Days in Yemen always began early. The imams began to sing the first call to prayer at dawn, then most people began their days. In Ramadan, that routine changes drastically. Before the dawn prayer call, many people eat a meal to tide them over for the long day of fasting ahead. I’d awaken in those early morning hours to the smell of sizzling garlic, an odd scent at 4 a.m.
After the morning prayer, schedules were often pushed back to allow long periods of rest. My English classes started later, as did the Arabic classes I took later on. I found mornings during Ramadan the best time to get outside and take a walk without the usual traffic in the streets. Ramadan mornings were some of the quietest times I experienced in Yemen.
After the midday prayer time, street traffic would pick up as many people went to work, shopped for the evening meal and started late classes.
Soon mouth watering smells would drift out of street side restaurants as they prepared sambusas, small triangle shaped pastry pockets filled with spiced meat and then deep fried. After Yemenis break their fast with dates and water, sambusas are generally served and they are delicious. Many times I’d stop into one of the restaurants and grab a bag just before sunset. “Light on the lips, heavy on the hips,” a British friend used to say as we devoured those treats.
Fasting is the focus of Ramadan, but I’d say food is a close second. When you remove something so vital to people’s lives and daily routines, it’s hard not to fixate on it. So while most Yemenis I knew dutifully fasted during the day, they planned special meals each night to eat after breaking the fast. I was lucky enough to experience a few of these meals, which often included piles of rice spiced with coriander, cloves, cinnamon and saffron, chicken, flat bread, yogurt salads and special desserts.
After the evening meal, it was time to make up for those quiet mornings. Everyone took to the streets to do some shopping. Most people buy new clothes in anticipation of Eid al-fitr, the celebration of the end of Ramadan. Ramadan nights were by far the best nights to be in the marketplaces. The streets grew increasingly crowded as the month wore on, all the shops glowed warmly, and extra lights were often strung across shop windows or the market streets. A holiday feel pervaded the air. The women especially enjoyed this time as most of the year women did not leave the home after dark. In Ramadan, huge groups of women would float past, blending into the darkness in their black ankle length baltos (abayas), eyes sparkling with excitement.
Nights grew longer as the eating and shopping continued, and mornings began later and later, until finally, in an exhausted but determined last push, the month long fast ended and the Eid arrived. The morning of the Eid new clothes and sometimes gifts are given (sound familiar?) and then families take to the streets to promenade in their new finery and visit friends. Another huge meal is consumed, this one in the middle of the day, and of course, prayers are said. The celebration could stretch into a few days, or sometimes a week if someone was returning home to a village.
Once Ramadan ended, and schedules went back to normal, I found I missed the quiet Ramadan mornings, and even more, those exciting Ramadan nights.
“Mandi” By w:user:Bamakhrama (English wikipedia) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
“Samosa 1” by Zantastik – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samosa_1.jpg#/media/File:Samosa_1.jpg
“Dates” Image courtesy of Praisaeng, Headscarves Image courtesy of franky242, “Ramadan Greeting” Image courtesy of maple at FreeDigitalPhotos.net