It’s Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar year, and city streets all across the Middle East are filled with the smells of fried delicacies; bazaars and homes are lit by the flickering lanterns known as fanous; and the soothing sound of the taraweeh prayer echoes well into the night, every night, to commemorate the month during which the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Or at least, that’s how my mother describes it. While Ramadan in a Muslim-majority part of the world is a vibrant and lively time of community gatherings, more frequent prayer, and increased self-reflection, for me, growing up in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, it mostly conjures up unpleasant memories of kids in school questioning why I couldn’t drink water during gym class, or wondering why I wasn’t eating during lunch.
There were a handful of Muslim kids in school with me, but there wasn’t much of a community to speak of; “my people,” as I thought of them, could be found at the local mosque, a short drive away that felt just long enough to underline the distance. And although I’ve never chosen to cover my hair with a hijab, observing a strict fast from dawn until dusk during Ramadan—one of the five pillars of Islam, and therefore central to my faith—seemed to signal I was different from the mostly Christian kids I was surrounded by. No matter how much I explained myself, my peers never seemed to understand why I was fasting, and their incredulity about the practice always made me feel small, othered, and isolated. I have vivid memories of resenting my religion, of thinking to myself, I wish I was anything but Muslim.
Part of the emphasis of Ramadan is on community: participating in regular congregational prayers at the mosque; preparing food for family, friends, and those in need; and breaking fast with other Muslims. I suppose it might have helped if some of my cousins, aunts, and uncles lived nearby so we could celebrate together, especially for iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, when evenings typically turn into late nights and both good food and conversation flow endlessly. Unfortunately, I don’t, and I never have. What family I do have in the United States lives on the other side of the country, in California, and I only occasionally speak to my family spread across the Middle East—in Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Libya, Jordan, and Palestine—and rarely visit them. Iftars for me were spent with my parents and siblings at the dinner table, the sound of Arabic soap operas blaring from the TV making us feel like we were in familiar company.
And yet even without a robust community, Ramadan was and is a joyous time for my family, and part of my frustration with my non-Muslim peers was that they didn’t understand that. What they seemed to focus on was the hardship of fasting, but they never appreciated the joy and reward of breaking the fast each night with delicious food. Dishes like sambusa, crispy fried parcels of dough filled with a juicy mixture of ground beef seasoned with aromatic dill and cinnamon; sfeeha—little pizza-like rounds topped with yogurt-marinated beef, tomatoes, and pine nuts; gooey kanafeh made with stretchy Nabulsi cheese, topped with shredded filo dough and drowned in a orange blossom-flavored syrup; qatayef, thin, golden pancakes filled with cheese or nuts and soaked in simple syrup; and the dates—you can’t forget the plump, juicy dates—that are always, always on hand to break the fast. Most of these foods were special treats, rarely made by my mother outside of Ramadan, mainly due to the effort they involve, and every bite brought to mind the faint memories I have of visiting Saudia Arabia as a child: of the athan, or call to prayer, bellowing through the streets; of the kitchens, always busy, always filled with the warm scent of spices; of a long spread of fresh food laid out on the floor of a big room, where we’d all sit and eat together; and of the sound of vivacious aunts who spoke in exactly the same way the soap opera actors recited their lines on the TV we’d leave on to make our iftars less lonely. (What can I say? Arabs are dramatic.)
The older I’ve become, the more I’ve learned to appreciate both my religion and my culture, and to take pride in it, as my parents have always pushed me to do; I don’t find being “different” all that bad. But there’s a part of me that longs to be more connected to my roots, and that longing grows stronger during this time of year. I listen to my Muslim friends talk about their big families getting together for weekly iftars, and I crave the same. I know that no matter how much I immerse myself in my religion and its culture, part of me will never feel complete without experiencing the same kind of celebration with my extended family.
But I’ve learned to try to make up for that absence in my life by spending time in the kitchen, and I often help my mom as she prepares meals for iftar from scratch each day. There’s the juicy leg of lamb she marinates in a purée of onions, tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon, thyme, and olive oil, then expertly roasts and carves; the fattoush salad she puts together from pieces of toasted pita bread and the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, scallions, and whatever else she finds in the fridge; the macarona bil bechamel (a personal favorite), a casserole she builds with spaghetti, beef, and bechamel sauce that’s baked to golden brown perfection; and the buttery, crumbly ma’amoul cookies—prepared just before Eid, the post-Ramadan celebration—made from semolina flour, filled with sweet dates or nuts, and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Each of these recipes comes with a story: how my mother used to go to the local market with her brother as a child, picking up as many ingredients as they could carry; how she used to enjoy certain dishes at friends’ houses; or how she spent much of her time in the kitchen with her own mother, preparing meals for her dad and her nine other siblings.
To my mother, these foods are familiar and comforting, reminders of many iftars and Ramadans come and gone. To me, they represent connections to a community I don’t quite have access to at the moment, but I’m nevertheless a part of. Each of these foods have, in essence, been passed down to me by my larger Muslim family through the stories I hear, giving me a taste of life in the Middle East and keeping me connected to my relatives during Ramadan, despite the distance.
I hope to someday have the privilege of spending Ramadan in the Middle East with my extended family. Until that happens—if it ever happens—the food will have to stand in for all the parts of Ramadan that I’ve never had the fortune to experience: the community celebration, a city-wide sense of excitement, the sense of belonging. For now, the food is enough.