It is Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the month in which practicing Muslims fast during daylight hours in order to learn about and remember patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God. On my way in to work this afternoon, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about a mosque in the town next to mine. The members all eat together in the evening to break the fast, a meal called Iftar. They spoke about the sense of community that this builds and I was reminded (again) how food and the traditions around it can bring us all together. I must also point out that most religions have a holiday or other component which requires fasting. For Jews it’s Yom Kippur, for Christians it’s often around Lent.
It’s fitting since one of my students asked me last week about my life in Israel- what it was like, what I thought of the conflict in that part of the world, what I thought about my religion- it’s all been in my head since then. The short answer is that I think a lot of things about all of that. Mostly, I think it is hard to understand the conflict in a human way if you’ve never been to the Middle East and have never talked with the people who live there. When you know the people and you spend time in the area, it takes on a whole new meaning and it’s clear that no side is right. So it makes me happier to think about the things that the sides have in common- love of family, country, and good food. In fact, the food across the Middle East is both similar and unique to each country and culture. Many of the same spices can be found in the open air Arab markets as in the kolbos on the kibbutzim, they just get used slightly differently. There’s a definite flavor to Middle Eastern food that makes it Middle Eastern- to me it tastes like sun, heat, dark spices and fresh vegetables, whether it’s Israeli, Jordanian or Persian.
In listening to the story on NPR, they played a bit of the Imam’s call to prayer and I was instantly transported from rainy, cloudy route 9 East to the dark, balmy evening on the kibbutz. There are Islamic villages on either side of the kibbutz and several times a day we’d hear the call. The first time I heard it was our first morning there. Because it was so early, it was almost eerie. No one was awake and the sound was crystal clear. I didn’t know what it was and for the life of me all I could think was that someone was wandering around our flat, singing under the open windows. In time we got used to it and didn’t really hear it anymore. But each time I go back, it’s the sound that makes it feel most like home, that first morning when it wakes me up. It always makes me smile. Click here for an example of the call- it’s not Israel but it’s the same feeling.
So, where’s the recipe already? Sadly, I don’t have one. But I do want to share with you a beautiful book that has many different recipes. In fact, the Hippo and I are plotting a weekend wherein we meet at my house, have my mother watch the baby and we create several of these recipes. Aside from the mouth-watering descriptions of food, this is a gorgeous book and when I read it, I instantly felt homesick for the Middle East. Is it possible to be homesick for a place that isn’t technically your home? In any case, I can’t recommend this book enough- read it, salivate, laugh, cry and be transported to another world.