Celebrating Ramadan

Category: Culture

5995303596_0445c705b0_zMuslims around the world are in the middle of observing Ramadan, a period of spiritual daily fasting from dawn to dusk.  Determined by the Islamic lunar calendar, Ramadan lasts around 30 days. This year, it happens to fall in the entire month of August, the hottest time of year for many Muslims around the globe – appropriate, as the word Ramadan alludes to intense heat.  Both the heat and long daylight hours for those in the northern hemisphere are especially trying, since Ramadan requires abstention from food and drink during the daytime. Those who are sick or pregnant are not required to fast, but they do have to “make up” the days later.

Aside from the physical travails, Ramadan is a very spiritual time when the faithful are encouraged to think good thoughts, do good deeds, read and study the Qur’an, and give to charity.  During Ramadan, business hours, even at vital government offices and banks, are shortened, and the midday business closures, normally reserved for eating lunch and resting a bit, are now replaced by naps and visits to the mosque. Experiencing Ramadan in a Muslim region is unforgettable.

If you decide to participate for a day or two, you’ll get an inkling of the self control it takes to fast for a full month. You quickly learn that extreme thirst trumps the hunger and by the end of the day, you may feel a slight euphoria.  Besides that, the best thing about fasting is, of course, the actual breaking of the fast.

While living in Cameroon, I fasted several times during the hot season and broke the fast at night with close friends. To be invited to their house was an honor and preparations for the meal started many hours beforehand. While they were praying in another room, I sat in front of platters of food, knowing that everyone in my village, regardless of wealth or status, would enjoy an unusually large meal. Nearly everyone broke the fast by first drinking a thick, liquid drink called bouille. Made out of corn, wheat or manioc flour, it’s mixed with water and fresh lemon juice or tamarind and is the consistency of watered-down Cream of Wheat (a type of wheat porridge for those unfamiliar with this American breakfast staple).  This is a bouille recipe from Maïmouna, one of my Cameroonian “sisters”:


Ingredients: Sugar, freshly-ground peanut butter (no additives including sugar, oil or honey), tamarind or lemon juice, well-sifted flour (wheat, corn or manioc)

In a large pot, heat 8-10 cups of water and add about a cup of sugar (note: all measurements are approximate). Let dissolve. In a separate bowl, mix a handful peanut butter with water so that it dissolves. Strain this mixture to eliminate any large particles. Do this same process with your flour and water. In a large pot on medium to high heat, slowly add flour mixture together with sugar water mixture, stirring constantly so there are not large clumps. Mix in peanut butter mixture. Stir until slightly boiling. Add tamarind (tamarind should be soaked in water for a bit – add only the juice, not the tamarind itself) or fresh lemon juice. Mix. Add water if too thick, or if too thin, add more flour mixture. Add cooked rice if desired. Bon appétit! 

Bouille is one of my favorite culinary discoveries in Cameroon and outside of Ramadan, it’s common to have a cup of it in the late afternoon while shopping at the outdoor markets. Young women carry large, hot buckets of bouille on their heads and walk through the market’s narrow alleyways. If you happen to be talking with your regular tailor or fruit seller, he may buy you a cup, thereby prolonging your conversation by several minutes (after all, “time is elastic” in Cameroon and a good conversation is a valued currency). During the hottest months, bouille is a pseudo air conditioner; the sweat produced from drinking the hot mixture acts like a splash of cold water.

To northern Cameroonians, there’s no Ramadan without bouille, but for Moroccans, there’s no Ramadan without chbbakia (a special sweet honey cake made for Ramadan), spiced soup, dates, juice, crepes, hard boiled eggs and a meat or fish dish. My Moroccan friend Hayat says that in addition to spending time with family and close friends during Ramadan, Moroccans also organize evening celebrations when they wear traditional dress and listen to spiritual music.

In two short generations, Ramadan has changed quite a bit in Morocco. Technology in the home (modern stoves, food processors, etc.) has certainly helped women in the preparation of food, which is still very much a female role. Compared to Hayat’s grandmother’s era, preparation of the pre-dawn meal takes a shorter amount of time, allowing more time for women to sleep and have some free time. On a broader scale, satellite TV, which exists even in the remotest Atlas Mountain villages, opens up the world to Moroccans, giving them insight into how other countries celebrate the sacred month, and also allowing them to follow the daily prayers live from Mecca. For Hayat, Ramadan signifies “love for God, family, neighbors…and a heart full of love and tolerance for everyone, solidarity and a sharing of our riches with those who have less.” As part of giving back during Ramadan, she helps to organize Mai’dat al-Rahman (tables of God, or tables of the merciful), donating food to those who don’t have families or for those who are poor.

More than one billion Muslims take part in Ramadan around the globe, from Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Iraq to China and, of course, America. It’s a time for cleansing, reflection, good deeds and good food. If you happen to be in a Muslim country during Ramadan or have Muslim friends in your country, try and take part, either by fasting (if you are in good health) or at the very least, spend time with them at a post-sunset dinner.  Ramadan mobarak! Happy Ramadan!

Photo attribution: Thamer Al-Hassan