Ramadan comes once a year for Muslims around the world, but this month-long holiday comes with an experience that shouldn’t be missed by persons of any religion. Breaking fast, or Iftar, brings it with it not only religious implications, but family time, smiles, laughter and delicious food, especially in Oman.
We pull off the highway about 25 minutes from downtown Muscat and into a small neighbourhood of Arabic-influenced buildings that sit in front of the Hajar Mountains. It’s quiet, and the heat from the sun above is overbearing, but lucky for me I’m not the one fasting, and the water I had drunken before leaving the hotel keeps my thirst at bay, my friend Yahya, however, hasn’t had a drop of water since the night before. “Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God), after fasting for so many years you get used to it,” he says with a grin plastered across his dark chocolate face, “now it’s just the norm.”
We’re at Yahya’s house for iftar (breaking fast), and during the holy month of Ramadan this daily celebration is a chance for families to praise their god, share time together and replenish the body with all the nutrients that were lost throughout the day. And in Oman, a country where the temperatures during the summer months rarely drop below 40 degrees Celsius, the replenishing of nutrients is not only important, but delicious.
… in Oman, a country where the temperatures during the summer months rarely drop below 40 degrees Celsius, the replenishing of nutrients is not only important, but delicious.
For those unfamiliar, the month-long celebration of Ramadan comes once a year during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and is the holiest of Islamic holidays. During Ramadan, which is derived from the Arabic word ramida or ar-ramad meaning scorching heat, Muslims are required to fast from sun-up to sun-down with very few exceptions (those being pregnancy, illness, long journeys, breastfeeding and other medical conditions). The purpose behind the holiday is to show recognition of the first transmission of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad, and for people to absolve themselves of sins that occurred in the previous year — to start anew. Here in Oman, Ramadan brings with it certain regulations that aren’t in swing during the rest of the year: work lasts only until two in the afternoon, eating, drinking and smoking in public is forbidden during fasting hours, and shops remain closed throughout a majority of the day. Streets are quiet, and there is a subdued nature about much of the country, but that all changes when iftar arrives, and lucky for me, I’m here at Yahya’s home to get a taste of it up close and personal.
We walk through the door and are immediately greeted by two wide-eyed and bouncing children. They reach up and give me high fives despite having just met me, before their energy is hushed by their father Yahya. “The kids don’t fast,” he laughs, “and this is what happens!” He opens a door to the guest room, which he explains to me is meant to be the nicest of rooms in any Omani house, and from what I can tell without having seen the other rooms, it seems as such. Marble floor is enshrined by sparsely decorated walls that feature one or two framed Quran verses, a wooden rocking horse rests idly in the corner, and elaborately designed couches run along each of the two walls. Yahya tells me that in Oman, tradition has it that when a stranger comes to the home for the first time, he will normally sit with the head of the household in the guest room while the women will gather in another room, but this time his wife isn’t just relaxing in the other room, she’s focusing on getting the iftar meal together. “I’d let you meet her, but I think she would yell at me because the kitchen is probably upside down with all the cooking she’s doing right now,” he laughs, “but soon enough we’ll all sit down and break fast together. Patience.”
Over the course of the next hour or so, Yahya’s children rumble into the room several times to play with my camera, knock about on the rocking horse, or to try their work-in-progress English, but when they’re busy in the other room watching the cartoons that flood so many households across the world like ‘Tom and Jerry’ and ‘The Pink Panther,’ Yahya and I carry on in our conversation. We discuss everything from religion, to sport, to politics, to food and so forth, and as our conversation seemingly could have gone on unbothered all evening, iftar, it is announced, is ready.
“Whatever you want, you take,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much, or how little, just eat.”
We make our way to the table and I finally meet the maestro from the kitchen, Yahya’s wife Mariam. “Sorry it took so long,” she apologises, not realising that it is I who should be apologising for coming into her home, eating her food, and generally antagonising her children to the point that more energy is pumping through them than a supercar. And as I sit down, iftar is served. Sweet melon, beef and chicken samosas, watermelon, small Omani pastries with local honey, dates with cinnamon syrup, fish salad, yoghurt, and fruit juice are set up across the table long-ways, and lost in hunger, I don’t know where to start. Yahya, catching on to my ignorant confusion, instructs me as to what normally happens. First a handful of dates, dipped in cinnamon syrup, and yoghurt to wash them down. This is normally followed by fish salad, everything is eaten by hand by the way, and then it’s a free-for-all, “Whatever you want, you take,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how much, or how little, just eat.”
As we eat, we chat about everything, and what you notice in Oman is that there is an openness inherent in the people here. The West is so often bombarded with the idea that the Middle East is a land where inequality is rife, women are second-class, and generally, life is bleak — but sitting down with Yahya’s family has taken that narrative and flipped it on his head. He encourages me to ask his wife, and his sister-in-law who is also breaking fast with us, about the life of women in Oman, the wearing of headscarves, and anything else that I can muster. They respond with smiles and laughs and explanations that confound in their simplicity — it becomes all too clear through all of this that somebody has gotten it wrong, and it isn’t the Omanis.
They respond with smiles and laughs and explanations that confound in their simplicity—it becomes all too clear through all of this that somebody has gotten it wrong, and it isn’t the Omanis.
Having iftar with Yahya and his family, it is easy to see why Ramadan is such a special month for Muslims around the world. Evenings are rung in with family who are enjoying the rewards of a day of religious piousness together, smiles and laughter is constant, and the filling of bellies is unavoidable — so unavoidable in fact, that it seems I have overfilled myself before I should have. “When will you be ready for dinner?” Mariam asks. “Dinner? I thought that was dinner,” I respond. She laughs and tells me that what we just ate was only to break fast, to revitalise our bodies, and that we will still need to eat dinner later on so that we’re full for the next day of fasting. I’m not fasting tomorrow, but I can’t argue with logic, and so we while away another hour or so in conversation before I feel that I can even barely take in more of Mariam’s fantastic cooking.
After stuffing myself even more at dinner, spending more hours locked in conversation and laughter, and teaching and learning games from Yahya’s two energetic children, it’s finally time for me to be on my way. It’s 11 at night now, my belly is full to the point that even the subtlest of movements sets off alarms of gastric worry, and I make my way out to the car with Yahya and his wife so that they can take me back to my seaside sanctuary at The Chedi Muscat. We arrive and I thank them profusely for all that they’ve shared with me, and for the opportunity that they afforded me in experiencing the breaking of fast with a local Omani family. They only laugh and smile and nod, as they’ve done all night, and before I know it, they are off.
Iftar is a special ceremony here in this incredibly diverse landscape, and as I make my way back to my room, I catch myself wondering if I’ll fast next year, just so that I can truly experience of breaking it in all its glory — the feeling of food and liquid coating my throat for the first time after a day of desert living would be sublime — but who am I kidding, I was born to eat. One thing is for sure though, next time I’m invited to iftar with an Omani family, the answer will be an immediate yes, and that time I’ll know better than to wreck my belly before the late dinner—the food, smiles, laughs and togetherness are all just too much to turn down.
(Featured image: Iftar is served with sweet melon, chicken and beef samosas, Omani pastries with local honey, dates and cinnamon syrup, watermelon, yoghurt and fish salad. A meal to replenish after Ramadan fasting from sun-up to sun-down, iftar meals such as these are common in households across Oman.)