HOLIDAY FOOD – Ramadan Nights

24 Jan 2003

Every year, for the ‘Nights of Ramadan’, artistes flock to Paris from all the Muslim countries. Singers and musicians arrive from Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Morocco and Mali and so on to perform at the Café de la Danse, at the Divan du monde, at the Cabaret Sauvage, and many other of the French capital’s trendy nightspots. This year as always the French weekly ‘Télérama’ devoted a series of articles to the shows produced in the month of Ramadan. ‘The menu of new ethno-techno cooking’, ‘Couscous house and tandoori techno’, ‘Cannibal music, techno feed of tribal influences’—those are just a few snatches of the language it used. These days ‘ethnic’ and ‘world’ music and cooking follow the same fate of crossovers, mixtures and fusions. But that’s a different story …

In France—especially in cities with a large Muslim population, Paris in the case in point—the month of Ramadan has become a sort of season of eastern music and gastronomy. This annual event receives lots of media coverage and, naturally and gradually, has become part and parcel of the French cultural panorama. ‘Ramadan Nights’, ‘Super Ramadan Nights’ and ‘Crazy Berber Nights’ attract Muslims and non-Muslims so much so that Eastern and Middle-Eastern restaurants are packed out for the entire duration of the month: from the modest North African and Turkish trattorias of the Belleville and Barbès Rochechouart neighbourhoods to the more expensive Lebanese and Moroccan restaurants of the 8ème and 16ème arrondissements, to the fashionable new ‘ethnic’ restaurants of the Bastille and rue Jean-Pierre Thimbaud, and absolutely everywhere else in the French capital.

Ramadan invades the spirits and the dishes of a whole world: of those who observe the fast, of those who feel nostalgia for Algeria, of those who have Muslim friends and colleagues, of lovers of the cuisine of the East, of my Tunisian friends of Italian and Maltese origin, for whom it offers a chance to rediscover the atmosphere of their childhoods.. During Ramadan, you’re sure to find the very best that Arab, Berber, Turkish or Pakistani cookery can offer. The party atmosphere has an almost lay feel about it …

Some months ago, the cook at the Tunisian restaurant al-Jazira (13, rue des Couronnes, Belleville), a young woman who grew up in a traditional environment, had no qualms about reserving all the tables to a family of Maltese origin from Sousse, in Tunisia. The occasion was Mawlid (the anniversary of the prophet Mohammed), but I was the only Muslim at a table of devout Catholics! We would have been happy to go back for the dinner of the feast of el-Fitrtoo, but the cook, who’s called Awatef and hails from the village of Tamerza, was off on maternity leave.

In France, the holy month of Muslims has become the month of get-togethers and dinners ofcouscous or tagine among for friends of different faiths, atheists and believers. It is an occasion for French society to strengthen its links with its immigrants and the children of those immigrants.

Last year, ‘Ramadan For All’ was the cover story in ‘Télérama’! Maybe it was intended as a reply to the Muslim charity operation, ‘Chorba For All’, which distributes soup during Ramadan without religious distinction. Poor Muslims, on the other hand, keep away from the Salvation Army’s food distribution points or the Restaurants du Coeur on account of the ban on their eating pork. In any case, in the phobic climate that has reigned since September 11 2001, a ‘Ramadan For All’ headline in a French magazine announcing is comforting to say the least. All the more so in view of the fact that, in its countries of origin, Ramadan is no longer what it used to be. In certain regions of the Muslim world, the last decades have seen more or less continuous war and the most violent internal domestic conflict, while the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis continues to get worse. The month has become one of social and political demands. That was the case for the Muslim minority in China in 1989, for the extremists in Algeria, where, since 1992, Ramadan, far being the month of peace, devotion and joy, has become the bloodiest month of all. This state of affairs has broader consequences of a moral and economic nature, insofar as Ramadan appeals to human solidarity (in France, last year, the offering to be donated at the end of Ramadan was fixed by law at a minimum of five euros per person; some charity associations collect donations to send aid to Afghanistan and Chechenia, for example).

But let’s return to the more playful side of the month. Traditionally, in Islam countries, Ramadan isn’t only a period of spirituality, but also one of night-time enjoyment.

In Tunisia, during the last two weeks of the month, the market neighborhoods are open and lit up the whole night long: fabrics shops, clothes and shoe shops, haberdasheries, cake shops, cafés (reserved to men, who flock there to smoke the shisha – the narghilè – to drink coffee, to play cards or draughts of chess) pullulate with humanity.

For many Muslim women, Ramadan was the only time in the year when they had a chance to go out and about at night. It was the one time in the year when they could freely take part in public life—the bright lights of the city ensured their safety. In short, Ramadan was a month of freedom and release. Recently, though, social conditions have changed. After nightfall—except during Ramadan—the roads streets were the domain of tramps, drunks, prostitutes and the like. Today in many Muslim countries, it’s possible to go to the cinema, theater or pop out to see friends or relatives after twilight all year round, especially, by tradition, during the holy month. Some quarters ‘specialize’ in the amusements and pastimes typical of Ramadan, like the popular Bâb Suwika quarter of Tunis. My father used to go to see the street performances, and listen to the ballad-singers and watch the shadow theaters, or Karakuz (from the Turkish ‘Karagöz’), two genres that vanished completely before I ever had a chance to see them. So what do the streets and public squres put on show today other than displays of imported French soap, American shoes, Chinese glass-pearl bracelets, prayer mats made in Taiwan, incense sticks, synthetic chadors, and other mundane knick-knacks. After all, firecrackers and fireworks are reserved for the holiday of el-Fitr(or Bayram for the Turks). In the final analysis, only cheery note are the stands selling zlabiyya, the popular sweet which appears in the month of Ramadan like the sun during the night and like the moon during the day.

Of course, the new habits and necessities of modern living mean that people stay at home more. Compulsory education, introduced in most Muslim countries in around the sixties, makes it hard for the very young to keep up with the crazy rhythm of Ramadan—otherwise, they would risk missing out on exams. On the other hand, the soaps and the shows on Ramadan that are broadcast on the various Arab television channels have fostered the birth of new domestic habits, and though people are rarely happy with the programs themselves, they watch them anyhow.

Luckily, we have our emigrants who, like all emigrants the world over, are guardians of memory. What gets forgotten in the country of origin is conserved in emigration! Many in Paris observe the Ramadan fast: they include young people born of immigrant Muslim parents. And many celebrate Ramadan according to the rules. The most religious frequent the mosques or Koran reading or singing evenings, which have nothing to envy classical music concerts. Mystics take part in dhikr sessions and sufi singings (there are sufi confraternities in Paris). The not so religious go to clubs, cafés, restaurants and concert halls. Even shops stay open until late, much to the delight of the womenfolk in particular. It’s here that you can see how certain quarters of Paris follow the rhythms of Ramadan. Shopkeepers, for example, close for a few minutes before the end of the fast, eating in the backroom and re-opening just as all the other shops in Paris are about to pull down their shutters. This happens at Belleville and Barbès and in suburbs such as Asnières and Saint Denis.

So here you have the nightlife of Ramadan, which fascinated European travelers in previous centuries—so much so that they compared it to Carnival. ‘Les nuits de Ramazan’ that Gérard de Nerval described in his journey to the East have now clearly moved to France. They were preceded by an entry in the1896 edition of the Le Petit Robert dictionary:’“Ramdam”, from ramadan, on account of the night life during the months of Ramadan: bustle, merrymaking’.

Lilia Zaouali a lecturer in anthropology of the Islamic world at the University of Jussieu, Paris.

Adapted by John Irving

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