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!

Ramadan and reading the Quran

Never before has a strawberry tasted so divine as the one I ate for the break-fast that came with the falling sun and fading light tonight.

I broke today’s fast with a date (fruit variety) followed by the strawberry. I closed my eyes and let the tastes melt into my happy mouth and sighed. The explosion of taste and gratitude for food and water at the fast’s end is what made the fast easy today. I knew what I had to look forward to.

The no-food factor is ending up at almost 24 hours daily simply because I’m too lazy to get out of bed before 3 a.m. for a refill. The hunger is easy. The thirst is thirsty. I lick my lips a lot. The stomach cranks up a few notches by eight or nine and shifts gears – loudly. But energy levels today were high. And I started reading the Quran. That is also part of what makes up Ramadan.

It’s my second time reading the Quran. I read it for the first time a few summers ago when I did a tiny bit of research on women in Islam. It took me the whole summer.  This time I’m trying to keep up with a chapter (or section) a day. There are 30 chapters and 30 days in Ramadan – it’s meant to be read one section a day. I’m already playing catch up.

The Quran is very different to the Bible. Less narrative. A very strong emphasis on faith and on the woes that will befall those who are faithless. The 114 Surah’s are not arranged chronologically but according to length.  It is an interesting read. They say that in Arabic it is perfect poetry but I’m on an English translation. I’ve heard the Arabic recited and it’s beautiful even to my ignorant ears.

I think it is perhaps okay to say that as a non-Muslim, Catholic-raised woman, like meself I do find the Quran a difficult read, a challenging read.

There are many verses about doing good and the importance of charity and looking after the needy, and being forgiving, and also on restraint, honesty, equality, hypocrisy. And then there is what is perhaps the most contentious verse – which happens to be in chapter 2 – and which is interpreted in many different ways:

‘Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’

Sometimes I feel afraid of the potential reactions that my thoughts (if voiced) about Islam could elicit. And so I cannot (do not) speak them. Or write them. And so I stay silent. I don’t know where the boundaries of discussion lie. What is safe to say, what is not safe? What is acceptable to discuss and what is not? I know not what.

When I was researching Muslims in Ireland for my Master’s degree I received at least two emails from an Irish Muslim man asking me which intelligence agency I worked for. Was it the CIA or the FBI. The fear works both ways.

I will continue to read the Quran – I remember there are many beautiful sections. And in the meantime, from tomorrow, day three, it’s meant to all get easier again.

And regarding Ramadan? Right now I see only positives so there are no hidden silenced thoughts. But if there were? Who would be to know?

A discussion on the merits of fear, faith, silence, free speech is for another space. In the meantime, I’m off for another litre of uisce (water).Image

The Ramadan calendar I was given at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland yesterday