As a child growing up in Goa, studying in a predominantly Christian school, Ramadan (or Ramzan as it is called back home) never really made its presence felt. I had a vague understanding of the day-long fasting aspect - grasped from a couple of Muslim classmates who had once mentioned the pre-dawn meal (suhour) although I didn't know what it was called at the time. But beyond that, I was pretty much ignorant of what Ramadan involved and remained so until I moved to the UAE.
But having lived in a Muslim country for close to seven years now, it is still a revelation to see how much Ramadan actually affects every single aspect of life for those who practice it. And personally to see it evolve - from my first impression of it being a pretty restrictive period for those of us who don't have to fast (created mainly by overzealous warnings of "Don't be seen eating or sipping water in the street", "Don't chew gum, you will be fined" and "You won't be able to eat a hot meal in the office for an entire month") to my current impression of the season - one marked by convivial iftars with friends and colleagues, generous boxes of dates being passed around on hearing the adhan, and long evenings filled with sheesha and good company at all those incredibly social suhours.
So, in the spirit of the season which starts in a couple of days, here are some of my favourite Ramadan memories over the years.
Glimpses of khao galli in Mumbai (2004)
The year before I moved to the Middle East, I had my first taste of the transformatory aspects of Ramzan. As a student living in South Mumbai, I would sometimes take a bus from Marine Lines (where I lived) to Lovelane in Mazagaon to visit family. The bus route went along Mohammed Ali Road and through Bhendi Bazaar - a predominantly Muslim area of town - and on one trip during Ramzan, I was stunned to see how the whole area had come completely alive. There were people praying on mats on the road, green fairylights and lanterns strung over the mosque, streets and buildings and a line of food stalls (khao galli) that had cropped up to feed the fasting thousands crammed onto the street. Needless to say, traffic was slow, which meant an excellent opportunity to observe the celebrations.
Fasting and feasting in the UAE (2005-2012)
I moved to the UAE in summer, during Ramadan, and the transition couldn't have come as a greater shock to the system. Moving from Goa in the midst of the monsoons - green, wet and lush, to Dubai - searing hot and filled with ominous warnings about not being caught with a bottle of water in my hand - seemed strange to say the least, especially as the complete day-time fast is not imposed in India as it is in the UAE.
But the next year was completely different; inspired to keep the company of a friend at work who was practising the fast, it meant a whole new perspective on Ramadan. From watching the adhan go off a minute earlier everyday, to driving down to Safa Park (and once even to Sharjah!) to hear the canons fire, to numerous iftars and suhours with friends - living in the UAE has changed the way I view Ramadan and granted me a great deal of respect for those fasting all through the month.
Guts and guns in Oman (2006 & 2007)
I've spent the eve of Eid and Eid itself in Oman on two separate occasions and they are both trips I'll always remember. From attempting a road trip on a near empty stomach (let's just say there were a lot of bananas and packets of crisps
hastily eaten in the back of the car), to watching a goat and a cow being disembowelled for the Eid feast (if you can't handle a visit to the butcher you would be advised not to drive around rural Oman on the morning of Eid!), being invited to share the Eid meals of almost every Omani family we drove past (and then randomly consenting to join two tottering old guards outside Bahla Fort while they ate their simple Eid spread of dates, bananas and wheat porridge) and wondering if the festive gun firings on the eve of Eid may spell the end for those of us who'd very smartly decided to camp out in the open in the Omani interior - they are some of the best memories I have of Ramadan in the Middle East.
Dusk and dawn meals in Beirut (2011)
Last summer, I joined my best friend for a long weekend in her home town of Beirut. As the period of my trip coincided with that of Ramadan, it was fascinating to see a family preparing for iftar and suhour at home. Everyone helped make the food (without actually tasting any of it!) and daughters, sons-in-law, cousins and aunts came together to celebrate. From an absolutely delicious iftar spread laid out by my friend's mum, to an actual early morning suhour in an Ottoman-style tea garden (as opposed to the more commercial late-night versions I'd been to before at hotels in the UAE) - Ramadan in Lebanon was an amazing experience.
I'm pretty sure this Ramadan will bring its own share of great experiences and memories. To all my Muslim friends who've included me in their celebrations over the years, and all those observing the season, Ramadan Kareem!
Here's the first of what I hope will be many Plateplotter posts. The concept of this post is what first got me thinking about starting a blog because this is pretty much how I plan my holidays - I think about what I want to eat and what I want to see, and then create an itinerary that lets me do both.
So...if I had 24 hours in Lebanon's bewitching capital, this is exactly how I'd spend it:
9am: Morning man'oushe
Sprinkled with zesty za'atar, melt-in-your mouth man'oushe (manakeesh if you are planning on eating more than one, which you probably will) is a great way to get your carb fix before a day of wandering around Beirut. Although I prefer them straight out the oven from one of the city's many traditional bakeries, for atmosphere with my morning man'oushe I'd head to Al Falamanki in Achrafieh. Apparently one of the city's most popular cafes, I stumbled on it entirely by accident and extremely hungry - which made my meal there so much more satisfying. The place is huge, but the fact that it's made up of numerous rooms leading one into the other makes it seem very cosy. The strange collection of knick-knacks, from fezes to antique mirrors, cigarette cases and ouds, makes it an interesting place to start the day.
In and around the area: Mohammad Al Amin Mosque, Al Omari Mosque, Rafik Hariri's Mausoleum, Martyr's Square.
11am: Limon nana at Place de l' Etoile
A tall glass of quenching lemon with mint is the perfect pick-me-up after a couple of hours of staring at shot-at statues and slender minarets. Beirut's bustling central square (well, less a square more an intersection of several streets, hence the name - Place de L' Etoile - which refers to the street's star-shaped formation) is full of great cafes to grab a drink and people watch. It's bang in the heart of what was bombed out Beirut and is now the much discussed Solidere district. Yes it all looks a bit too shiny but I love walking around the area. It's one of those places that always glows in that peculiar way only cities lit by Mediterranean light do.
In and around the area: The Roman Baths, the notorious Holiday Inn Beirut - a massive reminder of Beirut's only too recent war-ravaged past.
2pm: A home-cooked meal
If you are lucky enough to have Beiruti friends and they invite you to their homes for a meal, say yes! If you think the food in the city's restaurants is super fresh and tastes like real food should, the home-cooked version is ten times better. Mezze, mujadara, fatteh, okra, kofta, molokiyah - you name it and I have pretty much eaten it or want to. Having a meal at home, so to speak, also gives you time to catch a nap before what is sure to be a long evening.
If you don't know anyone in the city, head to Laziz for a light lunch or grab a falafel from Barbar, both in Hamra, before napping away the afternoon at your hotel.
5pm: Turkish delight
Post siesta, head to Hamra street to stock up on jewellery and souvenirs. Then wander down to the Raoche stretch of the Corniche to catch the sunset at Pigeon Rocks, preferably over a tiny cup of sweet, hot Turkish coffee and perhaps some shisha at Bay Rock Cafe. Cliched I know, but I have nothing more to say other than the fact that it really is a pretty spot to watch the sun go down.
In and around the area: Hamra Street, AUB, the Corniche, Pigeon Rocks.
8pm: A traditional grill meal at Abdel Wahab
Great mezze, great grills, a buzzing atmosphere and most importantly within walking distance from Gemmayze - Beirut's bohemian, bar-packed quarter. The food at Abdel Wahab is delicious, especially the kibbeh nayyeh (think a silky, garlicky version of steak tartare mixed with burghul and topped with mint and pine nuts). A very enjoyable way to line your tummy before a night out.
In and around the area: Some of Beirut's prettiest Ottoman and French Era buildings along the windy back streets leading to the restaurant.
10pm: Bar hopping in Gemmayze
Gemmayze's bars are tiny but lively and the best way to see them is to start at one end of the street and work your way in. Settle down with a glass of Kefraya, or some aniseedy arak, listen to local jazz bands and toast Beirut. My favourite drinking holes are Godot, Bar Louie and Torino Express but you are sure to discover at least one new gem each time you visit.
In and around the area: Sursock Palace, Crystal Bar (never been, but hear it's the place to go if you want to do the whole champagne-and-sparklers routine... with very expensive magnums)
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