Iftar in a Pakistani restaurant – Ramadan day #15, half-way there

The rain clouds are gathering. In the west there have been monsoon-like downpours but here in Ballinteer, Dublin, the ground is still parched. Like me.

Ramadan falling in an Irish summer means that the hours for eating and drinking are limited to about 5 a night. So after eating I horse through the water and leisurely graze at food. I usually get to bed late – well after midnight. The copious water re-fuelling results in peeing a lot so up and out of bed a lot and it all adds up to a lack of sleep. Last night it caught up on me.

I went to bed early for a change. Valuable water-drinking hours were replaced with sleep-drinking. It was important, therefore, to refill when my alarm went off at 3 a.m. but I woke, turned off the alarm in my half-sleep and fell straight back to full-sleep. No water. Today I’m thirsty.

Yesterday I decided to go in search of a Muslim-run restaurant to see what it’s like for people who are fasting to be working all day with food.

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Madina restaurant, Mary Street, Dublin

There were plenty of results from my online search but I settled on a place called Madina in Dublin’s city centre. I’m told by a man over the phone that, though he is Sikh and not fasting, most of the staff are Muslim and I’d be welcome to come to talk to them. He also tells me that they give free dates and drink to people who are fasting at the time of breaking the fast.

I arrive at the Mary Street restaurant around 9.30. It is quiet. There are a few couples eating at the metal-legged tables. The man behind the counter is the man I spoke to earlier. His name is Lucky. “It’s my nickname” he tells me. And yes, he tells me he is lucky. An example? “I have the perfect wife” he says with a wide smile.

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Abdul, head chef at Medina restaurant

I’m introduced to the head chef Abdul who came to Ireland from Pakistan around six years ago. He has been working since 10.30 this morning and won’t finish until 11.30 at night. He is fasting.

“I feel hungry sometimes when it’s busy” he tells me. “The day is most difficult between 8 and 9.30 at night and between 2 and 3 in the afternoon because so much food is ordered and there is a lot of heat and fire. Also I have to go up and down the stairs a lot so I do get thirsty.”

He and the other Muslims working in the restaurant stop work for about fifteen minutes when it’s time to break the fast. “First we take dates” he says “then fruit salad, milk, 7-up and vegetable pakora.”

“Do you not eat a curry?” I ask him. “When you take a drink you can’t eat anything” he explains. “But at three in the morning I eat curry, rice and bread and have a lassi – yoghurt with milk and sugar”.

He is happy to be fasting despite the challenges. “It is good for the stomach and for everything. It is a sacrifice” he tells me.

The question I ask everyone I meet who is fasting: “Have you lost weight?” “Yes yes” he says “I lose between five and eight kilos in the thirty days”. I sigh, disappointed at my own weight-loss record which still stands at zero.

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Dates to break the fast

After the chat it’s almost 9.40 and time to break the fast. I sit at a table beside the wall. Lucky takes away the menu from the table saying “you won’t need that. For breaking the fast we bring out the food to you when it’s time” and a few minutes later a little silver tray of four dates is brought out and a bowl of fruit salad. “You can eat now” Lucky tells me as he puts two drinks that I don’t recognise on the table.

I begin with some of the clear-coloured drink – I have no idea what it is but it’s refreshing. And a date. “Dates are one of the only things that grow in the desert” Lucky tells me “and they are the strongest thing you can eat for energy. One date is equal to a full meal, or even ten meals”.

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Nicest fruit salad ever eaten

The fruit salad explodes with taste in my mouth. It’s a simple salad – just grapes, apples and bananas but also added is cream, yoghurt and a small pinch of a spice called chaat masala. It is divine. I savour every mouthful.

Another plate is brought out – spicy vegetable pakoras and an onion bhaji on a plate with a yoghurt-mint sauce.

The clear-coloured drink is called Sikanjwi. Abdul tells me it’s a traditional Pakistani drink and it’s made with water, salt, sugar and lime. The other drink is milky coloured and is called dudh soda. “It’s 7-up and milk” Abdul tells me. Another traditional Pakistani drink. It sounds odd but actually tastes quite nice. Sweet, creamy.

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The full Iftar meal for breaking the fast

I had expected a surge of customers once the time for breaking the fast arrives but it stays quiet. “Does Ramadan affect business?” I ask Lucky. “Ramadan does make a difference in terms of business. Most of our customers are Arabic, most are Muslims, Indians and South Indians. It’s very much quieter during Ramadan”.

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Panipuri – an unexpected extra

I’m given another dish of something called Pani Puri but I’m already so full I can barely manage a taste. It’s a spicy sweet mix of chickpeas, chutney and spices in little thin crusted pastry balls. The food is all delicious but the city centre tap water isn’t great so I drink a small bottle of still water instead.

Abdul says that for the first fifteen days of Ramadan most people prefer to eat at home with friends and family. “The last ten days are better for Iftar parties when people try restaurants with friends”.

I come up with a plan to spend at least part of the remaining month using my Ramadan fast as an excuse to have Iftar parties exploring the tastes and food of different Muslim restaurants and nationalities all over Dublin. (If any of my Dublin readers would like to join me that would be great!) And in the meantime, from now on I will drink water instead of sleep.

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Lucky who is Sikh, Mubshir who is fasting, Abdul the head chef and waitress Pooja who is Hindu. Catering for the different religious groups – no beef, pork or alcohol are served at the restaurant. Also please note: when I visited Pakistan six years ago I was told not to smile during photos in order to look more dignified – it is not that they are unhappy!

Friday night at the mosque and free Iftar meal

There is a ten year old girl who has been bouncing on trampolines and fasting all day and ‘didn’t feel hungry or thirsty at all’, an Irish woman who had converted to Islam ten years ago who is here with her two teenage daughters, and an Iraqi woman with diabetes who has fasted all day and ‘suffered a lot’ and still has a bad headache. Her doctor had advised against fasting but she wanted to try it for one day.

Although fasting is not obligatory for the sick, elderly or young – Muslims in these categories often want to participate regardless. One woman at the mosque tonight says Ramadan is ‘my favourite time of year’. It’s a celebratory month and the breaking of the fast brings together families and friends and whole communities.

I am back at the mosque in Clonskeagh for the Friday night communal (and free) Iftar meal. I arrive slightly early so pop into the restaurant which is still open and I stock up on the little sweet pastries they sell here. One of the pleasures of breaking the fast is having one or two each night with a cup of tea. Ramadan is about breaking habits but this could be one that will be formed.

Benarab Boualem is working again. ‘How many days you fast now?’ he smiles when he sees me. My lips are very dry. ‘Three’ I say. He looks impressed – like a proud father. ‘Irish people come in and ask me ‘how long do you fast for?’ and I say ’20 hours’ and they cannot believe it and say ‘I could not fast for one hour’’.

He turns and starts talking to a man who is walking past, pointing at me proudly ‘she is non-Muslim and she is fasting’. ‘It’s not hard to try’ the man responds disinterestedly but then turns to me and says ‘well done’ as he keeps on walking.

Inside, on the women’s balcony, veiled women and daughters sit with their backs against the walls, chatting softly amongst themselves. It has the feel of a tired lull at the end of the day. There are two white tablecloths spread out on the carpet in the centre of the balcony. They are laden with bottles of water, plastic glasses and a few plates piled high with dates.

An Irish-looking woman smiles up at me from against the wall. ‘Assalamu alaikum’ she says quietly, welcoming. She has come with her family from Drogheda for the night prayer and meal. She tells me she married a Muslim man but didn’t convert at first. ‘I didn’t like the thoughts of giving up sausages and rashers’ she smiles (pork is prohibited in Islam). ‘We were married a few years and when we started having children I converted’.

‘The fasting is not difficult when you don’t think about the food’ she says. Her teenage daughters who both have luminous smiles are also fasting. The woman tells me that her ten year old boy fasted the full first day but decides himself when he wants to fast and for how long. ‘He had his breakfast this morning at 10’ she explains ‘but he wanted to fast the rest of the day’.

Just before ten o’clock a flock of women rise from their spots by the wall and circle around the tablecloths. The Irish woman I’m speaking to is beckoned in. I go to the balcony rail to take photographs.

Downstairs the muezzin (prayer caller) comes out and in a sonorous voice intones ‘allahu akbar’ (god is great) into the microphone. The sound of the prayer call fills the mosque. And with his voice the fast is broken. Hungry hands pick at the dates like birds at crumbs.

I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get through the circle to the dates and water when a young woman comes over to me holding out a plate of dates. I am grateful. Women smile at me. I am the only woman not wearing a hijab (hair covering).

After prayer the women file out and go to a large hall filled with tables for a free meal. The hall has a large partition. Men on one side. Women on the other. Our table seats six and has two plates of salad, a bowl of bread, bottle of Diet Coke, bunch of bananas and a large bowl of (what I think is) spicy butternut squash soup. I’m in the company of women from Iraq, Algeria and Egypt and two girls aged 10 and 7. Already I had spoken to a woman from Ireland and Morocco. Muslims from all over the world. After the soup is cleared, aluminium cartons of chicken biryani are passed around and then people leave the hall and head back to the mosque for the night prayer.

The women who are all dressed modestly and all veiled (just a few are wearing full nikkabs with only their eyes visible). I hear one woman say ‘I can’t eat, I’m too hot’ as she pulls at the black top that goes up to her neck. Another woman’s face is covered in tiny beads of sweat.

The woman beside me, from Iraq, says that though she loves Ramadan she also feels very sad. ‘It’s a time for family, when families get together to share breaking the fast’ she explains, ‘and so I miss my family a lot’.

Most of the Muslims in Ireland are immigrants and I begin to realise the paradoxes that make up Ramadan. It’s by going without that the pleasures of having are magnified. Fasting and food. And so it is with family. Breaking the fast with those who are loved magnifies the missing of those who are absent.

I leave the hall and am momentarily disorientated. It’s almost 11 o’clock on a Dublin July night and it’s warm. People of all nationalities are sitting on the grass, or gathered in groups on the pathways chatting. ‘Are you okay sister?’ two young women ask me. ‘I can’t figure out where I parked my car. Could you tell me where the entrance is and I will figure it out’. They point it out. Lines of cars are still filing in for the final prayer of the day. I find my car and head home. Ready for the cuppa tae and a little sweet desert.

  • Assalamu Alaikum is the traditional Muslim greeting meaning ‘peace be upon you’Image
  • The tablecloth laid out with dates and water on the centre of the women’s balcony
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  • Dates being brought out to the men below
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  • Women on the balcony of the mosque lined up for prayer
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  • The hall where the public meal is held – this is the women’s section, but you can see the partition beyond which is the men’s area.
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  • Outside the mosque security men direct cars arriving for the night prayer
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  • The little sweet desserts I bought at the mosque restaurant (desert, desserts – you know what I mean)