Ramadan in Algeria

Don’t you love when blog posts begin with an apology for how long it’s been since the last post? Me neither.

So let’s jump right in! New things: I am vaccinated against COVID. I got my second Moderna vaccine recently and boy was I sick after that second shot. Just miserable. I suppose it’s a small price to pay.

I celebrated my 37th birthday earlier this month. (For a look back at how fast time goes, here’s a blog post from my 29th birthday just after we left Yemen: Four Nights in Nice, and from my 31st birthday while we were living in Spain: To Have a Great Birthday, Do These Five Things). Adam bought me a peacock chair that was handmade in Algeria and I absolutely love it.

The chair brought our patio one step closer to having the Moroccan riad vibes of my dreams. (Full patio and yard reveal soon, but the area is in need to some paint touch-up and I have a trashed furniture improvement project in the works…) Turns out in Algeria, and I suppose in other French-speaking countries, this type of chair is sometimes called an “Emmanuel” chair after a French soft-core porno from the 1970s. The movie poster for the film features an actress sitting topless upon a similar wicker chair. (Look it up, and also read the movie description because it sounds A+ steamy and it’s going on my to-watch list. French practice, oui?) Anyways, Adam continues to kill it with his gift-giving. Last year was when he commissioned me a portrait of us at our boho bar (with our cats, of course). I also asked for a hike for my birthday this year, as I was feeling cooped up what with never having any nature walks. This resulted in us going to a city a few hours from Algiers and indeed having a mountain hike, although it wasn’t quite what we had pictured. (That’s for another blog post. It was an adventure!)

What really made this past month a memorable one was that it was Ramadan here in Algeria. (And in all of the Muslim world). We’ve been in Muslim countries before for Ramadan, and while there was a very special sunset iftar on the Atlantic Ocean in Rabat, we have never quite experienced Ramadan as we did this year. (Because of COVID, Ramadan in Algeria last year was subdued and not very social). Ramadan is a holiday that celebrates, according to Islam, when the Prophet Mohammad was visited by the angel Gabriel who revealed to him what would be the beginning of the Qu’ran. It’s a month of fasting which means no liquid of any kind — no water, coffee, or tea — no smoking, and no food from sunup to down down every day for a month. The fasting is meant to foster spirituality, reflection, and community. From what I saw, Muslims who observe Ramadan mostly majorly disrupt their normal schedules during the month. Many will wake up pre-sunrise at 4am for breakfast, coffee, and lots of water, stay up a while, and then go back to sleep some time during the day but wake back up for the nighttime iftar (which means “break fast” but it’s dinner) and then stay up very late, being sure to eat more and to drink lots in prep for another day of fasting.

I didn’t fast. Although I had some intentions of doing it once or twice, I just never could have the strength to eschew my morning coffee. But I did attend a number of iftars. Most were work-related, which for us meant dinners with young, smart, impressive Algerians, including journalists, film directors, entrepreneurs, and high school and university students who would knock your socks off with their drive and good ideas. We also had a friends iftar in an old house in the Casbah, and it was a lovely time – up on the terrace, setting sun over the Bay of Algiers, a meal, bitter black tea to wash down honey-soaked, cinnamon-dusted phyllo dough rolls, and dancing and live music down below.

Adam convinced me that we should host an iftar at our house for participants of the prestigious Fulbright program, which funds graduate studies in the U.S. for people all over the world. I was a little hesitant. Just as I never felt right hosting a Passover seder when we lived in Jerusalem. I’m not Muslim, and isn’t an iftar kind of a religious thing? But we convinced ourselves that there are a whole month of these dinners so one out of 30 could be a little unorthodox and besides, because our guests had all lived in the U.S. for a time, they might appreciate the American vibes. And American food. Still, I knew enough by then to see that every Algerian iftar had to have certain things: Dates and milk to break the fast; a meat and vegetable soup called chorba; crispy fried (often meat-filled) cigars called bourek; a meat and carb main course; and so many desserts, including fresh fruit, and both Middle Eastern and European style desserts. It is a lot of food and Algerians eat mostly the same thing every night for all 30 nights. As many Algerians told me “It’s like having Thanksgiving every night for a month.” The tone with which someone says this is dependent on whether they’re doing all the planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning or if they’re merely doing the eating.

I wasn’t going to do a traditional Algerian menu for our iftar because I don’t eat or serve meat and because I thought folks might want a change-up. But I wanted to keep most of the same ideas. Tbh, I’m not really sure how these “cheeky nods” to tradition went over.

First, I made a date-banana-tahini-yogurt shake as a stand in for the dates and milk starter. I made a pumpkin soup with croutons and fried sage instead of chorba (I mean, do people really want the same soup for 30 days?). I made a big green veggie-loaded salad with homemade Ranch dressing, and that always seems to be a hit, as Algerians like the story of Ranch – that it’s basically the number two condiment of all Americans. Also, salads in Algeria tend to be just lettuce, an olive, some shredded carrot, and a drizzle of olive oil, so I thought a creamy, herby dressing was a nice change and more in line with my philosophy that salads can be wonderful, filling, and memorable. The main course was a buttery garlic and shrimp pasta, which would have been shrimp scampi style but I know enough to have not risked using white wine in a dish to serve during a religious Muslim holiday. Do you know how long it took me to peel four pounds of fresh Algerian shrimp for this dish? (Sidenote: When I was last in Washington DC, Adam’s mom knew of my rediscovered love for shrimp and she kept the fridge stocked with the plumpest, cleanest cooked shrimp you’ve ever seen. I told her “Oh my gosh, that must have been so much work, peeling, and cleaning and de-veining all these shrimp!” She said “No, they came like that.” And I said “Still, you had to cook them!” and she was like “No, Emily, they come exactly like this. All ready to go. Side of cocktail sauce and everything.” Ah, America). For desert, along with tea, and fresh strawberries, I made an American classic: Brownies. But I hate to bake and thus I’m bad at it, and they came out very flat. But they still all got eaten and here’s another thing about hosting an iftar: People will bring you more desserts than a group of 20 could ever consume over a week. It’s truly an outrageous amount of sweets.

This was quite likely the first dinner party I’ve ever hosted where we did not serve wine. And still it was a really good time and all the guests, most of whom didn’t know each other, become progressively more chatty during the course of the meal, so it’s possible that, like wine, sharing a meal also has a loosening up effect on people.

Anyways, it was a really special time for us, this past Ramadan, getting to participate in so many iftars. And to even host one. And come on: A holiday that is centered on having a big dinner party every night for a whole month? That is my kind of holiday.

Saha Ramandkum!

Emily

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