The Ramadhan Diaries

Fasting in London and beyond

Archive for the tag “Algeria”

D1 – Iftar like home

9 a.m – I fight the urge to make a coffee – that robotic trance like walk to the kettle and the mechanics of opening cupboards. Instead I pace myself …. and do nothing much. Watch tv and chill.

12.30 p.m –  Still chilling out. Husband says to think about prepping food. It’s only just gone midday. There’s 8 more hours to go. Is he hungry already? I know he’ll be having a caffeine withdrawal headache the size of Britain.

1.30 p.m – I say my afternoon prayer. Feels nice to not miss it and pray on time. I then do something I’ve never in my life done, even in Ramadhan. I find myself walking to my bookshelf and pulling off two books. One is the Qu’ran I was given in Mecca last year when on Hajj and the other is an English translation  of the Qu’ran. I look up Qu’ran recitations on Youtube and discover Omar Hisham Al Arabi and his reading of the section on Ramadan in Surah Baraqa. It’s beautiful. For once it hits home what this month is all about.

I start to read the Qu’ran and honour my promise of trying to read 10 pages a day. Will I keep this up? For now and for today, it feels good. Like a connection being made to the words. As I follow the text in my copy of the Qu’ran to the voice of the recitor I have time to appreciate the text, the aesthetics of the letters. I remind myself, it’s just day one. Come back on day 20. If I’ve got the energy to keep it up I’ll be impressed. I also expect this blog to disintegrate to a few lines a post, if lucky.

2.30 p.m – In Algeria, so I am told, the traditional dish to serve at Iftar is called Lham Lahlou – lamb with prunes, with a sauce made of honey and sugar. I can’t quite get my culinary imagination around that so my husband says to make a version without the honey and sugar – which turns the dish into Tagine Barqork. I have all the will in the world to be as trad as possible but sugar and honey with lamb is a leap too far. For now.

The reason they make this for Ramadan is because it’s made without salt thus helping to stave off thirst the next day.

So armed with the best youtube videos and Algerian recipe blogs out there I began to work.

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7.30 p.m – I am still in the kitchen cooking. I’ve been cooking the Tagine Barqork version of Lham Lahlou for quite some time. The prunes which I dutifully soaked before adding to the pot have almost dissolved. My pot doesn’t look like the images on instagram and PinInterest. I peel the almonds and brown them. Ready to scatter at the end, with the hope that it will at least look like how it’s supposed to. I throw in some more un-soaked prunes that will at least look intact, although not cooked through as they should be.

The shorba is something I can manage – I think. I’m feeling confident as I do the normal onions, garlic, cumin, ras -al-hanout and meat thing. It begins to smell how it should. But then in a moment of lack of faith, I reach for the packet of Majji shorba. A ready made mix of the traditional North African soup that is eaten commonly during Ramadan. It’s unnerving cooking without eating to taste so that’s what guides my hand to cheat. We are allowed to taste as long you don’t eat it but I don’t go that route. Sometimes it’s a bit like lucky dip. Cook it and then see if it works when you break your fast. Risky! But if it all goes pear shaped there’s always Deliveroo.

The last part of the trad Iftar is Borek – it’s a bit like somosa but long and cylindrical like mince meat filled cigars. I’ve got the mince ready with some peas and diced potatoes. A dash of cumin and some parsley. I’m all sorted and then husband decides he wants to help. It becomes a bit ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth’. Add to that a hungry caffeine withdrawing Algerian and then the tea towel gets it as it flies through the air.

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I am amazed at my response. I say, quietly and composed,  the words ‘calm down’ instead of what would normally come from my mouth at such times. I am quite impressed if not also taken aback. Maybe it’s Ramadan already having an impact. But the whole tea towel incident takes 20 minutes off my plans to be the ultimate housewife with a perfect table laid for iftar. Instead it’s a made rush and it’s all a bit chaotic. The thing at Ramadan is to make the table look appealing and ready. A time to celebrate breaking the fast every day. Mine is a bit lastminute.com.

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8.35 p.m – Time to break the fast. I taste the date and a rush of flavour comes to my mouth. It’s delicious. I know it’s bizarre to admit but I remember my time on the Bear Grylls Island last year or rather coming off it after 25 days of no food other than some occasional fish and coconuts.

I couldn’t quite stomach coconuts after day 2 on the island and I still can’t even stand the smell of them. All my cocoa butter lotions and potions have remained untouched for the last 12 months.

The flavour blast in my mouth, after no flavour whatsoever on the island, from eating a pineapple was incredible.

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We pray the Magrib (evening) prayer and by then all thoughts of tea towels aerial displays are forgotten. And yes the shorba is appreciated even with the Majji addition. I confess to that addition as if I’m on Come Dine With Me.

Coffee is drunk in copious amounts and all is well in the world.

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10 p.m – It’s time to walk to the mosque for the late night prayers – taraweh – said in congregation during Ramadan. It’s the first day of the fast and so the mosque is packed. Taraweh prayer deserves a whole blog on it’s own. But for now suffice to say it’s that time of year again when we stand next to strangers in whatever floor space you can find. The whole prayer time takes about an hour with the aim of the imam completing the entire 30 chapters of the Qu’ran by the end of Ramadan. Whatever anyone says, it’s a practise in stamina and standing for an hour with intermittent bowing and kneeling after a whole day of fasting. After the first 10 minutes you get into a rhythm. By the end of it I leave feeling like a champion for making it to the end. My feet are throbbing. But it also helps digest all the food you’ve just eaten. I often think Islam does have some logical practises – fast, then eat then prayer – in that order works for making you feel kind of put together.

Walking home just before midnight in the dark streets crowded with other worshippers makes it feel like community. I feel part of something. I also feel less full.

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Acclimatising – Day One Fast

A new routine for the month begins today. It’s only when you commit yourself to a journey like this that you realise how powerful your own mind is in controlling what you do. On the one hand my mind is focused, determined, full of resolve and hopeful. On the other hand another part of my brain is conjuring thoughts of self-doubt, fear and even wishing the month over. I’m going to be brutally honest.

This is without a doubt a test of will-power, self-discipline and of also confronting yourself.

No morning coffee. The husband, who is Algerian, is already having a sleep to get over the caffeine withdrawal headache he is dealing with. He’s a hardcore coffee drinker – the stronger the better. For me, there’s no headache because I don’t actually physically drink as much as he does but it’s the habit of making that coffee that I’m missing. The act of switching on the kettle, choosing the drinking vessel – which mug with which quote to fit with which mood – and then is it going to be be instant or filter?

With none of that going on, there’s more time. Time to do the things you avoid doing because you are procrastinating and then escaping to make a brew instead. Or fooling yourself that you are actually working, hunched over your laptop on a coffee shop.

When you take away all those practises that actually stop you from being productive, working and focusing – what is left? Just the work itself.

But fasting during Ramadan isn’t just a body thing. It’s very much a spiritual thing. An act of worship and also one of the five pillars of Islam.

You find that during this month, even the most lapse of Muslims during the remainder of the year, will take part in the fasting of Ramadan. For them as it is for the more devout, it’s unmissable. You just don’t even consider not fasting and being part of it.

It’s already 2pm and I’m feeling fine. Not hungry. Not thirsty. Not even tired.

The Plan:

  1. I’m going to try to get as much of the Qu’ran read as I can. I’ve never read the entire Qu’ran during Ramadan. Many people finish it multiple times during this month. So I’m going to make a commitment to read it every day and to get a decent way into it. That starts today. So today, I’ll begin and spend time to read, reflect and connect. I have always found it deeply spiritual to pray and read whilst in a state of fasting.
  2. I’m going to cook (scary) but yes it’s that time of googling all those North African recipes out there and getting my Shorba, Harira and Boreks at their peak. Kitchen is sparkly clean and ready for my North African cooking adventure.
  3. Blogging my way through this Ramadan so I can share, discuss and learn with brothers and sisters the experience and journey we are on.

Farewell to the Desert Foxes and their Fantastic Fans

Farewell to the Desert Foxes and their Fantastic Fans

The farewell from Algerian national football coach to the fans and the tearful hugs for his team. Vahid Halilhodzic did an amazing job and let’s hope he stays. Bravo team, bravo.

Iftar and the Algeria Germany match

Iftar and the Algeria Germany match

Football and Fasting

The Match We Have All Been Waiting For

The Match We Have All Been Waiting For

The Algerian national team’s coach, Bosnian Vahid Halilhodzic is angry with the constant questions regarding which players within his team will be fasting. I am curious as to why everyone is fixated with that. I am also surprised to hear that he has received criticisms against him personally. I was reading the post by David Ornstein on the BBC online Sport pages.

“Ramadan is here and I read in some Algerian newspapers criticisms about me, about my image, about my honour. They are trying to raise hatred against Vahid, against my family, and this is really disgusting.”

Of course it was one of the things we all anticipated if Algeria, the only Arab/North African country go forward at this years World Cup in Brazil. I was watching the last match with an Algerian friend where they drew with Russia, breaking through into the last-16.  “They will be playing in Ramadan – that’s huge.’ I was thinking about the symbolism of a predominantly Muslim country playing at the World Cup during Ramadan and less the practicalities of it. My friend pointed out that we will be having Iftar watching the match.

Fasting is very much a private matter and it is also one of those acts of worship that no one else has to even know about. If you are fasting you are not displaying an outward action – it’s internal and more personal. A struggle against your own desires, habits and enforcing will power.

It is interesting that everyone is keen to know if the players will be fasting. Is it because it is deemed such an enormous feat to undertake? Particularly if you are playing sport at world level in the heat the Brazilian climate promises? It does make you wonder about human abilities. But Algeria is a relatively conservative country and some if not all of the team are observing Muslims. One thing I noticed about Algerians through friends and networks is that despite other aspects of Islam that may not be adhered to as strictly, even the five times a day prayer – fasting is observed throughout Ramadan in a steadfast manner.

And yet it is still a matter between the individual and Allah (God) as eluded to by the coach in the BBC online piece.”This is a private matter and when you ask this you lack respect and ethics,” said their coach.

Although Ramadan is mandatory for Muslims and one of the five pillars of Islam, those that are sick, and elderly are exempt and those who are pregnant, travelling or going to war are permitted to avoid it until a later time. Athletes sometimes delay their fast according to these exemptions. Not being judgemental is key and sadly Muslims can be an extremely judgemental bunch.

The coach said that it is not the first time he has had Muslim players in his team and that he leaves them free to make up their own minds. He sees it as a private spiritual matter and I have to agree.

‘It has to do with private freedom of expression.’

“Those who continue criticising our team and my actions, I think it’s shameful. But I will continue [as coach], I will continue working with this team. I’m sorry that you continue criticising what I do.
“Stop asking me about Ramadan, otherwise I will get up and leave.”

We know though that the Algerian captain, Madjid Bougherra will be fasting during Ramadan and that does not surprise me. I met him in Glasgow in 2010 and interviewed him for a film I was making about the Algerian football team. He was striking in his humility, even bringing his two little daughters for us to meet.

I was also amazed to read that the Algerian squad have been accompanied by one of Fifa’s leading experts on fasting footballers! I never knew there was such a thing! But obviously then footballers fast whilst playing matches. And they survive. It is all to do with the preparation and being careful. Something I think expensive footballers and their managers will be most aware of.

1,2,3 Viva L’Algerie and Ramadan Kareem to the team.

 

No Break From Fasting for Algerian athlete Mohamed Khaled Belabbas

Mohamed Khaled Belabbas fasting during the Olympics

Ramadhan Prep Algerian Style

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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