Sunday, 28 September 2014

Irlandaise, Anglaise, Hollandaise.........

Otherwise known affectionately as 'Aer Fungus'

One would have had to be under the age of 5, non-corpus mentis, dead or totally uninterested in the
world around you not to know that there was a Referendum in Scotland asking the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’  It seems that everyone, and I mean everyone, from the President of the United States, through to sports and the Big Screen stars, politicians from all parties, right down to the neighbour’s dog next door had an opinion as to how the Scottish people should vote.

Speaking purely from a total ignoramus’ point of view of the whole economical and political ramifications of a vote ‘yes’ I felt that this was an emotional driven vote rather than a practical one.  An independent Scotland with its own very distinct culture standing alone and out from under the auspices of England sounds lovely really doesn’t it – kind of warms the cockles of the heart and makes you feel all fuzzy and warm inside.  But practically I couldn’t see what they were going to do about a currency – England seemed to be totally against sharing the sterling with a newly independent country that had the gall to get away from them, and the European Union didn’t seem to be falling over themselves to invite them into the Euro currency.  And what would happen to Scottish people abroad – where would they now go if they needed help or paperwork or to renew their passports etc.  And would Scotland really be able to hold on those big companies and banks who threatened to move abroad if the positive vote was a successful one…….

What was most disturbing though was the prevailing attitude that a vote no meant being anti-Scottish, almost as if there is no room for independent thinking in an independent Scotland.  There were quite a few (a majority it seems according to the results of the referendum) who were more than concerned about the above questions and a myriad of others I couldn’t even begin to contemplate, and who felt that these questions had not been answered to their satisfaction.  So they voted no not because they don’t love Scotland but because they adore the place and all its facets and were thinking about the economic future and security of their children.

The whole subject had me thinking about my own nationality and love of the country in which I was born and grew up.  I love Ireland and I love being Irish and I’m so happy it’s an independent country, but this independence did not come about without a lot of bloodshed and hardship.  One can look at Ireland today and think why can’t Scotland have the same independence, but I remember the poor Ireland in which I grew up, the one where it’s biggest export was its people, where we were encouraged to buy Irish to bolster the economy, and where without help from what was then called the EEC, we would still be a struggling country economically.  Well…..actually….Ireland IS struggling financially due to terrible mis-management.  Life is not that easy in Ireland – there is no free health insurance, and everything is so much more expensive than in the UK.

I was at a friend’s house once where 3 of us were Irish, one was Scottish and one was English (I feel an English man, a Scotsman and an Irishman joke coming on), and the English lady, in the course of conversation casually said ‘us English’ including all of us in the room, at which point the rest of us coughed politely to point out her mistake.  She then recovered herself by saying ‘oh you know what I mean – us British!’   This, to me, has been the most surprising thing about being an Irish person abroad – how many English people think we’re still British.

But I still love being Irish, and when people ask me where I’m from I do try to say that I’m Irish, but it all depends on whom it is I am addressing.  When I was on Hajj and having one of those conversations using gestures and a smidgeon  of Arabic I gave up quite quickly trying to say I’m Irish - Me:  ‘Irlandia’ ‘ them ‘ah Hollandia’, Me: ‘no IRlandia’, them: puzzled look so I try ‘Ingleezia’, still a puzzled look, and after going through ‘England’, ‘Britain’ and ‘UK’ thinking if they don’t know where 'Old Blighty' is how do I expect them to know it’s much smaller and less important little neighbour, and finally, in desperation,  I say ‘London‘ and it’s as if I’ve turned on a switch – ‘Ah, LONDON!!!!!’

The number of times I’ve been introduced in Algeria as ‘Anglaise’ are so numerous now that I don’t actually bat an eyelid any more.  I have tried, honest I have, to put people right, but it can be difficult, and, at times, downright impossible.  The first time it happened was when my husband’s sister-in-law introduced me as ‘Anglaise’ and I politely told her no, I was ‘Irlandaise’.  She looked at  me  then said, ‘but you are Muslim, we are all Muslims,  we are all one family, so what’s the problem?’  Nothing really….except I’m an IRISH Muslim not an English one!!!!!  And then, to her horror, I asked her how she would feel about being called French!  But what she said is true in many respects….or at least in Islamic terms anyway.  Being a Muslim means I’m part of a huge world-wide family that totally ignores all state boundaries.

And when I actually think deeply about the whole subject of being Irish, I honestly don’t know how I can be proud of something I had absolutely no say in at all.  I can be proud of my achievements,  small as they may be, I can be proud, to a certain extent of my children, my husband,  I can be proud to be called ‘Muslim’, but I had nothing to do with being born Irish.  There but for the grace of Allah I could have been born English, Welsh, Scottish…..or even…..shudder the thought…..ALGERIAN!
So I tread that fine line between being happy to be Irish and broadcasting it to the world, and not insisting on the point if I think it may cause some kind of discomfort between me and a friend or an acquaintance.  But still I can’t help feel annoyed when, as has happened in the past, I’ve been mistaken as ‘Hollandaise’ – I mean really….do I look like a creamy sauce to you?????

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Blessed month of Ramadan

It has never ceased to amaze me how each of my children has started to fast Ramadan, on their own initiative, around the age of 7.  Of course when they say they want to fast I have always encouraged them to do so, but before the age of 7 it usually consists of fasting between meals!  But then around the age of 7 something happens and they want to try it for real, and I leave it entirely up to them – if they get cramps and find it too much I tell them how happy Allah will be with their efforts and that they will be rewarded for their intention as if they actually did fast a day, and I remind them that their bodies are still growing so need nutrients more than us grown-ups – after all Allah has not made it compulsory for them to fast until they have reached the age of puberty, and, in many respects it’s harder for them to fast than us, and Allah is Just so then we should also be with those in our care.  I will encourage them to eat or drink something if they so wish but more often than not they decide to ride it out.  I remember my eldest son, in England, acting very strangely and I finally dragged it out of him that he was suffering from cramps but that he didn’t want to tell me in case I made him eat!  In fact, when my children were younger, I have often found myself saying to them when they were misbehaving during Ramadan ‘if you don’t stop arguing/fighting/shouting I’m going to make you eat!’  And then I think……what on earth would the neighbours think if they heard me?????

It also amazes me how Algerians (I can’t speak for other nationalities as I don’t know as many of them to judge) abroad, who may never pray, who may smoke and who are far away from a Muslim community and family will fast the whole month of Ramadan without question – there may be so many things they don’t do in their religion but Ramadan is a must, and they will obey the rules of fasting completely no matter what kind of work they do or hours they keep.

Time during Ramadan has a completely different rhythm – there is no rush to prepare a meal for lunch time, or a snack to go with afternoon coffee/tea so the day is a lot more leisurely, and apart from the mad rush to put hot food on the table all at the same time, there isn’t much pressure.  In Algeria during the summer it becomes inevitable that you sleep more during the day and stay up during the 7 hours of night, if you are able, as by the time you’ve eaten, cleared away the food, prayed the extra Taraweeh prayers, read some Qur’an, snacked again, there’s only a little time left before getting up for the pre-dawn meal.

What makes Ramadan a truly special month is not what we eat or when we eat, but rather it is the idea of making time to turn away from worldly concerns, while still living in the world and getting on with our daily duties, and turning to Allah and His Book in order to retreat a while and put life into its right perspective.  As a child brought up in the Catholic church I knew all about retreats – they were often organised by the church for a week or two and also by the schools, where you were encouraged to put down your daily toil for a while and think of more ethereal matters, and in many ways Ramadan reminds me of these times.  We are encouraged to take stock of our spiritual lives, to develop new devotional habits and to exit Ramadan a better person with new ingrained spiritual habits, so that with each Ramadan we become a better person inshallah.  That’s the principle – the reality is another matter.  It often starts out like a New Year’s list of things you want to do and improve in your life and ends up feeling as if you’ve failed in some way.  This is because we so often set such high standards for ourselves and life and family get in the way of our objectives, and then we have to try and maintain calm and peace and not get angry because keeping our temper in check is one of the big requisites of performing Ramadan correctly.  But Allah only asks of us what we can achieve, nothing more or nothing less, and there is a hadith that says something on the lines of small deeds done continuously are more beloved to Allah than bigger ones done now and again. So, if there is just one good deed, whether it be a new dua  (supplication) we’ve learnt, or one extra prayer we make, and we incorporate it in our life after the month of Ramadan is over, then it is an improvement on our older self and we, inshallah, will become better people because of it.  Roll on next Ramadan!

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Ramadan in Algeria

Many cultures have different traditions attached to Ramadan and these include certain dishes that are always served during this month, and Algeria is no exception.  Chorba (soup), bourek (a kind of samosa) and salad are the basic requirements, along with a ‘jew-ez’ which is a stew type of dish, and ‘laham lahalou’ which translates into ‘sweet meat’ and consists of prunes, sultanas, apricots cooked in a syrup along with meat, although a lot of people nowadays dispense with the meat altogether.  Then there is the ‘kalb el louz’ (heart of the almond) which is an almond based sponge like cake steeped in syrup, and  ‘zalabia’ (Jalebi) which is flour based batter deep fried in rings and dripping in syrup. 

We used to eat these Algerian dishes in England for our first Ramadan months together, but as time went on and the children grew, and most especially since we moved to Algeria and the lunar based month has fallen in the summer, our meals have become very different.  We start off the month with the traditional dishes, but after a few days of chorba nobody wants to see the stuff again, the bourek usually lasts a bit longer before it, too, falls by the wayside to reappear again at the end of the month, and the ‘jew-ez’ is only occasionally served.  I serve the ‘laham lahalou’ with prunes only as it helps with the digestion and only 4 of us like it anyway.  We do buy in ‘kalb el louse’ and zalabia but only in small quantities throughout the  month.

Instead we eat a bit of this and a bit of that – roast chicken, potato salad, roast potatoes, escalope fried in breadcrumbs with chips and salad, chicken pie in white sauce in pastry, or chicken in a curry sauce, cocas, fajita, pitta bread, lasagne (single layer), pasta, trifle, tiramisu, etc. etc. and whatever takes our fancy.  There are some dishes that are too heavy after a long day of fasting and most especially when it’s very hot as it was this Ramadan and those of the last few years. 
One would think that you could eat mountains after a long day of fasting but in reality it’s not possible, unless you like feeling bloated and sick.  We have always broken the fast with milk or water and dates, and, for me, once I’ve broken my fast with milk and dates I lose what’s left of my appetite.
For a month of not eating there can often be a huge emphasis on cooking and food, which, of course, is not what Ramadan is all about.  There is also a lot of tradition surrounding the month with some people having to eat certain dishes wherever they are.  As an outsider not brought up in these traditions it can be easy to be dismissive about them, but living away from the country in which I was brought up I can understand why some people, especially those living abroad, insist on these dishes – it’s a taste of home and a reminder of happy childhood memories not that much different to  those of us who grew up with Christmas and roast turkey dinners.

There is also the fact that, as mothers, we have the responsibility to enable our family of varying ages and needs to fast each day by providing them with the sustenance they need to keep going throughout the month, and so swopping recipes is a great way to do this.  The hardest Ramadans for me were, by far, those when I had small children and I couldn’t just go and have a rest or nap when I needed one, because funnily enough, it’s not the hunger that defeats you but the sheer exhaustion.  I am so fortunate now that I have older children and especially two daughters who have started their own tradition of sitting down just before Ramadan and writing out a rough menu for a couple of weeks, and then we divide up the jobs so that not one person is in the kitchen all day.  Also, I think that my children will grow up with a very versatile approach to eating in Ramadan as we don’t stick to one or two dishes and there are no ‘have-to-have’s in our menu.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Ramadan - not has hard as it looks

Fasting during the whole Islamic month of Ramadan appeared to me, in my days before Allah mercifully guided me to Islam, such a difficult thing to do that I just had to see if I could do it….after all my husband did it every year, and anything he could do…..I might not be able to do better but at least I should be able to do as well.  It seemed, to me, to be a frightening thing to do – fast from food and water from dawn to dusk.  I felt as if it was impossible and that I would just keel over and die if I tried it.  But I started fasting with the idea of seeing how far I could go with it, and discovered, to my amazement and satisfaction that I was able to fast the whole month, and still survived to tell the tale.  Admittedly we lived in England and it was March/April time so the days weren’t too long and the weather wasn’t too hot or cold.  But I was a working mother and had to commute into London every day, 5 days a week, so I didn’t get off too easily.  I didn’t tell anyone, other than my husband and daughter that I was fasting and nobody really noticed so I was able to concentrate on dealing with the fast without having to give any explanations. 

Having been brought up with the belief that 3 main meals a day were essential to our wellbeing it came as quite a surprise to find out that I managed on less food and liquids and was still able to get on with my life.  When I had finished the month I felt as if I had achieved something, that I had somehow managed to overcome a hurdle I hadn’t even known existed.

So I tried it again, and I remember putting my coffee cup in my drawer at work knowing I wouldn’t be using it for a month.  This time one of my colleagues at work asked me, during one of the very last days, if I was on some kind of a diet as she had noticed that she hadn’t seen me eating anything for ages.  When I told her what I was doing she was quite surprised and impressed that I had managed it at all in the first place and without telling anyone.

Of course being a Muslim gave a lot more meaning and incentive to the fasting of the month of Ramadan, especially once I had read up on the blessings to be gained during the month itself and also the benefits to my advancement in my religion and my eagerness to grow closer to Allah.  As with all things we are required to do as Muslims, Allah needs nothing from us, but we are the ones who gain when we do things for Him, and fasting is one of those things that is purely for him.  Nobody is with you 24 hours every day for 29/30 days who can see if you are really fasting, or whether you are cheating; only you and your Creator know for sure.

Still, I don’t like the idea of fasting.  I don’t know if this is because I don’t like being told I can’t do something so basic to human nature, or if it’s about losing control over when I can eat or drink, or the fact that my routine has to change to cope with different eating times, or the emphasis put on doing things at night – breaking the fast, praying taraweeh, etc. when I’m normally a morning person. But I do know it’s a psychological dislike, because spiritually there are too many incentives not to positively look forward to this special month and physically it is not a problem for me.  And, once the month starts I’m fine, I settle into the new routine easily and quickly and I don’t suffer the headaches that others often suffer, despite the fact that I am an avid coffee drinker.  There was a time when I missed the company of a cup of coffee, that is I missed the habit of having one first thing in the morning to ease me into the work of the day, or when I sat at the laptop, or sat down after a busy morning or afternoon, but in recent years I haven’t even missed this habit, and I drink only a few cups of coffee during the whole month itself.

In fact Ramadan acts as a time of healthy eating and living for me because I eat less and drink more water.  I learnt some time ago that no matter how much I ate during the night I am still going to be hungry during the day, so now I don’t bother trying to ‘stock up’.  I am not a great water drinker and have to force myself to drink some during the winter months, although, it’s easier to drink it cold from the fridge after a busy and thirsty day during the summer.  But in Ramadan I know that, if I don’t drink enough water during the night, I am liable to suffer from headaches the next day, and I can cope easily with hunger, thirst and fatigue, as being the Mum of 5 children I have often had to ignore the rumblings of an empty stomach and sheer exhaustion,  but I cannot cope with headaches.