The Ramadhan Diaries

Fasting in London and beyond

Archive for the tag “taraweh”

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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Exercising fasters

Today was a bit different. The plan was to film with Muslims who are fasting and exercising. I had got permission to film with a gym in East London, dedicated to training wrestlers but runs classes in other disciplines. It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

The gym is called the Legion gym, named after the infamous French fighting force, known for it’s sheer toughness. The gym is run by Dr Amir Islami, a half Iranian half Uzbek origin British GP. His father was in the 1970s the national wrestling champion for Britain and Iran. Those were the golden days of wrestling in the UK. It was not just all about Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy. The amateur circuit was a different bag.

So today I went to this Rocky-style gym – it had opened up this evening to allow for an extra training session in the evening before fast opening. People came for a wrestling training session one hour before Maghreb – the sunset prayer and the time for opening the fast. Today was also the hottest I believe all year. It was certainly very warm. One of the wrestlers was a British man of Chechen origin, who also had won a Bronze medal in the Olympic pre-trials – but sadly had not been selected for paperwork reasons to be allowed to represent the UK at the Olympics. He took the warm-up. I was astounded by what I saw. At least 7 of the 10 men were Muslims who were fasting – but by the effort they were using in their warm up of amazing acrobatics and contortionist neck exercises you would never have been able to guess who the fasters and non-fasters were. Even the father Dr Amir was there – now 75 years old, fasting and still thrashing himself around the gym, training and wrestling with young men – some 3/4 his age. At a break in between training, the coach suggested those that could drink, go for a sip of water, but I noticed no-one left the room. Some default abstinence there I believe. It’s that respect thing again.

I went off and ran on a treadmill for about 15 minutes, did some weights and then cycled on an exercise bike. I was exhausted and very hot. More than a drink I wanted to just jump into an ice cold swimming pool. At the end of the training session, it was time to break the fast. Fasters and non-fasters alike shared dates and water bottles. One the guys training, another son of the now 75 year old wrestler is a personal trainer – he had been doing his job of personal training today and had then come for the training session. It was immense. I have no idea how. When he broke his fast, he spoke about the blessings of being to have water to drink when other’s out there don’t have any.

Then the fasters gathered next to the boxing ring on the mats for the sunset prayer of Maghreb and those that were not Muslim hung around chilling out on the mats, drinking water.

If you want to know more about the Legion Gym – grab a look here:

http://www.legion-wrestling.com/timetable

I left the gym to attend the taraweh prayer – but as I left it I read the quote on it’s walls:

‘Champions are not born but carved from stone.’

 

The optional extras you can’t resist – Taraweh prayers

When I was younger and first getting to grips with Islam and Ramadan I remember thinking how challenging the month long fast was. Not just the fasting itself but everything else that went with it. The thing that got me was the extra prayer after the last prayer of the day. There is a lot of praying going on. So not only do you not eat all day, but in the hours when you are allowed to eat, you then have an optional extra of set of prayers – called taraweh – to think about doing. Now these prayers are not compulsory, like the five times a day obligatory one but they are popular and people do flock to the mosques after eating to pray them.

It was whilst I was living in Edinburgh and immersing myself in the Ramadan experience fully – not just the detached ritual of not eating during daylight hours – that I began to partake in the extra night prayers. During this time, mosques scour the land and overseas for their favourite reciters, people who can recite huge chunks of the Qu’ran by heart and say it with the conviction, the stamina and the beauty that captivates the listener. In Edinburgh, two reciters from Saudi Arabia were annually brought in and they filled the mosque. I kid you not, it really was standing room only on any tiny spot of mosque ground you could find. I was amazed and then a bit embarrassed by how much of a light weight I had been in previous years of never making it to these extra prayers. During these thrifty days, the entire Qu’ran – all 30 chapters of it will be recited during these taraweh prayers. It’s quite a feat and becomes immensely moving.

Now I am going to a local little mosque near to where I am currently staying just outside east London. The mosque itself is in a house, which has expanded and is growing. It has become a hub. The men prayer outside in what would be the garden, under tarpaulin and some sort of temporary overhead cover. The women have the little semi-detached house, with an extra overspill outside under more tarpaulin. But praying outside is lovely – it’s refreshing. It reminds me of being out in Sarajevo, when I went to pray in the cutest little mosque I had ever seen. It dated back to Ottoman times and had a little balcony outside that we prayed on, with a gentle thunder storm rolling behind us. It was one of those moments imprinted and that I would love to repeat.

Praying under my little tarpaulin overhead cover in Essex is not quite Sarajevo but if I close my eyes, focus on the prayer being recited and feel the cool breeze in the night air on my skin, I could be anywhere.

If I am painting a very spiritually idyllic picture, let me bring in some realities. The crowd control can be a problem, the stampede for a space can result in the most unholiest of exchanges and in the years gone by this mosque also used to have it’s share of ‘hijabis in hoodies kind of groupies’ – the young ones that used to come for the chat and the hanging around. Used to annoy me beyond belief especially after having convinced my lazier self to drag myself there. I often ended up me telling them to shut up so that the women could focus on the prayers and not their chat about their day or their latest crush. One evening I stopped my prayer to stand with them, glowering over them to keep their voices down, as the other’s prayed. This year it’s quiet on the chat front but the space issue still exists. My mum, who is a little unsteady on her feet, uses a chair to prayer instead of standing all the way through and yet women around her kept hustling her to move over, even though it’s quite visibly obvious she is unsteady. Things like this make me wonder at the compassion, the charity and the peace that Ramadan is supposed to invoke. I then get angry and don’t engage with the community – live in my self imposed exile from it. A collection of these experiences has traditionally kept me away from group gatherings in prayer congregations, but for some reason this year I am embracing it again. I am trying a new approach to Ramadan and the night prayers are part of this. I always come back with a bit more of an appetite and a little less sluggish. So it is working for me.

It seems to be working. There are things I love about the taraweh prayer. I love when I am driving to the mosque, I can see individuals or small groups of people either walking to the mosques or leaving, in the surrounding streets leading. Men in white long robes called thobes and little caps. They don’t only wear just this, but when you see this outfit you kind of know where they are going or have been. For me it’s a peaceful image – someone who has just spent an hour in spiritual contemplation and prayer after a day of fasting and yet for many in the UK, the image of a Muslim ‘dressed as a Muslim’ has invoked fear and suspicion.

The mosque is heaving, and when the prayers are over people stream out. It seems bizarre to see such a large group of people coming out of a building, heading for their cars around midnight when the rest of the street are indoors and all the shops are closed. There is a quiet buzz – people are too tired to be boisterous and it’s not that kind of vibe. There is also a lovely smell of musk hanging in the air – people tend to use musk as a perfume including men. It smells so clean, so soft and just reminds me of taraweh prayers every time.

The other night when I was trying to find a place to park – I was late getting in to taraweh – a man who had just left the pub around the corner was weaving across the pavement and then decided to get into the road in front of my car. It was an awkward moment – the mosque with groups of men leaving, a drunk man staggering in the road wondering what on earth the crowds of people were all about. Was it a rave?  And who on earth where those people bowing and kneeling inside? Then there was me driving at 2 mph behind him – giving it some road rage. I am not sure who the men in white thobes were most amused by – me being angry or the staggering man.

 

 

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