Under the New Moon: of fasts and foods

Posted on August 7, 2011

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A new moon always brings new and exciting things. This week, it heralded the start of the holy month of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. I was standing on a rooftop in Rayer Bazaar, surrounded by a group of amazing young Bangladeshis volunteering at the Jaago Foundation, when word came that the new moon had been sighted.

Ramadan occurs in the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and, as in many Muslim countries, a government body is allocated to watch the night sky and declare religious events depending on the waxing and waning of the moon. Ramadan will last for 30 days, and is a month of spiritual reflection. It is also a month of fasting, abstinence and additional prayers.

It is a beautiful and exciting time to be living in an Islamic country. Nearly 90% of the population of Bangladesh are Muslim – it’s a central part of life here and Dhaka itself is known as the City of Mosques.

Ironically enough, as an outsider, Ramadan has been all about food for me. While I can’t eat in public during the day (all the restaurants and cha stalls are curtained off to mask the smells and sights), I can’t help but let my mouth water at the markets and Iftar stands lining the streets. The roads and alleys have become a vivid feast of bargaining and celebration as people prepare to break their fast at the end of the day (known as Iftar).

From around 3.30pm, the streets begin to froth with rickshaws and cars as everyone rushes to get home to prepare for the evening feast. From around 6pm, the flavours of the Iftar stands begin to waft through the city and crowds gather to savour the delicious tastes and celebrate the end of the fast. After 7pm, it’s quite astonishing to peer out my window and see the strangely empty streets of Dhaka under the new moon. During Ramadan, people stay inside to spend time with family and pray – it’s like being in a different place!

The fasting is taken very seriously – even water is forbidden. The process of fasting is encouraged to cleanse the body and remember the hunger of the poor. In Bangladesh, where almost half of the population are living in poverty and the divide between rich and poor is severe, hunger is a significant daily problem. During Ramadan, food prices rise dramatically making it a struggle for many to afford food. However, Ramadan also encourages giving and many people offer generous ‘baksheesh’ (charitable tips) to beggars and the countless ‘service’ people who make this country run – people like the building managers, rubbish collectors, rickshaw-wallahs, office cooks and building cleaners.

Dates are often the first food taken to break the fast – piles and piles of juicy dates lie in crates alongside the street. Other Iftar foods include fried sweets like gulab jamen, pastries stuffed with meats and spices, and lentil cakes and salads. Below is a picture of my dinner tonight – fresh from the Iftar street stall! It’s spiced lentils (very spiced!) with cucumber, tomato, coriander and chilli. Delicious.

Ramadan ends with Eid-al-Fitr, where people dress in their best clothes, visit their families in the villages, share gifts and decorate their homes.

The Washington Post also has this fantastic photo slide of people celebrating Ramadan around the world.

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