Fasting for Ramadan
Ramadan is quickly approaching (tomorrow!). It’s certainly not mandatory for anyone to fast, but out of respect for those that are, you aren’t really supposed eat or drink anything in public. That shouldn’t be a big problem for me though because this year, I am going to try fasting. I have sort of been uncomfortable in the past with non-Muslim foreigners attempting to fast, because it feels almost like an invasion of something sacred that people turn into a game, or a gimmick. But I have been curious for a while and was urged by some of my students to try it, which makes it more like being invited to a party than crashing one. Plus, most of the food I eat here is street food anyway, so if I can’t have street food during the day, I might as well not eat anything at all.
Okay, that trivializes it a bit. I’m definitely taking this seriously, though I am a little nervous, to be totally honest. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and is pretty much a divine injunction for all able bodied Muslims, but there are other reasons I see for the practice that are more accessible for someone outside the faith like me. For one, it is an astounding show of discipline, something that I know I personally lack in my life, and a show of piety, if it’s possible to use that word in a secular sense, a devotion to what is good and avoiding sins/transgressions/even excess. I also see it (and have heard this a few times before) as an exercise in really sympathizing with the world’s poor, struggling, starving and needy, which is one of the main reasons that I am very curious to see how if feels to go hungry from 4:30 in the morning until 7:30 at night (and then see if I can repeat that about 30 times).
Ramadan has a not-so-directly-related-to-Islam significance too. Just as Christians gather with their extended families for Christmas, families here hop around to various relatives to break the fast. I’ll probably just go find street food.
Which is a good segue to a list of my favorite (mostly street) foods in Damascus:
8. Water – I sweat like a octopus here, it’s insane. I have been drinking over a gallon of water a day and I still pee like once every full moon. I am incredibly nervous about this during Ramadan, because I wont be able to drink any water for about 15 hours a day. I plan on waking up at 4:15 every morning and chugging some good old H2O and then going back to sleep.
7. Pistachios – I know you can get these anywhere, but pistachios are the best, and their Arabic name is fustuq halabi (فستق حلبي) which means Peanuts from Aleppo, a town in Northern Syria. Which means they have to be better here.
6. Cactus fruit – These are sold all over the city (and in Amman too). Picture a prickly orangish/yellowish pear, but symmetrical like a rugby ball, with a similarly colored inside about the same consistency of a pear (actually, maybe softer). They are good, but have large soft seeds all through them that you just have to eat, which can get frustrating. It’s really cool when they display them still attached to the cactus plant.
5. Shawerma – These sandwiches are truly ubiquitous, probably even in the US (Shawerma = Doner in Turkish p.s.) and have constituted give or take roughly about 100% of my dinners here. Shawerma consists of meat shaved off of a huge rotating meat cylinder, mayonnaise, very minor vegetables (if it’s still considered a vegetable in pickle form) and delicious sauces that come from the big rotating meat cylinder. I like my foods top heavy in terms of the Food Pyramid, thank you very much Kimball Elementary School.
4. Toot Shami – The word literally means Damascus Berry, but I think the English translation is Mulberry (not sure about that). Whatever it is, the juice is freakin’ amazing. It has a bit of a fermented edge (party) it and a certain unbeatable sweetness – awesome. I’m glad Arabs are all about the juice.
3. Fatteh – The only food on this list that’s not a street food, Fatteh is a Syrian specialty. It is one of those foods that tastes much better than it looks, which is good, because I think it kind of looks like a baby threw up into a bowl because he had been sneakily eating solid foods when his little baby digestive system couldn’t handle it. It’s some sort of yoghurt and ghee (cooking butter of some sort?) with pita chips consistency chunks of bread (though softened by the fatty atmosphere) and chicken or another protein of some sort. 100% delicious, though it may or may not go right through your system if you aren’t used to it… even if you have a less than desirable bathroom situation in a small apartment that you share with a few others, including a very wonderful older lady…
2. Bakdash – I’ve written about this before I think, but right in the middle of the most bustling, busy, crazy market is this awesome ice cream shop where they serve this vanilla-like flavor rolled in pistachios (see #7). It’s quite a battle to get in there, order your ice cream, and then get out without dropping it on an Iranian pilgrim or a 10 year old Syrian boy, but the battle is definitely worth it.
1. Jellab – And last but not least, probably the first thing I will get when the sun rolls down every day this month, is Jellab. I’m not sure exactly what it is – I looked it up online and it said “a syrup made from grape molasses” – but it’s deliciously served as a Syrian slushee, perfect for these scorchingly hot days. Actually, I love any flavor of slushed drink around (and there are many), but Jellab is certainly the bast. I’m already a regular at a shop down the street from Um Bassam’s house and plan on keeping that status.
Cheers, and RAMADAN KAREEM! رماضن كريم