“There was a table set out under a tree in front of the house…”

So we are half way through Ramadan, this month where Muslims are expected, exhorted, shamed, encouraged, forced, coerced and also choose willingly to fast during daylight hours. Nothing should pass their lips during this time – sans food, sans drink, sans cigarettes, sans sex and maybe a few other things I don’t know about. As you might surmise, having nicotene addicts who are often the oppressed sexually obsessed having to deny natural urges in 40oC heat does not do wonders for their tempers nor powers of concentration at work. However I won’t dwell on the negative aspects of this ritual. Ramadan is also a month of celebration and socialising with a bonhomie akin to western Christmas. This is often followed by feasting during the whole night time until call to prayer in the early morning. People actually put on weight in Ramadan. I don’t think this would have been the original plan delivered by Mohamed but you know how it is, humans will be humans. We love to eat.

Ramadan follows the phases of the moon, starts when the new moon can first be seen, which isn’t difficult to predict in this cloudless sky and finishes when the following new moon is sighted; about 29 days? So it effectively falls two weeks earlier each year – someone told me about a 30 year cycle before it falls on the same weeks. This year it is in July and August, some of the hottest months in the Sinai and the longest days. So these fasters are not drinking from about 4.00am until 6.30pm when they break their fast at the meal fitar, which means literally that, “break your fast”.

I was invited to share fitar with some bedouin women a few days ago which was a welcome experience. The women and men eat separately, especially on occasions such as this; there were about 5 adult women, a few teenage girls and children seated on the on mats outside their simple concrete block dwellings. Men of the family are not banned from the area , the sexes just don’t eat together.

Mohamed had encouraged me to wear traditional style dress although I am not Muslim. I had long black pants and top, covered by a black abeya – a long coat that domes up the centre to the neck with long sleeves made from a heavy polyester that drapes beautifully is very comfortable to wear. I also wore a taraha loosely wrapped over my hair but not tied tight like a hijab – my hair was still showing.

When I arrived at the yard entrance the women were already seated cross legged on mats circling around a cloth laid out on the fine gravel in their yard, rather like a picnic. I envy their flexibility being able to squat and sit easily cross legged well into old age but sport injuries have taken their toll on my knees so I sit legs to one side. It is considered impolite to sit with your feet pointing at anyone. Shoes are always removed and left on the outside of the mats.

They quickly made room for me in their circle and encouraged me to try the various dishes. There are no such thing as food courses – everything gets offered at the same time but to initially break their fast they usually eat balah, dates and drink some sort of juice. This particular night it was banana – pureed and thinned with water or a little milk to make a pleasant drink, followed by saffron flavoured rice, salad of tomato and cucumber, penne pasta with a tomato sauce, potatoes mixed with a small pasta that resembles grain, a dish that looked like porridge and another, yellow of similar consistency that they wanted me try saying it was “Good! Good!” but to me tasted rather like a bland baby food. I prefer my food crunchy or with texture but I politely ate more than a few spoonfuls.

Muslims always eat with their right hand, often with their fingers, rolling the rice deftly into balls and dropping it delicately in their mouths. Although I am improving in this skill, I would not put myself to the public test (in fact I think Mohamed despairs I will ever learn – he jokingly wants me to wear a bib) so I ate with a spoon, as did a couple of other women I might add. You can forget that knife and fork thing! Actually after living here for 5 years, eating with a knife nad fork is foreign to me – like sitting in chairs.

Bedouin eat fast, very fast and as soon as they were finished they said “Il hamdo al allah” – thanks to God and stood up to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out. No lingering conversation here! They did not return to the food seating. As I don’t eat very fast, this was noted so they made me stay until last because they were sure I had not had enough to eat. I too went in to the sparse kitchen that had produced delicious food to wash and politely rinse my mouth at the kitchen sink.

After the meal the older women and teenagers laid out their prayer mats out in the immaculately kept gravel yard and prayed in the direction of Mecca in their own time.  This is very casual with no self consciousness or hiding away and some eve stopped to comment or talk. The children ran around playing with each other.

Despite it being still in the mid twenties oC there was a s small charcoal fire burning in the centre of the yard in a shallow fireplace made of bricks and cement. Open aired and clean burning, these fires are the eternal hearth focus. A metal teapot was sitting on the edge of the coals. I was offered hot sweet shai in a small shot size glass, black tea with bedouin herbs, the ubiquitous drink here. There is something about shai that is very thirst quenching.

I was also offered a hand rolled smoke popular with bedouin women made from desert herbs. My hostess was at pains to point out that the herbs contained no nicotine so is perhaps less dangerous to health – haha! However I didn’t find the taste pleasant so I won’t be buying a bag of smoking herbs any time soon. With a twinkle in her eye she said “People sometimes think I’m smoking grass.”

Two young looking women were bickering, one being of older teenage years. Another who spoke English well enough, said to me “They fight like two wives married to the same man.” She said they were in fact mother and daughter but the description gives some insight into polygamy and how it is often not a peaceful arrangement, especially if the women have to live together.

Mohamed came to the yard entrance without peering in, “psssting” to get my attention. It would be considered the height of rudeness for a man to look inside another family’s yard even though the walls are not high and the was gate open except for a couple of boards to discourage goats entering during the day. He beckoned me to come and retreated back from the gate.

I hadn’t finished my cigarette but I thanked my hostesses and left quietly happily cocooned in their welcoming hospitality.

On a more unsettling note this appeared in one of the national papers http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/dar-al-ifta-no-eating-drinking-public-during-ramadan

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