole lunar month, from the beginning to the end of a lunar cycle. ‘Ramadan moon, during which the Koran descended from on high to show men the way, and provide them with a clear explanation of things and the difference between good and evil, this is the time for abstinence’ (II:181).
A natural cycle that follows the path of the heavenly bodies rather than set dates on a calendar. We live by watching the sun and moon.
Going back to Abu el-Ezz, or rather, leaving the restaurant, you will find yourself in a transformed suk. Though it was hard to get through the streets on the way in, through the shoving of the crowds, it now seems deserted. The streets and squares, the whole city is deserted, as if by magic. People are occupied with finishing iftarand getting ready to go out for other celebrations, meetings or prayers.
In the month of Ramadan, when fasting is scrupulously observed, it is also suitable for Muslims to be seen to perform certain repeated acts of charity: ‘God […] wants you to glorify him for having shown you the right path; he wants you to be grateful’ (II: 181).
Kamal Mouzawak lives in Beirut and is an editor and photographer for Saveurs du Liban et d’ailleurs, the most important Lebanese monthly food and wine magazine.
Photo: a dish of hommos
Translated by Ailsa Wood
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