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.