Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Previous post in series: Ramadan Origins

Personalizing Ramadan

This Ramadan I have made a point of asking many of my Muslim friends and acquaintances one particular question: “What is the main goal of fasting during Ramadan for you?”

It has been a fascinating month of conversations.  For many, it seems to be a bit of an odd question.  Perhaps something is lost in translation or perhaps its a different perspective of devotional practices.  When faced with this question many of my Muslim friends hesitate and ask for clarification.  Perhaps, it’s the idea of a “personal” goal.  Ramadan has such a community feel to it.  But they also get hung up a bit on the notion of “goal” or “aim” or “objective.”  These words seem to make more sense for them in a different setting – perhaps they are seen more fitting into a business or education or military milieu than a religious one.

Nonetheless everyone (whether immediately or after some clarification) has shed additional light on the Fast for me and I have deeply appreciated each conversation.  I wish that all of you could have been present at each one.  It would be impossible for me to quote everything here, but I will give you a summary of what has been shared with me.

Obedience and Righteousness

First of all, many people pointed to two things: (1) the necessity of the fast, and (2) the process of becoming more righteous in God’s eyes.

Both of these concepts (obedience & righteousness) have grown increasingly foreign in Western thought and culture.  In the West we are taught to question authority (especially religious authority) from a very young age.  Obedience may be important for children, but even then it is cast as respect.  However, for many of my Muslim friends it is important to them to obey what they see as a command of God.  For most I would not categorize this as a “blind” or unthinking obedience, but rather a choice of the will to do what they believe to be right.

Which brings us to the second notion: righteousness. This word seems to have gained a negative connotation in the West; perhaps taking on a bit of the notion of arrogance or religious one-upmanship.  The term itself (in English) has to do with “the state of being right” or “performing right actions” and popularly may include the idea of trying to curry favor with God or people.  But in the basic understanding of the term, “righteousness” is doing the right thing simply for the sake of honesty and integrity.  For my Muslim friends there is no question that they want act correctly before Allah.  And the Fast during Ramadan is one of these actions.

The Qur’an specifically states that fasting during the holy month is an act of righteousness.  But let’s divest the term of some of it’s religious and cultural baggage and simply say that “you can’t go wrong with fasting during Ramadan.  It’s pleasing to God.”  Or, “Fasting … it’s the right thing to do.”  Pleasing God – being obedient and right before the creator –  is a huge personal goal for most Muslims during the Fast.  However, I can’t emphasize enough how this was not seen as something negative and onerous, or something simply done unthinkingly with no meaning.

Meaningful, Rather than Rote Obedience

Perhaps the following will bring some nuance to the notion of of obeying God through the Fast (the following are my paraphrased translations of particular things than have stuck out to me as unique in some of the conversations I have had this month):

  • Fasting brings me strength.  I can work harder and longer when I fast.  It makes me stronger, not weaker.  Strength in my body, but also in my mind and my spirit.
  • Fasting brings health to the body.  It is a time of renewal.  12 months you do with your body as you like, but for one month you give it to God and do what he wants.
  • Fasting during Ramadan is like cleaning out a filter.  Your stomach is like a filter and it gets dirty.  Everyday we put whatever we want into it.  During Ramadan we give God a chance to clean out our stomachs.  But not only our stomachs, also our minds.
  • Fasting is not just about not eating and not drinking.  These things are important but they are not the only things.  It is about not lying and not thinking bad thoughts,  and not looking at women in a bad way, and not treating people poorly.  If I do all of these things while I am fasting why would God care?
  • Fasting helps me to think about other people, like the poor people.  During Ramadan I cannot just do what I want all day.  I have to think less about myself so this gives me more time to think about others.  And maybe the people who do not have enough money or food.  So I can help them because I am not thinking just about myself and what I want.
  • God does not want our food and our drink.  These are small things to him.  He wants us to control our bodies and our spirits during the month of Ramadan.  To do the right thing in all of our days.
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan teaches me self-control.
  • It is not enough just to do the right thing in Ramadan.  Of course, God wants us to do the right thing all of the time.  We cannot make sins all year and then make no sins in the month of Ramadan and think that this is ok with God.  We must obey God in all of the year.  Ramadan helps us to remember this important fact.
  • Fasting helps me to become closer to God.  The Quran teaches that he is near to us.  And I hope to become near to him by fasting.
  • Fasting is all about loving God.  It is a way for me to show God that I love him because I do what he says to do.  This is a small thing for me to do.  Some people think that it is very difficult.  But if I love God it will be an easy thing for me to do.

I hope by reading these statements you catch a little bit of the devotional depth that Ramadan holds for many Muslims.  It is not simply something “I have to do”  it is something that is seen as integral to their relationship with God and others.  As I heard some of these things from my Muslim friends these past few weeks it reminded me of some things written in the previous holy books.

Fasting is not just about abstaining from food (God wants you to have self-control):

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.  (1st Corinthians 6:12-13) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about our relationship with God:

    16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  (Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18) باللغة العربية

Fasting is about how we treat others (especially the poor and oppressed):

2 For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?

 6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.

9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: “Here am I.”   If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk, 10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.  11 The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  (Isaiah 58:2-11)  باللغة العربية

I think this last passage speaks for itself and is a powerful template for fasting in general for all of the monotheistic religions.

Next Post: A Tale of Two Iftars

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

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Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Previous Post: Ramadan Basics

All of the major religions advocate fasting in some form or another, but fasting plays a particularly special role in the life of Muslims.  The month-long fast during Ramadan punctuates the rhythm of the Islamic calendar, serving as a spiritual focal point for many.  The scope of the fast (an entire month), the communal nature of it (all Muslims should participate), and the intensity of fasting (no food or drink during daylight hours) set it apart from the fasting practiced in Islam’s monotheistic cousins Judaism and Christianity.  So, what are the origins of this important religious practice that roughly 1.5 Billion people worldwide are currently observing (as of August 2011) ?

Possible Linguistic Roots

If one consults the venerable Hans Wehr Arabic-English dictionary one finds under the root (ر م ض ) two major meanings.  The first is  from the Form VIII verb (irtamaDa) meaning to be consumed with grief or sorrow.  The second seems to be a masdar or verbal noun (ramd) meaning the condition of parchedness or scorchedness.  When the month of Ramadan falls in the summer months, a correlation with these two terms might seem apparent.  However as the timing of Ramadan changes eac year (sometimes falling in winter) it is not likely that either of these words is related and that the origins of the name for the month are lost in the annals of history.  Of course the “alif noon (-an)” ending in arabic can indicate the dual in Arabic, so perhaps it is the month of double parchedness.

Quranic References

As with most religious practices it is helpful to start with the most relevant religious text.  As it turns out the Quran contains 14 references to fasting in 8 distinct passages.

  • 5 passages offer fasting as an option for believers to make up for or redeem a shortcoming of one sort or another (accidental murder of a believer, inability to make sacrifice on hajj, breaking an oath, killing game near the kaabah in Mecca, divorcing and remarrying the same woman.)
  • 1 passage about Mary the mother of Jesus
  • 1 passage about fasting and forgiveness
  • 1 passage about fasting during Ramadan

As a point of reference, here is the Quranic passage re.  fasting during Ramadan

Note that the bracketed words in the English translation are not in the original text, but are added by the translator for the sake of clarity

Al-Baqara 2:183-187 (English Translation – Sahih International)

يا أيها الذين آمنوا كتب عليكم الصيام كما كتب على الذين من قبلكم لعلكم تتقون

183 O you who have believed, decreed upon you is fasting as it was decreed upon those before you that you may become righteous –

أياما معدودات فمن كان منكم مريضا أو على سفر فعدة من أيام أخر وعلى الذين يطيقونه فدية طعام مسكين فمن تطوع خيرا فهو خير له وأن تصوموا خير لكم إن كنتم تعلمون

184  [Fasting for] a limited number of days. So whoever among you is ill or on a journey [during them] – then an equal number of days [are to be made up]. And upon those who are able [to fast, but with hardship] – a ransom [as substitute] of feeding a poor person [each day]. And whoever volunteers excess – it is better for him. But to fast is best for you, if you only knew.

شهر رمضان الذي أنزل فيه القرآن هدى للناس وبينات من الهدى والفرقان فمن شهد منكم الشهر فليصمه ومن كان مريضا أو على سفر فعدة من أيام أخر يريد الله بكم اليسر ولا يريد بكم العسر ولتكملوا العدة ولتكبروا الله على ما هداكم ولعلكم تشكرون

185 The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful.

وإذا سألك عبادي عني فإني قريب أجيب دعوة الداع إذا دعان فليستجيبوا لي وليؤمنوا بي لعلهم يرشدون

186 And when My servants ask you, [O Muhammad], concerning Me – indeed I am near. I respond to the invocation of the supplicant when he calls upon Me. So let them respond to Me [by obedience] and believe in Me that they may be [rightly] guided.

أحل لكم ليلة الصيام الرفث إلى نسائكم هن لباس لكم وأنتم لباس لهن علم الله أنكم كنتم تختانون أنفسكم فتاب عليكم وعفا عنكم فالآن باشروهن وابتغوا ما كتب الله لكم وكلوا واشربوا حتى يتبين لكم الخيط الأبيض من الخيط الأسود من الفجر ثم أتموا الصيام إلى الليل ولا تباشروهن وأنتم عاكفون في المساجد تلك حدود الله فلا تقربوها كذلك يبين الله آياته للناس لعلهم يتقون

187 It has been made permissible for you the night preceding fasting to go to your wives [for sexual relations]. They are clothing for you and you are clothing for them. Allah knows that you used to deceive yourselves, so He accepted your repentance and forgave you. So now, have relations with them and seek that which Allah has decreed for you. And eat and drink until the white thread of dawn becomes distinct to you from the black thread [of night]. Then complete the fast until the sunset. And do not have relations with them as long as you are staying for worship in the mosques. These are the limits [set by] Allah , so do not approach them. Thus does Allah make clear His ordinances to the people that they may become righteous.

From these verses the following points seem obvious to me as an outside observer

  • The purpose: to become righteous (v. 183)
  • Exceptions: Those who are ill or traveling do not have to fast, but they have to make it up later (v. 184,185)
  • Prohibitions: Food, water and sexual relations  during daylight hours (v. 187)

But why the month of Ramadan?

Faithful Muslims would most likely answer this question by simply pointing to the Quranic injunction to fast during this specific month.  However, there is some additional information that is of interest.

Before the inception of Muhammad’s religious career, he worked as a caravan trader.  However, some biographers have noted that during this time period in his life it was common for Muhammad to spend  time during the month of Ramadan in fasting and prayer.  It was his habit to retreat to the solitude Cave of Hira in Saudi Arabia for this time of spiritual reflection.  Why Muhammad chose this particular month in unknown to me.

One year Muhammad was surprised to receive a vision of the angel Jibreel (Gabriel in English).  It was this Jibreel who revealed to Muhammad the message of the Quran.  The giving of the Quran during the month of Ramadan is one of the major events that the holy month commemorates and many Muslims seek to read the entire Quran during the month.  Indeed, the Quran contains the markings of 30 equal sections (juz in arabic) that facilitate this devotional activity.

So from the very foundation of the religion Muslims have been encouraged to fast for one month out of the year.  In Arabic the word “fast” is saum and the activity of “fasting” is sayyim. Observing the fast is one of the so-called 5-Pillars of Islam (or 5 obligatory practices for the Muslim believer).  The main support for the practice is found in the 2nd chapter of the Quran, but there are also numerous references to fasting in the Hadith (Islam’s other holy book – the sayings and actions of the prophet muhammad) and some of the more specific practices can be found there.  If you get a chance this Ramadan, be sure to ask a Muslim friend or neighbor where the custom of fasting during Ramadan comes from and enjoy the conversation that follows.

Next Post: Ramadan Goals

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Basics (part 1)

It’s a little after 4:30 AM on August 1st, 2011.  This date happens to coincide with Ramadan 1st, 1432.  Ramadan is the Islamic holy month of fasting and the name Ramadan is actually the name of a month on the Islamic calendar.  The official Islamic calendar is lunar (as opposed to the solar Gregorian calendar familiar in the West), and records years from the date that Muhammad made his emigration from Mecca to Medina.  Due to the differences between the calendars, the beginning of the month of Ramadan changes from year-to-year according to the Gregorian calendar.  It shifts about 11 days earlier each year.  This year Ramadan falls during the peak of the Middle Eastern summer.  Long hot days will surely make for a difficult fast.

This Ramadan, I will be blogging my knowledge, thoughts, and reflections on Ramadan.  This will obviously be from the perspective of an outsider as I am not Muslim.  However, I have been living in the Middle East for 3 years now and have visited a number of times before moving here.  So I think I have a unique perspective that many non-Muslims do not have.  Take my thoughts for what they are worth.  I welcome all questions and comments from both Muslims and non-Muslims.

The Basics

Amman, Jordan between dawn and sunrise, 1-Ramadan 2011/1432

The fajr call to prayer just sounded 15 or 20 minutes ago here in Amman, Jordan.  This is the call to prayer that officially marks the beginning of dawn each day.  This is the moment that light breaks over the horizon (not officially sunrise) and during Ramadan marks the beginning of the daily fast.  Practicing Muslims rise early (or possibly stay up all night) to eat a pre-fast meal (called suhoor in Arabic) before the fajr prayers.  The fast during Ramadan is during daylight hours from dawn to sundown.  The fasting includes abstaining from all food and drink during those hours.  It also includes no smoking, no sex, no chewing gum, and for the most devout no swallowing of spit.  (You will see a lot of spitting in public during Ramadan!)  It has been blazing hot of late here in Jordan, so refraining from water will be particularly difficult.

The fast is broken with an iftar meal at the sounding of the maghrib (sunset) call to prayer.  Interestingly the word iftar is derived from the same root as the word for breakfast (fatoor), so it’s breakfast for dinner for Muslims throughout the month of Ramadan.  The fast is traditionally broken by eating dates and drinking juice followed by sometimes lavish meals.  During the month of Ramadan you can see street vendors here in Amman selling plastic bags of juice concentrate throughout the day to be used later at iftar.

Who is expected to fast and special considerations

King Abdullah I Mosque after fajr prayers 1-Ramadan 2011/1432. Amman, Jordan.

Every  healthy adult Muslim is expected to observe the fast.  Exemptions are made for the ill, pregnant and nursing mothers, travelers and young children.  It’s not clear to me when children are expected to begin fasting.  I have heard everything from age 7 to age 12.  The younger ones in that range are generally not expected to practice the full fast, but to begin preparing themselves to partake more fully in later years.  Non-Muslims (here in Jordan) are not expected to fast, but are forbidden by law to eat, drink, or smoke in public during the month of Ramadan.  Of course, this means in the street – but also most other public venues.  Restaurants, cafes  and food courts at the mall are all closed during daytime hours.  Only a few restaurants and cafes with “touristic” licenses can be found open.  Public consumption of food and drink outside of these places or private homes can be punishable with tickets or even imprisonment.  I have never heard of either of these things actually happening, but have heard of non-muslim friends being warned by the police!

The schedule of life can seem a bit topsy-turvy to the outsider.  Businesses tend to hold non-standard working hours during Ramadan.  Some close during the heat of midday.  Many open late and close early. This is especially true when Ramadan falls in fall/winter months and people need to make it home to prepare for the iftar meal.  Driving in Amman in the pre-iftar hours can be more maddening than usual – and trying to find a taxi can be nearly impossible.  And then for an hour or two the city is like a ghost-town as nearly everyone is somewhere breaking the fast.  The half-hour before and hour after maghrib prayer-time is sctually the best time to drive anywhere in the city during Ramadan – you’ll have the streets nearly to yourself.

Ramadan isn’t just about fasting

And then after everyone has broken the fast the city comes alive.  People are out and about visiting, shopping, even working.  Businesses are often open late into the night.  Cafes and restaurants that would normally close stay open well past midnight – some until just before dawn.  People often stay up all night eating and drinking as they would normally during the day.  Some Muslim friends have complained that they gain more weight during the month of fasting than during regular months!

Generous Ramadan! The typical Ramadan greeting.

The atmosphere of Ramadan is festive.   It’s not only a time for fasting, but also for visiting extended family and celebrating.  People hang strands of lights, some shaped like stars and crescent moons, and other decorations much like people would for Christmas in the West.  The standard greeting during the month is “Ramadan Kareem”  or “Generous Ramadan.”  The response is “Allahu Akram” or “God is more generous!”  Indeed, the month is marked by generosity.  At the end of Ramadan parents give gifts to their children, uncles give money and toys to their nieces and nephews, and brothers do the same for their sisters, particularly the unmarried ones.  People give cash gifts to the garbage men who work on their street, and many people buy extra food for the needy.  Businesses and wealthy patrons sponsor iftar meals for the poor.  In general it is accepted that charitable giving during Ramadan accrues a double blessing and many people make their annual zakat (alms) giving during this time.

If you have a Muslim friend, neighbor, or co-worker be sure to greet them for Ramadan (Ramadan Kareem!) and take the time to visit them.  This is not advised during daylight hours, but it is more polite to drop-by after the iftar meal is completed.  It may seem very late for a visit to a non-Muslim, but for fasting Muslims … the night is yet young!  A gift of high-quality dates is always appreciated and a Ramadan greeting card is a nice touch.  Your visit will certainly be appreciated and who knows, perhaps you will be invited back to share an iftar meal later in the month!

Next up: Ramadan Origins

Other Ramadan Related Posts here at Pilgrim without a Shrine:

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Origins (part 2)

Ramadan in Jordan 2011, an Outsider’s Perspective: Ramadan Goals in Muslim Words (part 3)

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition 

Eid Mubarak!

Beginfast or Commensfast Anyone?

Ooops, I forgot Weekend Headlines from Jordan #4

Successful Ramadan Trip to the Saloon

Jordan Headlines #3

Looking for a Ramadan Special at the Local Saloon

Ramadan Breakfast at Hashem’s in Amman, Jordan

Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting, ended last weekend with the annual multi-day festival and holiday of Eid Al-Fitr.  I don’t really have much to blog about that right now, but I do have a Ramadan related post that’s been sitting around for a couple of weeks waiting to get polished up for “publishing”.  So without further ado, here are my thoughts from a couple of weeks ago during the height of Ramadan . . .

Thursday night is the Friday night of back home.  The work week is finished and people are looking forward to the weekend.  Traffic is always crazy here in Amman on Thursday afternoons because, just like stateside,  people like to start their weekends early.  This past Thursday I decided to enjoy iftaar with a buddy down at Hashem’s Restaurant in the balad, or Old City.

For those who don’t know,  iftaar is the evening meal used to break the day’s fast during Ramadan.  The timing of iftaar is strictly regulated by the sunset call to prayer.  The word iftaar is related to the Arabic word for eating breakfast – typically a morning meal, even here in Jordan.  However, breakfast (iftaar) during Ramadan occurs in the evening, and appropriately so as people are more literally breaking their fast during this time of the year than any other.

I met my buddy at Hashem’s (Amman’s most famous falafil and hummus place) an hour early.  We wanted to make sure we got a seat.  Restaurants are more crowded at iftaar time during Ramadan than any other time of the year.  People arrive early and wait to break the fast together.  It’s not unusual to find every table in a restaurant full before iftaar.  Food orders are often taken and served in the hour leading up to the time to break the fast.   Those final few minutes are a true test of the will as people wait for the call to prayer with steaming plates of food in front of them.  I once saw a group of teenage girls cover their glasses of soda with their napkins to avoid the temptation.  It has to be a logistical nightmare for cooks and waiters to have hot food on every table at exactly the same time every day for a month.  Not to mention the fact that they haven’t eaten all day either.

Anyways, we thought being an hour early would be a good idea on a Thursday night.  As it turned out, we timed it perfectly.  Although we were two of the first people to arrive at Hashem’s, tables filled up quickly.  Fortunately we were able to nab one of the two prime tables up on a little patio overlooking the rest of the alley.  Yes, that’s right – the alley.  No, I’m not talking about the view from the restaurant, I’m talking about the location of the entire place

Hashem's Restaurant before iftaar during Ramadan 2009.  Note the festive lights hung across the alley.

Hashem's Restaurant before iftaar during Ramadan 2009. Note the festive lights hung across the alley, and on the bldgs across the street. Strings of Ramadan lights (usually with a star or crescent moon motif) go up around the city during the holy month, much like Christmas lights back home.

Crowded between two buildings  the alley that is Hashem’s Restaurant.  White plastic tables and chairs line the narrow space.  Doors and windows open up  into the buildings on either side for more seating and cooking areas .  On the left hand side are the falafil and french fry fryers, on the right the hummus and the fool.  No, I’m not insulting someone – it’s another bean-type dip – you could think of it like the Arab take on refried beans.

One look tells you that Hashem’s is a no-frills eatery.  The alley.  The plastic chairs.  The lack of a menu.  Options are limited to pita, hummus, fool, french fries, and 2 kinds of falafil.  It’s customary at Hashem’s to drink tea Arab style, meaning with lots of sugar and fresh mint. You can also have a can of soda.  Bottled water is available, but most opt to drink the room temperature stuff poured from plastic pitchers into communal steel cups (one or two per table, or shared between tables)  There’s also a chance you might see someone drinking straight from the pitcher.  Not usually – but I have seen it.  The owner’s nickname on the sign kind of says it all “Abu Al-Shabbab” which literally means “Father of the Guys.”  Shabaab are young single teen and twenty-something guys.  If you don’t immediately identify them from demographic profiling you can recognize them easily as they typically travel in packs, wear tight shiny polyester button-up shirts (often purple in color), a lot of cologne, and plenty of hair gel.

As soon as we sat down at our prime table the shabaab began to arrive.  Slowly at first, but a steady stream filled the plastic chair and tables set up deep from the bowels of the alley right out onto the sidewalk itself.  Of course it wasn’t just young guys arriving at Hashem’s that night to break their fast with falafil and hummus.   There were also families with young children, tourists wearing khaki shorts, Gulfies dressed head to toe in white robes, well-heeled folks coming from work, and others who by appearance might have been a bit down on their luck.  The beauty of Hashem’s is that everyone can and does eat there – from the king himself straight down to beggars off the street.  Partly because it’s so cheap (1-2.50 JD per person – TOTAL), but also because the food is so tasty.  And there’s lots of it!  The waiters just keep coming around giving you more food until you’ve had your fill – which you always do.  No one leaves Hashem’s hungry.

As the alley filled with people, the shadows lengthened and the Ramadan lights strung above us twinkled on.  The owner stopped at our table and asked if an older gentleman could sit with us. Of course he could.  We exchanged pleasantries but he was quiet and didn’t seem to want to talk.  Waiters were bustling around laying down paper place mats, and putting water pitchers, hot sauce, and veggie plates on the tables.  The falafil guys were working up a sweat, spooning balls of ground fava beans and chick peas into vats of boiling oil.  I like to think the hot oil sterilizes the sweat.  Bowls of hummus were being prepared by the dozens and large trays of fresh pita bread were brought in from a neighboring bakery.

Fresh warm bread!  Too bad there isn't a scratch and sniff feature for blogs.  One of the great things about Amman is you can eat the best pita in the world everyday.  You're never far from a bakery.

Fresh warm bread! Too bad there isn't a scratch and sniff feature for blogs. One of the great things about Amman is you can eat the best pita in the world everyday. You're never far from a bakery and carb-lovers paradise.

The guy in charge (owner? manager?) stepped out on our little patio and bellowed, “rubi3 saa3a!”  (15 minutes!)  The waiters kicked it up a notch.  Which still might have seemed slow by Western standards – but the pace did quicken.

During this whole dance that is the pre-iftaar rush another thing unique to hummus places was happening.  People were streaming in with their own dishes to be filled with hummus and fool to be taken back home to break the fast there. Takeout Arab-style – bring your own container!

When the time to start the meal neared, it was quite loud in the alley.  All of the food had been set before us – warm bread, piping hot falafil, and yummy looking hummus and fool.  The air was abuzz – perhaps it was just normal conversation, or perhaps people were trying to ignore the delicious meal in front of them as the final minutes of the day’s fast ticked down.  The guy in charge stood on  the little patio again and looked down the alley and across the street.  Someone on the balcony of the coffee shop over there was listening for the call to prayer and signaled to him when it was time to start eating.

Our silent table companion waved towards the feast before us, “Tfaddlu…”

“If you please…”

It’s all he had to say.  We tucked in with all the rest; those who were breaking their fast, and others, like us, who were soaking up the fascinating culture of the Middle East like pieces of pita dipped in hummus.

Our breakfast at Hashem's.  Clockwise from the top: Green plastic water pitcher, communal steel drinking cup, red peppers, "veggie tray" (in middle) including raw onions tomatoes and mint, a bowl of fool (bottom right), a bowl of hummus, green citrus/pepper sauce, french fries,  falafil (the larger ones have onions, and sesame seeds), pita bread, glass of tea.  $4.50 for two people!  Ramadan Kareem!

Our breakfast at Hashem's. Clockwise from the top: Green plastic water pitcher, communal steel drinking cup, red peppers, "veggie tray" (in middle) including raw onions tomatoes and mint, a bowl of fool (bottom right), a bowl of hummus, green citrus/pepper sauce, french fries, falafil (the larger ones have onions inside and sesame seeds outside), pita bread, more hummus and a glass of tea. $4.50 for two people! Ramadan Kareem!

Haircut at Fawzi’s Saloon, a Ramadan Tradition

A year ago tomorrow (is that a phrase?), I wrote about my desperate need to find a local saloon.  Not for a beer, which would be haraam (forbidden) normally, but especially during Ramadan, but rather for a haircut.  As I explained a year ago you’ll find saloons all over Amman – a strange sight in this teetotaling nation, until you realize that the Arabic language has no “o” sound so must opt for either “salun” or “saloon” for the fancy french term that we sometimes use to designate a place of haircutting.   I think you would agree that saloon sounds much better than salun.

Anyways, last year I went to Fawzi’s Saloon, which is literally a 2 minute walk from my apartment.  I’ve been his customer ever since.

I was glad that I needed a haircut again this Ramadan, and I think I will make a haircut at Fawzi’s a Ramadan tradition even if I ever move out of the neighborhood.  Haircuts at Fawzi’s are always interesting.  His shop is tiny (1 bright orange and silver chair) and there is always something interesting to listen to whether it be conversation or the TV.  One of the first time’s I was at Fawzi’s he was shaving my neck with a straight razor when he leaned towards the door and yelled at the top of his lungs, “Ya, Jihaad!”  (Oh, Jihad!).  His 11 year old son appeared a few minutes later.  His name is Jihaad.  I started breathing again.  Over the year I have gotten used to greeting Jihaad when he is in the shop or, if not, asking, “Kiif Jihaad?” (How’s Jihad?)  Not a question you might usually ask in a barber shop in America.  Especially when someone is shaving your neck.

Tonight didn’t disappoint at Fawzi’s.  First of all it was 9:50 when I walked in the shop. Try finding a barber open at that time of night (and happy to see you) in America.  Actually during Ramadan this is an ideal time to have your haircut.  Shops are often closed in the morning later than usual.  And who wants their barber to be hungry, thirsty, smokeless and grumpy in the middle of the hot afternoon?  After iftaar (the evening time of breaking the fast) is the best time to get some things done during Ramadan – indeed many shops are open much later than usual and everyone is in a good mood late into the night.

I greeted Fawzi and Jihaad and another guy.  I wished them a generous Ramadan and they said that Lord willing, it would be.  Fawzi offered me a coffee, which I gladly accepted.  As he draped me in the usual barber’s cape (what is that thing called?) I reminded him that the first time we met was during last Ramadan.  We exchanged pleasantries about the past year and Fawzi began cutting my hair.  I like it because he now knows exactly what I want and we don’t really have to talk about it.  I also like the fact that we don’t speak english.  Well, sometimes Fawzi says “two” or “four” when referring to his shaving guides, or occasionally he’ll say, “down” when he wants me to tip my head – but that’s about it.

Tonight another guy came in and salaam alaikumed us. He apparently needed a touch up in the back which Fawzi cheerfully provided (after checking with me if it was ok).  The guy tried to pay, but Fawzi, of course, refused.  The guy then proceeded to groom himself in the mirror with one of Fawzi’s combs.  This is a common occurrence.  Or a guy might come in and use an extra pair of clippers hanging around to trim his own beard or mustache.  This doesn’t seem to faze anyone.  Tonight, the guy picked up a spray bottle and asked if it was water to which Fawzi replied that it was gasoline.  This got a lot of laughs.  There was then a spirited discussion about which was harder to go without during the hot summer days of this Ramadan – smoking or water.  People definitely had strong opinions about this and I could see both sides (if you are a smoker that is – but I was on the water side).  I’m not sure if the debate ever got settled and the conversation turned to whether or not the car one guy was going to purchase was a good deal or not.

The session ended as always with Fawzi and I exchanging the traditional greeting for those who have recently had a haircut which basically involves wishing God’s grace upon each other.  I handed over a couple of JD ($3) and we wished peace upon each others hands and hoped that God would allow us to see each other again.

It was 10:15 and I walked the two minutes back to my apartment with a big smile on my face.  There’s nothing really like a trip to Fawzi’s Saloon for a haircut during Ramadan.

Eid Mubarak!

I like to think of conversation starters each day to get the ball rolling with strangers I meet so I can practice speaking Arabic.  By strangers I mostly mean taxi drivers, duukkan (little shop) owners, the barber, and Eli the Wise-tire-guy at the corner.  (77-years wise and still  changing tires – but that’s a story for another time). Yesterday’s question was “Will tomorrow be Eid-al-Fitr?”  This may seem like an odd question, as most holidays back home have a definite date.  The dates for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas are set months – even years – in advance.  Not so with the timing of Islamic holidays which depend on moon sightings to officially begin.

The common response to my question about Eid starting was something along the lines of “Bukra, Insha’allah, bas mumkin ba3di bukra.”  “Tomorrow, God wiling, but maybe the day after tomorrow.”  That said everyone was making preparations for Eid to start today (Tuesday, September 30th).  Schools and Government offices were scheduled to be closed. Most stores were going on modified Holiday schedules – many closing for the first couple of days of Eid.  People were out and about running errands before things shut down for the week.  This included stocking up on fruits and vegetables as fresh ones are apparently hard to come by during the week of Eid.

So Iwas wondering how we would find out in the morning if Ramadan had in fact concluded.  Well, there was no doubt as rolled over in bed at 6:30 AM that Ramadan had in fact concluded.  Listen to this sound file recorded from the roof of our building:

01-amman-2008-eid-al-fitr

If you’re like me, based on that recording, you might imagine that the streets were thronged with people celebrating Eid – however, like me, you would be wrong.  The voices are actually 100s of muzzeins (the callers at the mosques), either live or recorde, from around the city.  For the most part the city streets were empty, pretty much like Christmas morning in the States.

The calls of “God is Great, Praise to God, Praise to the Greatest!” continued for over an hour as the city woke up.  I wonder if Christmas morning used to be that way in the States?  Well, with church bells sounding to welcome to holiday – not necesarily the calls of the muzzeins.

I am curious what life will be like over the next few days.  We have a break from school and we can now eat and drink in public during the day so exploring the city is back on!  Eid is typically a time for visiting extended family, going out, taking small vacations, etc.  so we expect a lot of hubbub. I’ll be sure to let you know.  In the meantime, here are some pics I snapped from the roof  this morning as the sun was rising over the city and callers were heralding Eid.  It was a particularly good morning for pictures as there were dark rain clouds in the west and sun dawning over the hillside in the east.  Click on the pics in gallery to get bigger photos with descriptions and a places for comments.  Enjoy!

Jordan Weekend Headlines #5

Ramadan Update: Friday was the 19th day of Ramadan (the actual name of the Islamic month BTW).  Iftar was 6:42 PM and Saturday’s imsak was at 4:46 AM.

Top Headline ‘Establishment of Palestinian state is in Jordan’s strategic interest’: This statement was from a Jordanian Minister of State for Media and Communications.  (Interesting government cabinet post, eh?)  It was countering some reports in the local press that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had said that Jordan should become a permanent home for Palestinian refugees in exchange for financial compensation.  I’m not sure if Abbas said that (seems unlikely), but I can tell you that it is a very unpopular idea here.  Although Jordan is probably the country most friendly and sympathetic to Palestinians – it is very clear in the mindset here that Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine.  This article also comes on the heels of Palestinian security forces crossing into Jordan to have US-funded training.  These were apparently Fateh security forces.  Interesting how the US pushed for free democratic elections and then when the results went in an unexpected way (Hamas being elected) the powers that be end up throwing a ton of money at damage control.  Wonder if we’ll start seeing state-funded militias in the US if the November elections don’t go according to plan.  I mean, really, it’s so odd how what we would consider absolutely wrong political behavior stateside is acceptable foreign policy.  I’m not saying I think Hamas is the best option in Palestine – but what did we expect when elections were pushed way before Palestine was ready for them.  Perhaps investing a little US money in Palestinian security training years ago would have been a smarter move.  IMHO.  Only once the hand has been forced to choose sides in one more regional civil war is there any interest in spending the necessary money.  But, I digress from the headlines . . .

Top Sidebar Road Accidents kill 36 this month: this is apparently good news as the number is down 20% from the first two weeks of Ramadan last year.  Hamdulillah!

Other Headline King returns home: HM King Abdullah returned from a 3-day trip to Kuwait and China.  Those two countries seem to be pretty far apart for a 3 day trip.  Anyways in Kuwait he was discussing regional trade and economics.  In China they were discussing technology, alternative energy and China’s role in brokering peace in the region, particularly an end to Israeli occupation and establishment of a Palestinian state.  Interesting.  Can’t say China jumps to the top of my list when I think of brokering peace deals.  We shall see.

News headlines taken from The Jordan Times – Jordan’s leading English-language news daily.  Once I learn some more Arabic I’ll branch out into Arabic language papers.  Perhaps sometime next decade.  LOL =)