The Month of Eating

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Fourteen hours and fifteen minutes after I’d taken my last sip of water, I found myself sitting upright on the plush velvet sofa in our newly decorated living room, a sea of pillows in various shades of grey engulfing me. I propped one of the pillows behind my back to help me sit upright – I have a “very bad habit of slouching,” as my mother likes to frequently remind me. Yet another hunger pang hit me as my eyes fell on the bountiful arrangement of food and drink on the table before me: sugary dates, qishta, fresh fruit, and nuts. An array of neatly lined up juices promised all kinds of flavors – kiwi, mango, pomegranate, and guava. Last but certainly not least, laban, water, and two gleaming silver thermoses of Arabic coffee fought for space at the end of the overflowing table.

I took a glance around the living room to distract myself from the nauseating hunger that comes only in the very last moments of a day of fasting. I noticed that most of our guests – all dressed in colorful and elegant thobes – had closed their eyes and were mumbling to themselves, uttering last minute prayers. Their hands were cupped to their faces, their ears eagerly awaiting the sound of the athan, just like school children waiting for the bell. I placed my own hands into my lap, allowing my gaze to follow the intricate web of lines running along my palms. I took this moment of silence – something extremely rare in our household given the existence of my “sweet” five-year-old brother, our two lovebirds, and the constant clanking and crashing of dishes in the kitchen – to pray. I asked God for good health, peace, and happiness.

As I was praying, scents of saffron and cardamom wafted towards me, teasing my neglected stomach. Someone had opened the thermos holding the qahwa, and its intoxicating smell now filled the entire room. I could almost feel the coffee on my tongue, its lingering taste in my mouth before I’d even broken my fast. Once again, I took a brief look around the room, focusing first on the grandfather clock on the wall opposite me, and then on the way my mother, dressed in her favorite maroon thobe, was fidgeting with the coffee cups, making sure they were properly positioned on the silver tray, then pushing the tray towards the center of the table so that all the guests could reach it.

My focus was interrupted by the sudden call to prayer in Mecca, which I heard 61.8 miles away through the flat screen T.V in the corner of the room. Eager hands soon reached for glasses of laban and dipped neatly divided dates into fresh cream – the athan in Jeddah sounds seconds after the one in Mecca ends. The first thing I wanted to do was pour myself a cup of coffee, but my mother’s disapproving look reached me from the other side of the living room (she has a tendency of reading my thoughts before I’m able to act upon them), and I remembered that I was supposed to offer cups of coffee to our guests before serving myself. With a sigh, I popped a date (heavily loaded with gishta) into my mouth to break my fast, and then I got to work tending to the guests.

Luckily many of them were already quite busy, downing bottles of water with shocking speed and helping themselves to the juices and dates on the table. After serving a couple of relatives, I poured myself some coffee. I watched as the steaming caramel-colored liquid gracefully leapt from its temporary home, the silver thermos, and into my tiny white coffee cup. The first sip brought a sense of relief. The second reminded me that Arabic coffee is rather deceitful – sweet at first, but sure to leave a bitter aftertaste in ones mouth.

Instead of waiting for my mothers’ unspoken signal, a piercing glance that was only noticeable by her own flesh and blood, I got up and began rearranging the living room for maghrib prayer. I walked to the sequined chest in the corner of the room, careful not to trip over my long green thobe, and I pulled out several prayer rugs and sharasif salah for the ladies. I began to lay the prayer rugs out on the marble floor, each rug a different color and pattern than the last. Soon, the floor of our living room was almost completely hidden under the rainbow of prayer rugs.

My uncles’ deep voice filled the room as he recited the call to prayer. It’s amazing how delicate a man’s voice can sound when reciting Islamic prayer. How something so rough can become so soothing, like velvet. Mothers halfheartedly scorned their young children for refusing to get up and pray, choosing to play on their iPads instead. Fathers and other guests hastily filled the gaps in the row of rugs, ready to commence prayer. Once my own father took his place as the Imam in the front of the room, all was quiet. Feelings of peace and breaths of gratitude seemed to float around the room.

After prayer, the noise and haste returned. Guests claimed their seats at the dining room table, shuffling around to sit beside one another and moving all the kids to one side of the table. As this happened, exclamations over the feast before us could be heard. Cries of “mashallah!” and “Esh hada ya Dania?!” filled the room. They thanked my mother as they took in the array of dishes before them. The dining room table was taking on a larger load than it ever had. There were nearly fifteen different dishes arranged on it. My stomach ached more than ever at the mouth-watering sights and smells that took over the room. Stuffed grape leaves, seasoned lamb chops, cheese and meat sambusak, pasta with béchamel sauce, lentil soup, salads, and a massive platter of kabsa were some of the dishes before us.

Conversation filled the room as adults clumsily reached over one another, passing plates filled with food. They talked politics and real estate while children pushed the food on their plates around, giggling at silly faces they made at one another. One by one, guests reached their maximum capacity, and said a prayer of thanks and blessings to our family as they excused themselves from the table and headed towards the bathroom to wash their hands before returning to the living room. In the living room, things were quiet. Everyone sat down comfortably, and we turned to face the television, unable to move or talk from all the food. The guests looked at the desert laid out on the table like it was the plague, and yet none of them refused me when I handed them plates of kunafa filled with cheese and cups of tea. As I served desert, my mother fidgeted with the T.V. remote, flipping the channel to MBC 1 so that we could all tune in to the latest episode of Selfie.

I started to doze off early in the episode, my food coma overpowering me. I couldn’t help but love the month of Ramadan in that moment, despite the consistent cycle of waking up and sleeping too late, or the unintended weight gain (a direct result of eating like Vikings every night for thirty consecutive days). As I was drifting off to sleep, I wondered how much a single month could affect one’s mindset and top priorities. Perhaps Ramadan was actually just a prolonged version of New Years, of resolutions that never really lasted the whole year. Abstention from food and water from sunrise to sunset for a whole month can be seen as an opportunity for one to transform into a better, more disciplined, more religious, more sympathetic, and more tolerant human being. It can also be seen as an opportunity to celebrate – to gather with family and friends. An opportunity to eat, and eat again.

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