Wednesday, July 01, 2015

My First Iftar Experience

During the holy month of Ramadan, most Muslims participate in fasting from dawn to dusk. Exactly when depends on which sect, but it's the act of breaking the fast--Iftar--which is what's significant. In case you were wondering, Sunnis break fast at the call to evening prayer (Maghrib), while Shia break fast slightly later, after the evening prayer. As luck would have it, I was invited to participate in an iftar sponsored by the Jeddah Cultural Exchange Company (JCEC) which was hosted by a well-known businessman (and founder/chairman of JCEC). It had a rather interesting guest list (here's a link to one of their blogs), and the overall group demographics worked out to roughly 40% relatives of the host and 60% expats. So, yeah, I'm going a little outside my element on this one. Our hosts were very gracious and welcoming, and really set a positive tone for the whole night's experience.
Our Iftar meal
Now, I feel like I should point out something else about Iftar that I didn't know (and there was a lot that I didn't know): Even though the month of Ramadan is ~30 days, there are really only about 10 days in the middle of the month when you are likely to be invited to be a guest at iftar. That's because, as it was explained to me by our host, the first 10 days are for family, the next 10 are for guests, and the last 10 are for focusing on the tenets (aka the Five Pillars) of Islam. Which is to say that there is a very narrow window of opportunity, so if you are ever invited: Go!


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I went with some other Americans from the Consulate, and after we were greeted by our host, the men were shown the way to a room full of couches (at least six in a U-shape) to the left of the foyer while my colleague's wife disappeared somewhere else for the rest of the evening with the other women. Since we were one of the earlier groups, we got to pick where we sat...but I can see how arriving later would have allowed for us to pick who we sat next to.
I figured this out when a man that I didn't know, yet who was clearly respected by everyone in the group, ended up sitting beside me. Turns out that he is Sadig Malki, Ph.D., author of Reductionism, Globalization and Faith. I got a signed paper copy, and it's worth the one dollar to download it on Kindle/pdf.

As for the seating arrangements, in front of each of the couches were small tables bearing an array of dates, water, laban (a dairy drink that was like watered down skim milk), and Zamzam water. The treats sat there taunting us as no one can eat until the fast is broken...and it would be gauche for a non-fasting person to eat in front of someone who is still fasting. Gradually, more guests arrived and the conversation started picking up. One of the guests was a German architect who had lived in Jeddah for roughly three decades, so the conversation drifted into discussions about traditional Hijazi architecture. Which really is fascinating, and an incredibly rare style since Jeddah is one of the few places you can still find real-world examples (in Al-Balad). The conversation also veered into discussions about community and the general lack of any discernible local traffic laws or planning.

Shortly after every seat was filled (they had to bring out another couch to accommodate all the guests and family members), the call to prayer went out and, since the group is Sunni, the fast could now be broken. While breaking fast, we discussed how good the dates were. The sugared ones were super sticky, but very delicious, and there was also a peanut-based sauce (like something you might get with Thai food) that paired perfectly with the sweet dates and somehow made it taste even better. I mean, I never would have though of combining peanut and sugary date flavors, but WOW. Try it. I sampled every one of the dates, but apparently I was only supposed to eat three dates per the traditional practice. Oops. But I guess I wasn't fasting either, so it's kind of a wash. That brown jug in the picture is what the Zamzam water came in.
Those white plates started off filled with dates.
You can see what's left of the peanut sauce
in the small bowl on the lower left 
While our hosts were participating in the evening prayer, I noticed that they had been joined by our driver and some of the other service staff. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but it's my understanding that among our hosts were several prominent members of Jeddah society...yet during prayer everyone was equal. That's quite a beautiful thing to realize.

Also, before the man who had sat down next to me during the earlier conversation got up to join in the prayer, he gave me a letter-sized piece of paper with information about what the caller to prayer says (the Azan):
After prayer, the group moved into the dining room. Which was quite large. The picture below doesn't do it justice but it was quite the spread. There were soups, breads, samosas, fruits, and the best tomatillo salsa-like dip I've had in Saudi Arabia.
Those little silver bowls held the "salsa."
I ate every last drop out of mine.
The dinner conversation ranged all over the place, from vacations in Maldives to where you can see lions in South Africa, to where alligators and crocodiles live, and also how best to back up photos you take with your phone. Dinner was followed by some hot tea and more conversation. Then everyone started taking group photos, switching out smartphones with one photographer so that everyone would get a picture on their own phone. I waited until someone emailed me the best one.
Behind us on the left is where we sat first,
then we moved into the dining room on the right.
Bonus random weird thing I saw for the first time in Jeddah: This giant lobster climbing a building.
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