AN ATHEIST’S FIRST IFTAR
At her first iftar, CANDICE CHUNG experiences the fasting, feasting and warm sense of hospitality that go hand-in-hand with Ramadan.
Candice Chung experiences the fasting, feasting and hospitality that go hand-in-hand with Ramadan.
It’s the start of Ramadan, Islam’s holiest month, and I’m trying not to think about my empty stomach as the train speeds south. For 30 consecutive days, Muslims around the world will fast from sunrise to sundown, eating only before dawn or after dark. I’ve rarely had cause to deny myself when it comes to food, and as an atheist, certainly never on religious grounds.
come from a family where there’s no such thing as a missed meal. Growing up, my parents approached eating with the same determination as long-distance runners — never mind how long it takes to finish, it’s the turning up that counts.
The reason I’m travelling on an empty stomach is that I’ve been invited to my first iftar — the nightly feast during Ramadan where Muslim families gather to break the day’s fast. The invitation itself made no mention of meal-skipping; I decided to turn up hungry, in truth, after a friend raised a valid question: “Don’t you want to eat as much as everyone who fasted?”
Tuba and Ahmet Ozturk have been hosting iftars for non-Muslims in their house in south-western Sydney for the past three years. Born in Turkey, they met while working in Amity College, where Tuba still teaches. Ahmet now works as a general secretary for an educational consultancy and volunteers for Affinity Intercultural Foundation — a not-forprofit that fosters ties between Muslim Australians and the wider community.
Each year, Affinity runs Ramadan events that range from formal dinners at the Parliament of New South Wales, to pop-up iftars that welcome asylum seekers and refugees. The most intimate experiences are the home iftars, where strangers of different faiths and cultural backgrounds are invited to break bread with Muslim families across Sydney.
Iarrive early at the Ozturks’ for a glimpse of the feast preparation. Ahmet, who greets me at the door, is unflinchingly upbeat for someone who juggles work and fatherhood without a trace of caffeine in his bloodstream.
“Of the 30 nights of Ramadan, we’ll host for 10 to 15 nights,” says Tuba. Preparation begins well beforehand, with shopping for dried goods done weeks before the start of the holy month. Pastries are made and frozen for the nights ahead, and women gather around the table for day-long shifts of wrapping vine leaves. The amount of work is breathtaking, like doing Christmas or Thanksgiving or Lunar New Year feasts every day for a month.
“I remember folding napkins, doing little iftar chores for my parents, ever since I was little,” says Tuba. Her mother Ayse is the head chef of the house. As she reveals the content of each simmering pot, I’m struck by the precision with which she works — any idle moments are filled with cleaning, slicing or stirring. In the middle of a conversation, she slips half a stick of butter into a pan of burghul and rice. “This,” says Tuba, “Is why Turkish food tastes so good.”
On the menu tonight is a spread of stuffed vine leaves, stewed okra, fried peppers, dips and börek filled with feta and spring onion. All this is followed by a main course of slow-cooked biftek sarma, a roulade of beef served with that golden, buttery burghul pilaf.
My stomach growls as I help set the table, and I can’t help but ask the obvious: “How are you supposed to do all this on an empty stomach?”
“When you’re fasting, the first two days are hard, but after the third day, you get used to it,” says Tuba. “The key for Muslims is that it’s not the month to be hungry, but a time to reflect — so you can better understand people who are in need.”
What Tuba refers to is a kind of embodied empathy. Those who fast are led to compassion by experiencing the visceral discomforts of the less fortunate — people for whom hunger isn’t a choice, but a fact of life. I’m struck by how different this feels from the contemporary obsession with “wellness-driven” fasts.
“Sometimes you don’t expect people to challenge themselves that much, but they overcome a lot during Ramadan,” says Tuba. “I see my students becoming softer, more aware of the environment and their friends. They wouldn’t usually think about it. But during Ramadan, because they’re hungry, they have more empathy. Somehow, when you focus on others, you become stronger and learn to overcome your ego.”
At five o’clock, guests start arriving and we’re ushered to the dinner table, where our feast awaits us. Looking around, we’re a motley crew made up of a journalist, a ceramicist, a church minister and a university lecturer.
To kick off the festivities, our host Ahmet recites a short prayer to give thanks, before officially breaking the fast by passing around a small plate of dates — the food that, according to traditional Islamic teachings, the prophet Muhammad broke his fast with.
With Ramadan currently falling at the start of winter in the southern hemisphere, right now Australia has one of the shortest fasting periods in the world. It’s a breezy 11-hour stretch of no food or water, compared to 16 hours in New York City or an impossible 20 hours under the midnight sun for Muslims in Nordic cities such as Oslo or Helsinki.
Someone asks our hosts what it’s like to sync their appetites to the waxing and waning of the moon. Tuba says she always misses the feeling of fasting when it’s over. “At the beginning, you feel like there’s a whole month to fast, and it’s going to be hard,” she says. “But what you don’t really understand is how quickly it passes. It’s a social time, and you have others on your mind.”
Inevitably, our conversation turns to food. Since meals are prepared during the hours of fasting, there’s no way of tasting or adjusting the seasoning as you cook, meaning sometimes things could go comically wrong. “Instead of putting salt in something, you might’ve put sugar,” says Tuba. “But you tolerate each other because you get to make fun of it. And more importantly — you’re starving.” No such mistakes are made tonight under Ayse’s watchful eye.
While I’m glad to have turned up with an empty stomach, I also notice how slowly I’ve been eating — mostly because I’m wholly absorbed in conversation. Kathy, the university lecturer, tells of the first iftar she attended, years ago, when her late husband Alan took her to a dinner hosted by Affinity. Years later, when he became ill, the families they had met drove halfway across Sydney to the couple’s Balmain home to bring them homemade Turkish food. “This sense of kindness isn’t just about religion, but the people,” says Kathy. “The philosophy of giving that’s built on giving.”
At the iftar, I experienced first-hand the communal spirit of fasting and feasting, of remembering the needs of others while we wrestle with our own. “At Ramadan you reflect on the time you share with others. Most of all, you realise the blessings we already have — the blessing to be able to drink water any time you want, or eat any time you want,” says Tuba. “And you realise to live a good life, you really don’t need that much.”
Above: Iftar hosts Tuba and Ahmet Ozturk. Opposite, clockwise from top left: börek, dates, fried capsicum with homemade yoghurt, stuffed capsicum, fried okra, pickles and stuffed vine leaves at the Ozturks’ iftar feast.
For more information about Affinity’s annual home iftar program, visit affinity.org.au or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Opposite, from top: Tuba prepares the iftar feast with her mother, Ayse; Guests (from left) Julia Manley, Kathy Egea, John Oldmeadow and Ahmet Burak Alpay. Below: Tuba’s father, Hayrettin with his grandson, Esad Ozturk.