This is a continuation of a series of posts which starts here.
Today, 27 May 2017, is the start of Ramadan, and reading tweets about it made me reflect on my experiences of Ramadan in Muslim country.
I remember the excitement in the air, the sense that it was a special month. It reminded me of the build up to Christmas, a feeling of anticipation and of holiday/family time to come, not only every evening of the month of daytime fasting but especially the celebration at the end, Eid al-Fitr .
My first Ramadan in Tunisia was during the winter and Sousse was dead during the day. On several afternoons we drove the 50km to my husband’s village to experience the breaking of the fast. His mother, sisters and female cousins had put considerable effort into preparing the evening meal for the extended family and there was usually soup to start, to prepare the stomach after not having eaten since before dawn, then couscous with slow-cooked spicy lamb or rabbit stew. Little extras were cooked directly on the olive tree charcoal grill: liver from the recently slaughtered animal; green peppers, sprinkled with salt – these were a lottery with some being viciously spicy and no way of knowing until you’d taken a bite; and flat bread with onion seeds, freshly baked on the sides of the tabouna oven, a small clay beehive-like structure, the walls of which were heated by a fire and the bread placed onto the sides once the fire had died down. The bread was dipped into shakshouka sauce – tomato, chilli, garlic and egg. Absolutely delicious!
I remember feeling very welcomed by the family. They were warm, happy people who didn’t seem to care at all that I was not a Muslim. Neither did my husband, and I don’t think he was a Muslim in his heart either. I naively asked him if he was not long after I first met him.
‘I’m Tunisian, so of course I’m a Muslim.’
‘You could be Tunisian but choose not to be…’
He had looked at me like I was crazy; I don’t think it had occurred to him to question it. After reflecting on my question for a while he said he thought he’d get put in prison if he said he wasn’t a Muslim. I never knew if that was true or not, but the police certainly had power over people’s religious convictions: one day during Ramadan, when eating, drinking and smoking are forbidden from dawn to dusk, Samir and I walked to the deserted beach so he could smoke a cigarette away from prying eyes. But a couple of eagle-eyed policemen spotted us and made their way over. When I saw them coming I took the cigarette from Samir and pretended it was mine. As a female ‘tourist’ they’d probably leave me alone. But they’d seen Samir smoking and when he refused to apologise, one of the officers punched him so hard he fell to the ground. The other kicked him in the ribs then they laughed as they walked away. Samir had staggered back to his feet with a defiant look on his face, blood dripping from his lip. He pulled out his packet of cigarettes and shouted after the officers, ‘Hey, you got a light?’
I watched Samir and the policemen stare at each other, feeling quite terrified, but the officers laughed and turned away. ‘Fucking police,’ muttered Samir as he lit another cigarette, although his hands were shaking as he lit it.
I’m not a fan of any religion – I’m an atheist and have been for as long as I can remember. But I’m so thankful that I at least live in a society where I am free to choose to ignore religion without sanction; it’s so sad that so many in the world are not.
If you enjoy these blog posts, you might want to consider my debut novel, Daughter, Disappeared, a hard-hitting ‘women in jeopardy’ thriller, set in Tunisia. Please read the reviews on Amazon UK: http://amzn.to/2eCnZRf. Or to purchase on Amazon.com, for those in USA/Canada: http://amzn.to/2ozbGe8.
There’s also my facebook page: Fiona MacBain – Writer – thank you!