Iftar

This should have been posted 2 months ago.  I have no excuse for why it was not; it simply was not.

Iftar, according to my Arab friends, literally means to break a fast.

This is appropriate since it is used to refer to the meal used by Muslims to break the day long fast required of the observant during the Holy Month of Ramadan.  As I have described before, fasting begins at the Fajr (Dawn – around 4:30am) prayer and continues until the Maghreb (Evening – around 5:50pm during this year’s Ramadan) prayer is called.  A light breakfast is eaten prior to Fajr, but even chewing gum and water are prohibited afterward.  Small children and the ill are exempt from Ramadan – though, an offering is made in lieu of actual fasting.

One of the guys who works for me invited me and the rest of the team to his father’s house for Iftar one Friday evening.  Being one of those people who prefers to experience culture rather than simply read about it, or observe it, I jumped at the chance to spend an important religious event with a Saudi family – albeit the male portion of the family only – although, that is a cultural thing, not a religious thing.

I rode to the family’s house with a friend who also works for me.  I can get around in Riyadh pretty well, now; but, if I get too far off the beaten path, where streets signs are in Arabic exclusively, I can get confused easily.  Rather than keep calling my host and asking for landmarks, it’s easier to ride (or follow) someone who can read the signs without having to stop and sound them out phonetically – then figure out what the heck they say.

Once inside the family compound, a large and beautiful place, complete with a swimming pool, it became obvious that our host (the father) had some family money.  I am sure there are fancier places owned by wealthier folks, but these city dwelling Saudis enjoyed a very comfortable home with air-conditioning in each room, a swimming pool, and several different rooms devoted to different purposes.  They graciously welcomed us inside with handshakes, and we took our places in a large, rectangular living room.  A huge painting, housed within a faux antiqued brass frame hung on the wall to my left.  Several brightly colored, matching  two-seater couches sat against the walls and encircled the center of the room.  A beautiful wooden coffee table, inlaid with stone, sat in the middle of the floor; dates and pitchers of Arabic coffee rested there, too.  Fancy lamps lit the room from each corner, as did overhead lights, dangling from the ceiling and apparently made of stone.  Throughout, dishes of dates sat on smaller tables placed strategically so that one did not have to reach far for sustenance.  A small dish of whipped cream accompanied the dishes of dates.

The father and someone else of apparently high family rank (he was introduced to me, but I cannot remember the connection) sat in two high back chairs located at the end of the room where everyone entered.  The father was the first one to be greeted whenever anyone arrived – always with a handshake, a kiss on each cheek, and a kiss on the forehead or top of the head by sons and grandchildren.  Then, each person made their way around the room, shaking the hand of every other person in the room – the Arabs who knew (or were related to) each other doing the cheek kissing ritual.  A mix of Arabic and English floated from mouth to ear as was appropriate.

Very little formal conversation took place prior to the meal itself.  Brief, familial or friendly words were exchanged at voice levels barely above a whisper.  I don’t know if this is how it is in every home in Saudi Arabia, but the tones of this household seemed muted in anticipation of the feast.  Anxious glances at watches could be noticed around the room.  I had not eaten during the day, myself – not out of any religious conviction; rather, I wanted to experience Iftar as it was experienced by my hosts.  So, I was a bit peckish, too.  Finally, a recording on someone’s mobile phone – or a clock in the room – I am not sure which, sounded the call to Maghreb prayer.

As soon as prayer was called, each person reached for a date, dipped it in the cream, and gobbled it up, followed by many other dates.  I found, from my friend, that the Prophet Mohammed, encouraged this little ritual as an appropriate manner in which to break the fast.  Getting a little sugar into the bloodstream before moving on to the main meal.  The youngest two members of the family began serving Arabic coffee to everyone.  Those who have read this blog previously know I am not a fan of Arabic coffee.  At best, it has always seemed to me to taste like dishwater; at worst, it simply has been unpalatable.  I was wishing for a cup of tea, but I accepted the coffee out of politeness.  Boy, was I surprised!  The coffee this family made actually tasted good.  There was still the distinct cardamon flavoring, and the milky watering down of the actual coffee, but the sweetness managed to round out the flavors instead of pushing the flavor into the realm of cloying, liquified camel poop stirred with dirty hay.

About fifteen minutes after the initial call to prayer, a second call went off, and all of the Muslims rose and went into one of the rooms covered in prayer rugs.  There were a couple of us infidels there, and we waited patiently while our hosts and the rest of their guests concluded their prayer.  All in all, it took about five minutes before they emerged again, and the doors into the dining room slid open.

Two different kinds of salad sat on each table – a traditional tabouleh and a green salad with vinegar dressing already on it.  Two baskets of cheese samosas and beef samosas sat one on each end of the table.  Two different kinds of soup – one a creamy chicken and the other a creamy lentil also occupied the tables.  And, of course, each table hosted a basket of pita bread, cut into triangles.  On another table sat several different types of fresh fruit juice to which each person helped themselves.  No servants were anywhere to be seen, which was different from my previous experience inside a Saudi home, and our hosts saw to our hospitality.

I easily could have filled up on the appetizers I described above.  I went for the lentil soup, some samosas, and both tabouleh and green salad.  So very, very good!  I had to restrain myself from getting seconds because the entrees occupied the table stationed on the far wall from where I sat.  I got up and went over to that table and was reminded of an American potluck dinner where each guest tries to outdo the other guests in providing gustatorily pleasing offerings.  Roasted goat provided the centerpiece, while roasted chicken played second-fiddle in a platter next to the goat.  Fish in a creamy sauce (don’t ask me, I don’t know its name) was available, and there were some roasted potatoes and onions, as well as a platter of white rice.  On the table next to this one, were several types of Syrian dishes, including roasted chicken thighs in some sort of sauce and a huge platter of Arabic-styled rice with raisins and nuts tossed into it.  Various types of vegetable dishes filled both tables.

A sort of fruit compote, over which one drizzles a sugary syrup, sat beside a creamy caramel offering very much akin to flan.  Appetizers, entrees, and dessert.  We were well served that night, and I gained fifty pounds.  OK, I exaggerate, I only gained forty-nine pounds.

According to many Arabic friends, formal Iftar dinners of this nature are the exception to the rule.  While they almost all usually follow the date ritual, other Arabic nationalities often eat the entire meal before performing their Maghreb prayers.  Normally, the food is less abundant and resembles a normal evening meal, including prepared foods brought in from restaurants and shops.  In fact, on the last night of Ramadan, the men with whom I work all met up at a local restaurant and ate Iftar together – where we were also served dates prior to the meal.

After dinner, we retired back to the sitting room for coffee and tea.

This was a group of very well-educated Arabs.  All of them were professionals: bankers, engineers, teachers.  Many had been educated in the United States.  In fact, one of my hosts, dressed in Western clothes rather than a thoub, told me about the problems he was having with getting a visa back to the United States, where he and his American wife own a home in one of the Dakotas.  His wife and kids go home each year, but he cannot get a visa approved, it’s always in process when he asks about it.  That’s been its status for three years.  There was a lot of interest with regard to the Presidential campaign in the U.S., and we Americans were solicited for our views – not only of who we thought would win, but what we thought would happen after the election was over and the new President took office.

The conversation wound down after about half-an-hour.  There was still one more set of prayers to go, and during this particular prayer time, Muslims (at least in KSA) recite a series of ten different prayers.  The guy with whom I rode informed me that we’d stayed the required amount of time to be polite, and it was all right if we left, now.  In fact, in light of the prayers coming up, it was polite for us to leave at that point.  So, we did.

This is a memory I will gladly store in my mind, one which I hope I won’t ever forget…though…I do hope I can drop the poundage I picked up that night.

Copyright, Greg Hubbard, 2008

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