The Ramadhan Diaries

Fasting in London and beyond

Day 3 Iftar Under House Arrest

I went home after the tomato based discussion on day 3 at about 4pm. I had stayed away since the argument-not wanting to get involved in dietary debates anymore. It was a Sunday and I allowed my self a multi-faith shared day of rest. When I got home I found mum sun bathing in the garden.

During that day myself and a friend who is currently living under house arrest on bail facing deportation back to Algeria were watching Jamie Oliver in Marrakech on Channel 4. How Jamie did all that cooking, exploring, eating and shopping in the craziest bizarre on earth in just two days I will never know. But it was an excellent programme. It did not help us in that we were both fasting but it did put me in the mood to cook later. Dangerous!

It was even more important to be there that day. When I turned to my friend – let’s call him Khaled because his conditions of bail request that he is kept anonymous – he had tears in his eyes. He was remembering all the Ramadhans he had missed with his family in Algeria. He first came to the UK after fleeing Algeria where he had suffered torture and found himself with a death sentence in absentia. He was granted leave to remain in the UK almost immediately. 9/11 happened and attitudes towards young men from Algeria changed, becoming suspicious. Khaled was accused of being involved in a plot to poison London-the ricin plot of 2003. You may have heard of it. Especially when the verdict came back from the jury as non-guilty and then one of the jurors, Lawrence Archer, went on to write a book about the experience called ‘Ricin-The Terror Plot That Never Was’.

Khaled was a free man for about six months after his acquittal , but then after Tony Blair’s Rules of the Game Have Changed speech – Khaled found himself on a deportation order, with a verbal diplomatic assurance in place between the UK and Algeria authorities that he would not be tortured on return. No papers were signed to cement that arrangement because as Algeria explained-to sign to such an agreement would be an admission to the fact that they torture. That was 2005 and since then Khaled has been in an out of detention as bail has been won, revoked on secret evidence and then won back again. Being on bail means house arrest with curfew hours. In the beginning they were pretty tight but as time has passed and months have turned into seven years-the hours allowed out of the house have increased. It also means only having visitors who are Home Office cleared to visit. I got that clearance a few years back.

Khaled had tears in his eyes as he watched Jamie Oliver cooking the food his mother had made him and his family all those years ago. When he was last there, fifteen years ago, he had shared Ramadhan with all his family. Now as the years have moved on his father, grandmother, aunty and a fair number of uncles have died.

Even though it was Morocco, the part of Algeria Khaled comes from is closely related to Morocco, being so close to the western border. The programme and all it’s explanations, insights and descriptions were spot on – credit to the Fresh One Productions crew. It made one North African man devoid of true liberty really remember home. He can’t go home because he will almost certainly face some degree of harm.

Now I knew I could never replicate Jamie that day but I was going to stay and break my fast with Khaled. And so I set to work. I have never been the best cook in Essex-that goes to Jamie-but I thought I could at least make a chicken curry and rice. It’s something tried and tested. Khaled however has a really sharp palate and so my slightly overly brown onions in the sauce were highlighted instantly. How he could taste them in amongst the other herbs and spices I will never know. I was really pleased with myself. Referring back to Jamie again and his 30 minute meals programmes, I worked fast. It’s amazing how when you start moving about doing something with purpose that you forget that you are indeed fasting.

We broke our fast together with the traditional dates and milk and as often happens-were too full to eat most of the food. It got packaged and put into the fridge. That’s what you often find in Ramadhan-that somehow fridges and cupboards are bulging with food-with no extra mad dash Christmas style shopping having taken place. There just seems to be plenty of food about. Some people call that one of the blessings of Ramadhan.

After eating and having that essential cup of coffee and doing the sunset prayer, Maghreb, it was time to go out. Khaled has been given permission to attend the night prayers, taraweer, in the local Turkish mosque. He is only allow to go to that specific one within his conditions.

Initially we had no idea if there was a space for women in this mosque. Men and women pray separately, but the women’s section will be connected with a loud speak so we can hear the imam leading the prayers. As I sat in the car waiting, I spotted a few women disappearing into a door on the other side of the building. I went to have a look. There inside was a very organised, tidy and freshly decorated layout. About three rooms side by side had rows of women in prayer. Some of the women had been entering the secret door in knee length dresses, leggings and no headscarves, but once inside they were dressed for prayer and hardly recognisable. I loved the tolerance of it all. Plus no screaming kids. Sorry to all the mums with little ones, but sometimes during those night prayers, all you can hear are crying babies and young children having the times of their life as they run up and down the rows of praying women, unable to stop them because their heads are bent in prayer. They don’t seem to have that in the Turkish mosque. I’m impressed.

The thing that took me by surprise was the break neck speed in which the imaam recited Arabic! He was so fast-if you can imagine Arabic with a Turkish accent read on fast forward – well that’s it. I controlled a smile as I first heard it, regained my poise and got on with praying. I managed to pray my night prayer, Isha and then 8 parts of the taraweer following the imam in all of about ten minutes!

Emerging from the mosque myself and Khaled discussed the recitation. It was different. But I had liked going and joining in. I had never prayed in a Turkish mosque before. It did however make me remember praying in a mosque in Sarajevo where the imam was a Kosovan,with a strong Turkish connection. I couldn’t remember him having read so fast. I remember that time as quite defining in my appreciation of Muslims from around the world. It had been most profound.

Getting back to Ramadhan night 3, we decided to go in search of coffee. Khaled has boundaries outside of which he is not allowed to venture. So in my red Nissan Almerra that sounds as if the axle is about to fall off, we drove careful around the permitted areas. It was interesting to see the different communities and groups of Muslims walking in the cool night air, relaxed and gently making their way home after finishing the night prayers. Somalian ladies with their children, Pakistani men leaving their chosen mosque and other groups just taking some time to meet each other after the day of fasting.

In search of coffee we looked for the Algerian coffee shop in Khaled’s boundary. You can spot it a mile off. It’s typical to the behaviour in Algiers. Groups of Algerian men stand outside the coffee shop, drinking their espressos and double macchhiatos. They’ll be up until sehur at 3am.

Khaled rushed in and grabbed two coffees and two yummy fruit tartlets. The Algerians are rather good at their patisserie skills. We go back to the house in time for Khaled to call the tagging company to say he is back in before his curfew expires.

I leave to drive home at about midnight with a cup of coffee, listening to Radio 4 all the way. I stay up for breakfast or Sehur and try to wake my sister. She manages to raise her head out of the bed and then vanishes back in to sleep. She blames me the next day for not trying hard enough to wake her up. There will be bells and whistles next time!!

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