Posted by Beshouy Botros on July 09, 2015 in Blog

Iftar_in_Patterson_New_Jersey.jpgOn July 9, the Arab American Institute will host its Annual Arab American Generations Iftar to bring together local Arab Americans and raise money for Basmeh and Zeitooneh, a grassroots Beirut-based organization, dedicated to serving Syrian refugees and vulnerable communities in Lebanon. With only two weeks left in Ramadan, Muslims everywhere are making the most of this time to pray, reflect, and heal. Fasting has had especially marked effects on Middle Eastern and Arab peoples and by extension their cuisines.

Fasting practices are as diverse as the people of the Middle East. Ramadan of course entails abstaining from food and water from sunrise until sunset. Breaking fast with dates, one of the most ancient crops from the Middle East, is a nearly ubiquitous tradition that unifies the ummah. For nomadic peoples, date palms, which are indigenous to desert climates, have long provided protein, energy, and a delectable treat. Yet dates are much more than a convenient snack, they are ordained. The Hadith ties this age-old tradition to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who is said to have always broken fast with dates and water.

Although this has been a custom among most Muslim communities, dates, or balah, vary widely. Dates range from the khalal, or yellow unripe dates that are crisp, mildly sweet, and have the texture of apples, the popular molasses buttered dates, or the delicately spiced ones with cardamom. Even within the sweet and sticky varieties, a friendly nationalism pits red-brown zaghloul from Egypt against golden barhis from Iraq and the orange-brown sair dates from Iran, but the purple-black ajwa dates from Medina are said to reign supreme.

Like dates, fasting practices are also rich and varied. Customs vary from household to household, and across religions. The Christians in the Middle East have their own fasting practices, which involve abstaining from animal products for months at a time. Fasting and the elaborate banquets that follow, are critical across the many communities of the Middle East. It is in the depths of hunger that the most intricate desserts, savory meals, and full tables are set. This process yields a sort of intensification of Arab delicacies, which have become increasingly packed with flavor, care, and attention. Koshari, which will be given its due time in a later post, makes for a perfect example. Lentils, rice, and macaroni all packed into one dish and topped with fried onions and spicy tomato sauce form a most filling bowl and a wildly popular Egyptian dish. With three loaded carbs, lots of protein, many textures and lively flavor, koshari  is an ideal dish to enjoy during the fast.

Between the dates and the koshari, one must not forget the soul food. Indeed all Arab food is great soul food, but more importantly all should remember to look inward and extend a helping hand. This Ramadan, a group of artists from around the world formed a creative community called Poetry a Day for Ramadan, in which they all have undertaken the challenge of writing a poem each day for the Holy Month. As Eid al-Fitr approaches, and as we refrain and indulge, we must be mindful to our minds, bodies, and souls and to open our hearts in caring for others.

Beshouy Botros is an intern with the Arab American Institute