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Ramadan starts…

Some faiths take fasting as an  obligation to worship the Almighty.  In Eritrea Christians observe  several types of fasting days, Lent  being the ultimate one. Similarly  Muslims observe Ramadan once  a year. In Islam, fasting is a moral  and spiritual quality to attain the  noble status of piety.

All faithful  consider themselves very much  blessed and are grateful to make it  a lively fasting month. Ramadan is  the ninth month of the Hijri Islamic  calendar when Muslims throughout  the world fast for at most thirty days.  In these days abstaining from food  and other unlawful acts during the  day time is mandatory. In Eritrea  this month of fasting is honored and  practiced in happy ways. This year, it  is happening in the midst of the 27th  Independence Day celebrations.


“Dan-dan tsbah ya Ramadan”,  which is translated as “Dan-dan  tomorrow arrives Ramadan” is a  children’s song God knows of which  era. The first words rhyme with the  last words of Ramadan. The song  was simply introduced by children  and persistently pronounced by  the late Ferejet (an old man) on  the eve of Ramadan. This old man,  Ferejet, used to gather people in the  compound of the grand mosque in  the market and kept giving cultural  and religious sermons every year  Ramadan comes.

Friends and families share a  lot in these days. Just before the  announcement of the starting day  of Ramadan, friends and colleagues  make themselves listed in the white  list, so they can be provided with the  tasty fresh cookies of the nights. ?

Everyone longs for Ramadan.  What children expect much are the  delicious recipes typical of Ramadan  and venture in their first fasting  experience. While for the youth and  the old it is time for worship. Friends  and colleagues show sympathy to  their fasting pals. I remember, once,  my roommates in Sawa used to do  me favors from engaging myself in  work just because I was fasting; it  was a big relief.

Being a child and fasting is  exciting and also a bit challenging.  Our parents used to make us fast  only half a day and tell us God will  consider it full day of fasting. Parents  still practice this to train and prepare  their children to fasting. According  to Islamic rules, a fasting person  prevents himself from taking-in  what he likes and throwing out what  is considered disliked. While fasting,  the person’s body, the eyes, nose,  mouth, tongue, ears, and hands all  fast. Therefore, the entire body fasts,  unlike the other days. This way the  true image of a person is reflected.  So you have to be familiar with those  behaviors from childhood.

Reading the Quran in these days is  believed to be rewarding. Children  and everyone else spend time doing  so. In the day time, children might  run to and from the Islamic school  learning the Quran, and as children  will always be children, their  attentions are on each other checking  whether fellows are fasting or not.  They check each other’s tongues  trying to see if they are really fasting.  If their tongues are dry, white and  look thirsty, then they agree their  friends are fasting. If not, they mock  them and consider them one day  behind them. It is a dear memory to  me and my friends when we were  younger. It is said swallowing your  saliva would break your fast. All  we’d do the whole day, then, would  naturally be spitting every drop of  saliva forming in our mouths!

Fasting season such as Ramadan  brings many rituals and customs  outside the religion commandments.  In neighborhoods of Eritrea it is a  custom to deliver Dolshi/Meqlil (fried  sweet dough) and Sambusas (fried  conical shaped pastry filled with  meat or spices) to all neighbors some  evenings. This arises from a deep  respect that the neighbor should get a  bite of what his Muslim neighbors are  baking for their futur (breaking fast).  This habit is widely practiced, so,  by every possible chance neighbors  share their happiness with Muslim  families. Especial types of dishes are  served mainly in this period. It is a  month when the poor and the needy  get attention by all. Everyone shares  what their homes can offer.

Some women, in particular, cook  multiple dishes for futur, one for  their family and the others for the  neighbors. The days of Ramadan  are of “offering” and enhancing  relations. In schools friends expect  their Muslim friends to bring snacks  to share. That is probably why it is  becoming ordinary to see sambusa in  the shelves of pastries next to cheese  cakes and donuts. As a kid I used to  sneak out of my house holding some  sambusas and meqlils to my best  friends, at night, when we’d all be  out to play. My siblings would do  the same. My mother would yell at  us (her kids) when she discovers, in  the morning, that half of the pastries  she had reserved for the day were  gone.

When it comes to fasting day’s  schedule, Ramadan, yearly, is  dragged back ten days in the Islamic  Lunar Calendar. This means that  if in the previous year Ramadan  started on day 20 of the calendar, the  actual year, it starts on day 10. So,  gradually, the fasting month revolves  around the year, and sooner or later  the Christian and Islam faithful in  Eritrea will be fasting their respective  fasts- Ramadan and Tsom Arbaa, the  Lent, at similar days.

Fasting becomes difficult if you  live in the lowlands and have to  observe fasting in hot seasons. Most  people, who reside around the Gash  Barka region and the Coastal areas  of the Red Sea, look only for water  when breaking the fast, since they  found themselves dehydrated in the  day time. When these people climb  to the highlands and witness the  weather is much more comfortable  and absolutely calm, they jokingly  mock the highlanders for not really  fasting. Therefore, nowadays, it is  becoming common for the lowlanders  to move in to the highlands for the  fasting season.

Prior to Ramadan mothers are  involved in different and numerous  activities preparing for the season.  One of which, is grinding oat to  make Shourba (Oat Soup) for the  Futur. They also make sure there  is enough wheat for Suhoor (late  night meal). The dawn porridge is  the most common meal. Surely,  Eritrean mothers are well known  for their exceptional cooking  expertise, kitchen management and  food processing skills, not only in  fasting periods but throughout the  year. Nowadays, if you find yourself  passing by the grinding houses, the  queues are endless.

Suhoor hour is the time to get up  and eat to cope with the tough day  ahead. Getting up for Suhoor would  be hard for fasting starters. Children  are not big fans of waking up early.  The common food to eat in these  mornings is porridge. back in the  days an old man used to take the  responsibility of waking up people to  get Suhoor and be ready for the day  of fasting. This man used traditional  drum to wake people up and would  eat the dawn meal with anyone  offering them the dish.

A favorite spot people like in  Ramadan days is the streets near the  Grand Mosque of Kulafae Arashidin,  Asmara. Believers and non-believers  who pass by take their time to pass  their greetings for the season. Dates  and fried foods are presented just  like Hot Dogs and McDonalds in the  streets of the West. In Asmara, this  street is filled with street vendors  presenting all sorts of the delicacies in  a long line of tables. The list is long;  Sambusas, fresh vegetables, fried  snacks made of meat and veggies  stunning almost big part of the city  with the smell of fried food. As so,  not only fasting people but others too  enjoy the break with these servings.  Some people, mostly non-believers,  also make it a habit, in this month,  of buying take-away as a dinner for  their families at home.

After the Iftar or Futur and regular  prayers, families gather to enjoy the  series of dramas on TV. Coffee is  made and the rest of the meals are  served. Women visit each other’s  house for girly chats.

The main thing in Ramadan the  faithful practice is the night prayers  called Taraweeh and starts after eight  o’clock in the evening. After these  congregational prayers, families and  especially spouses go out on a datelike  walks wearing light cloths to  enjoy the cool weather of the nights.  Meanwhile, it has become a culture  for men to visit all the mosques  around sequentially on every other  night and exchange greetings with  people they come across on their  ways and wish each other “Ramadan  Kareem” (a Generous Ramadan).

The message of fasting is to remind  people that there are poor people out  there who have most of their days  with less food. And so, institutions  and individuals gather and help poor  people in this month. The aid can  be financial or material. Charity is  very well practiced in this month.  Poor people make their ways to the  mosques and holy places, where  they get their blessings in material  and spiritual assistances from their  brothers and sisters.

Modesty and discipline are  reflected and respected in Ramadan  for the reason of Istimsak (Arabic  term for ‘abstinence’). So, all the days  are refreshing occasions even for the  ill doer to see themselves do right at  least once a year. It is a period of selfdetermination,  spiritual cleansing  and self-enlightenment. And as we  know it, in Eritrea, it just gets more  glitter making it the culture of all  the people. It is the Holy month of  Ramadan, one of most loved sources  of harmony, and everyone rejoices  no matter what the difference.

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