In continuation with our series on ‘Fasting in Other Places’ (or, as we called it last week, ‘Ramadan Unusual’), today two other readers share their experiences of fasting outside Nigeria. Both writers are called Fatima Zahra (one Umar the other Wakil). One is Fulani from Adamawa the other Kanuri from Borno. One is a legal practitioner dabbling in journalism while the other is a journalist dabbling in advocacy. One found herself in Vancouver, Canada and the other in Swansea, Wales, UK. Both have been following this Column almost since it debuted more than ten years ago. Enjoy:
FATIMA ZAHRA UMAR (email@example.com): It was 2009 and here I was in Vancouver, Canada. My first Ramadan there was quite an eye opener – first time I would witness the sun still up at 9.30pm. It made me really scared to see that the sun would refuse to set until 10pm! I never got used to seeing sunrise at 4am, sometimes even at 3am. The long days and short nights of that Canadian Ramadan really had me scrambling for energy to perform Ibada. My body-clock was mightily confused, and I always woke up thinking the world was about to end.
It was a time when I learned the true meaning of ‘self restraint’. There was food everywhere; on TV, in the malls, every single where, I was assaulted with sounds and sights and smells of food. Didn’t these people know it was Ramadan? But I had to lower my gaze, as it were. My stomach would start rumbling from 6pm, used as it was to a Nigerian Ramadan. The worst part was that the tummy would rumble and cry and protest and threaten to collapse by 9pm. I really was convinced that the Muslims of Canada collected higher lada/ajr/reward than the rest of us in Nigeria who normally broke our fast by 6.40pm.
This was the first time I truly learnt that Ramadan was not about food. My Nigerian Iftar is never complete without kunun gyada and kosai! And there were none in Canada! My mother, the genius that she is, invented a system; from 3am we would wake up to soak something called black-eyed peas that looked like our Nigerian beans in scalding hot water. And we would repeat the soaking procedure every 2 hours. We would then use the blender to ‘grind’ our beans. It was a disaster the first day, but with time we learnt to make do with our Canada kosai (using jalapeno peppers instead of attarugu).
As for the kunun gyada, instead of the normal tsamiya we would press lemon into the groundnut mixture. My mother was (still is) amazing, as she really tried to make it as Nigerian an Iftar as possible. On days she was feeling adventurous, she would even dare to make moimoi/alala. I don’t know if it is her genius, or my appreciation for her efforts, that made the food so delicious and the Iftars so memorable.
The best part of Ramadan outside Nigeria for me was meeting Muslims from different parts of the world. It was such a lovely feeling when my sister and I visited a mosque. I felt such joy and sisterhood to see Muslims like me in all shades and sizes, striving to please Allah (exalted be His Name). I also enjoyed listening to Tafsir sessions in English, for the first time in my life!
It was during this time that I discovered Yasmin Mogahed, that young Egyptian woman who currently preaches the deen in a way that bush young people like me could relate to. I was able to build a relationship with my Rabb during this period. I realised during this period that it does not matter what your circumstances are, you must adjust and make the best out of them. I discovered the true meaning of ‘fa inna ma’al usri yusra’ (and for every difficulty, relief!).
ZARAH FATIMA WAKIL (firstname.lastname@example.org): In Nigeria, we typically fast for 13-14 hours, which sounds very reasonable compared to Scandinavian countries that fast between 19-22 hours. During my post graduate studies at Swansea University, in Wales, UK, even in the summer Ramadan wasn’t as long as the Scandinavian countries, but it was way much longer than Nigeria’s.
As Ramadan got closer, my European friends were curious about the Holy Month. One of the most frequently asked questions was, “Even water you’re not allowed to take?” A Greek friend told me how she could not give up meat and cheese even during their own Orthodox Christian fasting because, as she said, “It’s cheese and meat! They are the best food! I must eat them!”
During Ramadan, if I met in the kitchen while my non-Muslim friends were having lunch, they would feel guilty and say, “We hope we didn’t make you hungry!” Also, for some odd reason, I found my sense of smell so heightened. Any and everything being fried or cooked or roasted just smelt so nice!
We were four Nigerians who were Muslim – three boys and myself. One of the best thing about Ramadan is Iftar, it brings family and friends together to share a meal. So we decided to do Iftar together with all our friends, Muslim and non-Muslim. My Iranian friend didn’t believe in fasting, so didn’t fast; my Jordanian friend didn’t see fasting as a spiritual thing, saying it was more cultural for her, so she would fast on days she felt like. But alhamdu lilLah, all the Nigerian Muslims fasted, spiritually and culturally! I was prepared for culture shock, but not religious shock!
In Swansea, as the only girl, I had to cook every day. But one of the boys was also a good and creative cook – he would just mix anything and would get it right! We did several Nigerian delicacies – kunu, kosai, yamarita (fried yam in egg). The third Nigerian comes with his bucket of KFC, while the fourth was in charge of fruits and drinks. There was always so much to eat, even our Zimbabwean friend would join us. She would sometimes bring some devil eggs, or some dessert.
I always found it discomfiting when my family and friends sent me Iftar text messages at 7pm, like three hours earlier for me. By 9:30pm, we would all cramp in the kitchen as we waited for 9:45pm to break our fast. As there was no Masjid nearby, for Iftar Timing we had to rely on the Islamic apps on our phones and pamphlets given to us at the school mosque.
Iftar was always a leisurely meal – it would take us at least two hours to guzzle the food down. By the time we were done, it was 12 midnight! If there was anything remaining, it would come in handy for Sahur! For those living far away, take-away packs came in handy as we only had about 5 hours between Iftar and Sahoor.
Eid at the school ground was so colourful! The Asian Muslims appeared in their exotic national attires. I had come to the Eid ground resplendent in my Nigerian atamfa with gwaggoro head-tie to match! I got lots of hugs, kisses and sweets from strangers. I found it shocking when I saw some sisters in casual English wears on Sallah Day! The day really felt actually different from other days, even though we were so far away from home, our comfort zone.
After Eid prayer, we had no masa or sinasir, not even rice and stew. No chin-chin or zobo. So we all trooped back to our Iftar kitchen and had chips for breakfast, and then went to a Turkish restaurant to celebrate Sallah with a lunch.
It was a great experience fasting away from home, but nothing beats fasting with Mama’s kunu!