Iftar East London style – Maedah Grill
My last post said I was bored, but being a creature that is easily distracted, my periods of boredom are short-lived.
This evening the plan was to film with the BBC team I have been working with all week. We were going to film an iftar – the breaking of the fast – and the venue was a favourite of mine – Maedah Grill in Whitechapel. It’s really beautifully decorated Turkish restaurant just opposite the Islamic Cultural Centre in Whitechapel. As the taxi driver dropped me off, he asked me what it was like. He also asked if I had been to the restaurant on the opposite side of the road – Tayyubs. I have and the food is great but today it was a Maedah Grill day. The vibe inside is great and it has the room to accommodate everyone comfortably. Even when it is at full capacity, diners can sit without feeling as if they are knocking elbows with the next table.
I arrived twenty minutes before the fast was due to break but people were already seated around tables. In front of them were dates, grapes and watermelons laid out on plates. Each table was set with this selection of fast breaking food. People sat together waiting for the moment when the fast would be open. It was such a beautiful thing to see. The togetherness and the discipline. We didn’t know each other but we were all bonded in that moment – in obedience to Allah, in unity as Muslims and in our desire to appreciate the plight of those who have far less than we do so we can be better in giving to help others. Waiters from all sorts of backgrounds but mainly Turkish were attentively hovering around tables, making sure everyone had what they needed to break their fast. They themselves were all fasting. The chefs behind the hot grills had been cooking and preparing since midday. They were fasting too. I have no idea how they do it – but they do. I am in awe.
As my family arrived to break their fast with me, they were so wonderfully greeted by the owner of Maedah Grill, British born Indian Muslim, Shakeel. His manner and hospitality was just superb and each group of people arriving were greeted and made welcome in the same way. For those that might find themselves standing in a queue waiting for a table, a large platter of dates and fruit lay in the restaurants reception area. No attention to detail is left out in respect of the fasters.
We wondered how we would know when the fast would be broken, other than clock watching. But being right across the East London Cultural centre, the adhan – call to prayer – is audible and a waiter stands at the door waiting to hear it then goes around the tables letting people know. It was a lovely touch, having someone come to tell you in a way that is almost congratulatory that we had succeeded on another fasting day. I am not sure if I can even put into words the way Muslims who fast feel about Ramadan and the what the actual act of fasting means to us. It is just so much more than the actual abstinence of food and water. It means something other worldly. And when we are together fasting the meaning and feelings are magnified. It is hard to explain and maybe to those who are watching us from the outside won’t truly understand why being hungry and thirsty is something we love going through to this degree of 30 days in the height of summer but we do.
After having our dates and starters, with drinks brought to our tables by energetic and attentive waiters, we left the table to hop across the road to the mosque to pray the Maghreb or sunset prayer. Most of the restaurant had done the same. So the orders are put on hold until we are all back at the tables. It gives enough time for the first hit of food and drink taken into our tummies to move around and digest a bit, before coming back for more. The time to pray is also a time to reflect and worship. The practical and the spiritual working together in harmony.
A waiter talked to us about his daily routine. After finishing at the restaurant he would be making it to a local London mosque for the late night Taraweh prayers and then he would eat breakfast and get ready for the next day’s fast. Three days a week he studies for his degree in business management and the rest of the week he works in Maedah Grill . I asked him if it was hard whilst he was fasting. He looked at me surprised.
‘No, I love it.’
‘But it’s hard in this weather and it’s so long?’ I continued
‘No I really look forward to Ramadan – when I pray it gives me power. We are so lucky to have this month.’ On that I felt ashamed that I had even asked that question. It is true, I do love it too but I get distracted from the higher gains promised through Ramadan when I’m dwelling on myself.
The food was absolutely amazing. The restaurant had 300 people tonight. The atmosphere was buzzing. My sisters and niece and nephew could not make up their minds over the alcohol-free cocktails but when the mojito and mango snow arrived they were thrilled. The sweets arrived after the mains and the tiramisu was just out of this world. Highly recommended. We thought that was us and then they wheeled in the hot cookie dough and ice cream desert. Yet again on another level.
Shakeel had a vision for this restaurant – a place for the community, for customers to come and enjoy a comfortable meal and share an experience. Muslims and those of other faiths or no faith dine here within the heart of Whitechapel with freshly cooked Turkish cuisine. My sister, a vegetarian was over-joyed with her heartening stew of tomatoes and potatoes. It really was delicious.
The hospitality was one of the best I have ever encountered and tonight I was reminded of the beauty of my Muslim community. I saw it and experienced it at it’s finest. It has given me the right perspective as I say goodbye to the first week of Ramadan 2014. We are approaching day 7 already. A week has gone and soon the rest will fly by too. So it’s time to really embrace it and to make the most of every moment.