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.

Gourmet Traveller (Australia) - - News - Pho­tog­ra­phy JASON IERACE

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 info@affin­ity.org.au

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.

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