Ramadan in the Middle East

Note: this was originally published Eid 2017.

!عيد مبارك

Eid Mubarak!

Today, billions of Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Fitr–the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. For the past month, Muslims have been fasting from food, water and smoking during the daylight hours and growing closer to God through prayer, charity and avoiding sinful behavior like cursing or lying (among many other things.) This is all in commemoration of the first revelation of the Qu’ran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Like Ramadan, most religions have some sort of fasting involved. For instance, in Catholicism people fast on holy days like Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, where they’re only allowed one meal; additionally, they fast from meat (throughout lent or on Fridays). However, Ramadan is very special compared to the fasting I grew up with. Lent is a somber time, and while it’s definitely full of spiritual growth, it was never something I was happy about. While an outsider may see Ramadan as something similar–a somber time you secretly dread–It’s actually quite the opposite for most Muslims I’ve encountered. Many are elated by the month of fasting. See, Ramadan is a time of great joy and celebration where everyone is happy and trying to be the best people they can be. There are so many aspects that warm your soul to its core: families grow closer, there are nightly feasts (called Iftar) with special foods, and people stay up throughout the night together waiting for suhoor (the meal before dawn). If I had to make a comparison, Ramadan feels more like an extended Christmas.

I had the privilege of spending the first ten days of this Ramadan in the Middle East. In the States, you feel that warm, fuzzy Ramadan feeling at Iftaris; however, in the Middle East, especially at night, that feeling consumes you every place you go. People open their homes and hearts to you everywhere and the nights are filled with unmatched energy. I celebrated with families and in may different places–each unique to the other. I’ve been dying to write about those experiences and tell you all just how much Ramadan in the Middle East moved me…so here we go.

***

I spent the first night of Ramadan in Aqaba, Jordan, a small beach town on the Red Sea. We sat on the balcony eating fresh watermelon with warm, sweet mint tea as we watched the sunset over the mountains and the city center ignite with colorful sounds and noises. As the night grew later, fireworks lit the sky. It was a beautiful introduction to Jordan.

The next night was a bit different. We woke up early, bid our farewells to our hosts Phillip and Nouhad, and got into the cab that would take us to Wadi Rum, a protected desert in Southern Jordan. I could tell our driver is pious from the moment we enter the car: he had a beautiful misbaha (Islamic prayer beads) hanging from his rearview mirror and the radio was replaced with melodious Qur’an recitation.

He was quiet the first few minutes of our ride, but then he looked at us in the rearview mirror with happy eyes and I caught a brief smile as he told us, “you know, today is the first day of Ramadan.”

I smiled back and said, “Yes, Ramadan Mubarak!”

He smiled back and said, “Yes, Ramadan Mubarak!” and proceeded to talk to us about Ramadan, Aqaba, and his life in Jordan. Ramadan is full of obvious displays of joy, celebration and piousness; however, there were small moments like a cab driver’s happiness when he brings up the holy month which I loved to see. It was a reminder of the individual joy the month brought to people even during the daylight fasting hours.

We were dropped off at Wadi Rum and spent the night camping with a bedouin woman named Alia. She didn’t speak much English and our Arabic was pitiful; nevertheless, she didn’t let that stop her from talking to us about her life as a bedouin woman or being the most hospitable host imaginable.  She taught us to make Kabsa–a rice and chicken dish originating from Saudi Arabia–and moutabel (aka baba ganoush) with barely any English…so, yeah, she was pretty awesome.

As we waited for the sun to set, we wandered around near the camp and experienced the most amazing views. Once we arrived back at camp, it was time to eat–if only camp food was always this good! We spent the rest of the night sipping fresh orange juice and mint tea while watching the desert at night. After our food settled, Alia walked into the kitchen and came out with something wrapped in a cloth. She opened the cloth to reveal three pieces of basbousa–a semolina, coconut cake–she saved just for us. That night, we fell asleep under the stars and new moon that signified the start of Ramadan.

 

The next night, we arrived in Amman, Jordan, and our Airbnb hosts made us feel like we were old friends. They shared their delicious dinner with us and afterwards Sahar, a British-Iranian journalist, took us downtown with her friends to experience Ramadan in Amman. This was when it really hit me how special Ramadan was here. The streets and markets were full of people shopping and eating, and twinkling lights were strung above them. In front of the Roman amphitheater kids were roller skating and playing soccer at 11 p.m. We spent the night walking around, taking pictures and taking in all of that beautiful night. I don’t know how better to describe it other than It felt magical.

After walking around downtown Amman, Sahar and her friends took us to Habibah Sweets–home to the best kunafah I have ever had. Kunafah, my friends, is a buttery treat made of either shredded phyllo or semolina dough with a sweet cheese in the center that is soaked in a fragrant rose water simple syrup–My mouth is watering just imagining it. After eating my fill of Kunafah, we headed over to Rumi Cafe where I sipped on a sweet rose drink as we talked about Jordan, NGOs and Amman until it was 2 a.m. The cafe was packed just like the streets…which was exciting considering cafes don’t stay open past 9 p.m. in the States. You’d think I’d be ready to pass out, but the energy of the night was infectious.

When we got into the car to go home, the typical, deep radio announcer’s voice said, “…yourstation for Amman’s number one Ramadan hits!” Which was followed by Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like.” I couldn’t help but bust out in laughter hearing Bruno sing, “Turn around and drop it for a pimp, drop-drop it for me,” after that. The entire car laughed with me and joked, “Oh yes! Bruno Mars is a famous Jordanian vocalist…very popular during Ramadan!” I guess the company made it special, but driving around Amman at night listening to the radio is a lovely memory in my mind.

The next night, Sahar and her friends took us to what seemed like an abandoned shopping mall. Walking into the mall, I remember thinking where on earth are they taking us? We walked up the non-functioning escalator, past all the closed shops to an open area between stores that had plastic tables and chairs everywhere out in the open. It was such a  strange experience and still makes me laugh; but the food was NO JOKE. I got Mansaf, which is a very traditional, filling Jordanian dish. It’s a rice dish with lamb or chicken served with a warm yogurt sauce. I can’t describe it well. It was probably the most unique tasting dish I had in Jordan–a must try!

The food was served wrapped in plastic wrap, and it sat in front of us as everyone anxiously waited to hear the iftar adhan–the call to prayer and the signal that it is time to eat. A few minutes before it was time, everyone began to slowly unwrap their food so they could dig in the minute they could. However, it was silent as everyone listened closely in anticipation for their signal. When they finally heard the adhan, everyone stopped unwrapping for a moment to make sure their ears weren’t deceiving them, and once they were sure, they shared a small, joyful smile with each other as the anticipation lifted and they took their first bite. Again, it’s the little moments I caught like this that made me realize how truly special this season is.

After dinner, we got into the car and drove up to an unassuming stall on the side of the road of the best coffee I’ve ever had. I have no idea what it was exactly, but it was a sweet and milky coffee–almost caramel tasting–served in small cups. I was overjoyed to have it, but then had to quickly learn to balance it as we drove to avoid spilling–totally worth the difficulty. After that, we went to Rainbow street to walk around…but Kunafah was calling our name so we walked downtown for round two!

 

Our last night in Amman, we were welcomed into Lina’s home for Iftar with her family. We got there around 3 p.m. in order to help Lina with the cooking and learn a few recipes from her.

After the food was prepped, we sat down and talked with the family about their lives. Lina’s daughter, Aliaa, was close in age, so we connected over her preparation for University and whatnot–masha’Allah, she is so smart, a natural language learner and has such a bright future.

We also learned a bit about being bedouin from Aliaa and Lina’s oldest son. They belong to one of the biggest bedouin tribes in Jordan, but lots of people don’t think they’re bedouin because they live a more “modern” life than their family members in the south. There are many differences between being bedouin in the city versus in the desert. For instance, bedouins eat with their hands; they have different signals for when they want/dont want coffee; different ways to show respect and community; they have a different Arabic dialect; and women take on a more traditional role in the desert than in the city. For example, women don’t drive in bedouin culture, so when the women of their family drive to the desert their tribe follows them to escort them. They compared it more to Saudi culture than Jordanian. Both were very proud of their heritage. Aliaa told us that no matter where she went, she could always find family, and that was something very important and special to her.

Time flew by taking with her family and soon it was time to eat. Lina taught us to make Kabsa a different way than Alia (from Wadi Rum) did; a layered meat and yogurt dish which I believe I called fateh; a cucumber-yogurt salad; and Qatayef (a special Ramadan dessert that’s sort of like a stuffed pancake). However, once we got to the table, there was even more food awaiting us: mouttable, baba ganoush, soup, salad, hummus, and more. Lina made sure we didn’t walk away hungry!

After dinner we enjoyed Arabic coffee, fresh fruit, and qatayef…which was equally delicious and instagramable

Between helping her make an amazing dinner, talking to her daughter about preparing for college, talking to her oldest son and daughter about being bedouins, and being schooled on internet culture and Arabic by her youngest son, we felt like we were part of the family.

 

People like Lina and Saher made it very difficult for me to leave Amman for Cairo. It’s easy to miss home while abroad, but there were so many people like them in Jordan who made the homesickness dissipate.

In Cairo, we didn’t have any Iftaris with families like in Amman. For me, Cairo was very hard to get use to and very stressful. I’ll write about that soon, but in all it’s just a difficult, yet magnificent, place. However, one of the few times I was completely at ease was in Old Cairo after sunset. It was the first time in Egypt where things felt familiar like they do at festivals back home. I didn’t feel like a tourist with a target on my back, and I could just comfortably blend into the crowd celebrating.

The old streets were packed with people and above us were the most magnificent, multicolored lights. We’d be walking shoulder-to-shoulder in the crowed and all of a sudden, people broke out into joyous songs and chants. The women wore beautiful outfits with hands covered in henna. the aroma of delicious food filled the air. Eventually, we even stumbled upon a small concert where the entire crowed was singing along. There wasn’t a face without a smile that night. I could have stayed walking around until sunrise. Long story short, Egyptians know how to celebrate!

When I returned home to the States, I had a bad cases of jet lag. I’d wake up at 2 a.m. and scroll through the pictures on my phone. I deeply missed the Ramadan nights and all their joy. It was almost as if I woke up from an amazing dream only to wish I was back in it.

***

When I was first planning my trip, I was deciding whether it was a good idea to go during Ramadan. Ultimately, I was excited for the chance to experience the Middle East during one of its most sacred times.

Nevertheless, it is a challenge for those not fasting since they’re typically more active. You can’t (sometimes legally) eat or drink in public; which is extremely challenging when you’re walking non-stop in hundred degree weather. Additionally, many businesses and attractions are closed during the day, which is a logistical nightmare.

Regardless, I’m happy I went during Ramadan. The people who welcomed me into their homes, the amazing meals and the nighttime festivities are imprinted in my heart. Experiencing Ramadan in the Middle East made me realize it was more special than I could have ever fathomed.

If you’re ever questioning whether you should visit the region during this time, I say, without a doubt, go! In general, people are kinder, happier and ready to share their beloved Ramadan with you in any way they can. They are eager to share Iftar with you, and if you’re lucky enough to be invited into their homes, it’s an amazing way to experience the modern Middle Eastern life and family away from all the stereotypes you’re used to. The experience will change your world in indescribable ways and warm your soul to its core.

***

Remember to wish your Muslim neighbors, friends and colleagues Eid Mubarak–blessed celebration!

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Monique LeBlanc was born in Lafayette, LA and is currently living in New Orleans, LA working in government finance and exploring her creative passions. She's an aspiring world traveler with a love for food and food culture. She is the co-founder and Executive Director of REVA CREW, a young women's professionals organization in New Orleans. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies with minors in Arabic, Religious Studies and WGS.
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