Now that we’ve passed the full moon halfway mark of Ramadan, I thought I’d let you know how we’ve been faring. I also feel a little guilty about all the good Muslims who’ve landed on my previous Ramadan post via google, searching for advice on when is the last time to eat in Ramadan, whether or not shaving is allowed, how to pass the time until sunset, etc. I’m afraid I answered none of those questions, and provided no helpful advice at all for those who were preparing for Ramadan in a religious sense. I still don’t know about the shaving, and I haven’t personally heard the drum that they supposedly go around beating in the wee hours of the morning to remind people to eat for the last time before sunrise. I do know that my neighbors around here tell me that the best thing to do in the hours before iftar (the sunset meal) is to take a nice late-afternoon swim in the sea.
And how has Ramadan affected my life? Well, there was the one evening we forgot and decided to go out to buy some fruits and vegetables at 8:00 p.m. Silly us! Every store was closed. The usually bustling street was deserted. We had a beautiful evening walk in the aquamarine Tunisian twilight. Other than that (which turned out to be a net gain), Ramadan has actually affected our lives not at all. Even the milk and butter are now back in stock.
We were also invited to iftar last week at the home of a friend. As we were getting dressed, it occurred to me that it was probably the first time in months (besides Sundays) that we’ve gotten dressed in something other than swimsuits and crocs. We, um, don’t get out much.
The meal began with shorba, which was a delicious fish soup. Then we were passed the “fingers of Fatima.” These are similar to briq, Tunisia’s famous egg-filled savory pastries, except that instead of being in the shape of a neat little package, they’re in the shape of, well, fingers. When I asked our host what they were made of, I got the macabre joke about chopped off fingers that I deserved. But he did then name off the ingredients, among which were the preserved lemons I see marinating in vats at shops here, and have always wanted to know how to use. When he mentioned the lemons, I knew that was the elusive taste I’d loved in the “fingers”. So you can look forward to some recipes using preserved lemons in the future (although if you’re not in Tunisia, you may just have to drool over them).
The “fingers of Fatima” motif didn’t come out of nowhere. Fatima was the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and is therefore much respected by Muslims. I used to sometimes see door knockers in the shape of a hand in Syria, and was told that they represented the hand of Fatima, and were a sort of good luck charm.
Ubiquitous in Tunisia, however, is this symbol, which doesn’t actually look enough like a hand for me to recognize it initially:
It’s the Tunisian version of the hand of Fatima. Shopkeepers are always trying to sell us things in the shape of the hand, whether it’s mosaics, h’ordeuvre dishes, or jewelry. It looks more like a flower than a hand to me, or maybe some strange fertility symbol. Which coincidentally it actually is, at least according to our tour guide in Dougga. She described it as a pre-Islamic pagan fertility sign, which was later appropriated and given a suitably Muslim identity. Kind of like how Christmas trees and Easter eggs have been adopted as Christian symbols despite their pagan roots.
Anyway, the “fingers of Fatima” were followed by Tunisian salad with cucumber and tomatoes, and a glorious braised fish main course. They certainly do fish beautifully in Tunisia. I guess it helps that the sea is just around the corner. We finished it all off with in-season watermelon and Tunisian sweets filled with sesame paste.
We had such a nice time, and we’re just thrilled with our friend Jo Ann for inviting us. As we spent time with her and her husband, and as I have talked with others who are observing Ramadan, I have been fascinated to see what Ramadan means to them. Pretty much everyone I talked to looked forward to Ramadan for the time spent with family. This is bittersweet for some of the people who work here in Hammamet during the tourist season, since they are currently separated from their families, who live in towns in the interior. Our favorite shopkeeper said it was very difficult for him to do Ramadan alone.
I am impressed with the fact that Ramadan, like so many aspects of the Muslim faith, is a very community affair. In my religion, even though we all fast on the same day each month, fasting is generally a pretty individual pursuit. There’s the Bible verse that says you are supposed to “anoint thine head, and wash thy face” so you don’t look like you’re fasting. Almost like it’s a special secret between you and God.
Here, fasting is an obvious thing that everyone is doing, and that seriously affects their everyday life. Sleeping schedules are drastically disrupted, since iftar happens at 7:30 p.m., and the next several hours are spent visiting and socializing. Then they must awake before dawn to eat again. (In fact, if I were to “do” Ramadan, I think the sleep deprivation would be harder on me than the food deprivation.) It is considered extremely rude for those who are not fasting to eat or drink in public. The restaurants that are still open for tourists in the day have portable screens set up so that the diners can’t be seen from outside. People use special greetings during Ramadan. There is very much a feeling that everyone is in it together, helping each other along.
I still think it would be too hard for me to fast for an entire month. Although when Tony made the same comment yesterday to a Muslim friend in the U.S., he responded that he didn’t think fasting for a month was any harder than moving to a foreign country for two years to preach about your religion. I guess he has a point. My mission in Chile was definitely hard, but very rewarding. Just like my Muslim friends say about Ramadan.