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Release date: 12/28/2004.

You'll find this story and many of the recipes in it, From AN EXALTATION OF SOUPS,
copyright © 2004
by Patricia Solley,
Published by Three Rivers Press.

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"O moon-faced Beloved,
the month of Ramadan has arrived.
Cover the table
and open the path of praise."

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Breaking the Ramadan Fast with Soup

(e-SoupSong 7: November 1, 2000)

ONCE UPON A TIME, I took my children to Casablanca to live. Everything was new and strange, and it was Ramadan.

Six days into the venture, here's what I wrote home: "I should mention that we are in the third week of the holy season of Ramadan. Mohammed decreed that for one month out of every year, all Moslems would show their respect to Allah and the poor of the world by fasting every day for 12 hours during the main part of the day. This means that from about 8 am to 8 pm, no matter what the heat (and it's hot!), NOTHING shall pass the lips of a Moslem -- not a morsel of food, not a sip of water. If you smoke as a rule, you give that up. Alcohol is totally forbidden for the duration. And you have never seen so many stressed faces. The construction workers across from our apartment drag themselves along with their cinderblocks. You can see the men on the street dying for a cigarette. Women out with children clearly find their tempers growing short. And I especially feel sorry for the food merchants-out in the hot sun with water, water everywhere and nary a drop to drink."

Well, it was a pretty superficial impression, all things considered, but still a powerful one for someone new to the concept (outside of the outrageous Chapter 17 in Moby Dick on Queequeg's "The Ramadan" --which truly has to be read to be believed!).

Ramadan was decreed by Mohammed after the archangel Gabriel revealed God's word to him: "O ye who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may learn self-restraint" (Chapter 2, verse 183). It is a month-long moveable feast based on the lunar calendar -- one of the 5 Pillars of Islam -- a holy time when people must feel the pangs of hunger and thirst to understand how it feels to be needy and without food -- a time when, purified of food, one should strive for spirituality and closeness to God. This year, Ramadan commences around November 27, depending on the first sighting of the crescent moon that begins the 9th month of the Hejira.

I know my friends in Casablanca will not be as thirsty and as stressed this November as they were that blistering July some 18 years ago, but I also know that they will look forward just as avidly to the evening siren that sweeps the city, announcing the end of the fast and signalling that it's okay to dip their ladles into those soup pots full of fragrant, bubbling Harira, the spicy-lemony lamb and vegetable soup that traditionally breaks the fast in Morocco.

Why soup? For a lot of very good reasons.

First, it is recorded in the Traditions that Mohammed ended his own daily prescribed fast at iftar with dates, water, and often a barley broth called talbina or tirbiyali (click HERE for a Syrian version).

Second, it's hugely refreshing and nutritious--a quick shot of thirst-slaking liquid with hunger-relieving solid nutrition that prepares the body and soul for the prayers that follow, before the proper evening meal is taken.

Then, too, soup is no quick, solitary nibble out in the kitchen. It is necessarily formal, communal, and profound. You've got to put it in a bowl, sit down with it, and eat it with a spoon. Night after night, for some 30 straight days, family members--all hungry, thirsty, and excited--sit down together, lift their spoons together, smile at each other, and shovel in that first mouthful of sustaining soup.

Since those years in Morocco, Harira has been one of my all-time favorite soups - possibly even responsible on some level for SoupSong's genesis and development. One taste and I am unfailingly transported back to my home away from home - its brilliant souqs and earthy smells; the haunting sunsets over Fez and bad-tempered camels in Marrakech; Massa'oud and Medea, Farida and Mustapha; back to spices and leather and carpets and Ramadan.

That's another thing that soups do best -- even better (if only they had their own poet) than Proust's madeleine dipped in lime blossom tisane: they call up past times and places and people and let us turn thoughts of them over with our soup spoons, reflecting on what they meant to us and how they shaped our lives.

So it's Harira for me and millions of Moroccans. But it's Shorabit Abbas for Saudis, Syrians, and Lebanese...and Sup Ekor Lembu, among other soups, in Malaysia. Consider the following list of traditional Ramadan soups, and--like Hans Christian Andersen's swineherd who made a little saucepan where "whoever held his finger in its smoke, immediately smelt all the dishes that were cooking on every hearth in the city"-- you'll have a good idea of what families are sitting down to eat at sunset, come late November, across the world:

ALGERIA: Jary (a thick lemony wheat vegetarian soup, bristling with green herbs and mint). And here's a soupy heartbreaker: the great Algerian playwright and actor Rouiched (Mohammed Ayad), the very foundation stone of modern Algerian theater who risked all with his heartfelt involvement in the Algerian liberation war, fell into such disfavor with the government that he was reduced to producing and playing in shorba (soup) sketches that were broadcast at meal-breaks during Ramadan.

DJIBOUTI: Unrecorded soup, but check out Claire Denis' 1999 film Beau Travail, a study of anachronistic, self-absorbed French Legionnaire society that preens on itself while 3 Muslim legionnaires sit outside the inner circle during Ramadan watching their comrades chow down unthinkingly.
IRAN: Elahe Norman of Teheran breaks the fast with traditional dates and wheat or barley soup with meat.
LEBANON: Shorabit Addas (classic red lentil soup).
MALAYSIA: It's culturally popular to break the fast (called "bulan puasa") in restaurants here, where gorgeous culinary feasts are set out, including Sup Ekor Lembu (Oxtail Soup), Sup Lautan Bersantan (prawns, scallops, and crab), Sup Tulang Rusa, and Sup Ikan Haruan Tongrat.
MOROCCO: Harira--full of lamb, lentils, chickpeas, vegetables, herbs, spices, all stirred up with lemon and egg strands. Fantastic!
SAUDI ARABIA: Mohammed's Tirbiyali (barley broth) is traditional, but so is Awatif Baarma's dates and Arabic coffee, followed by wheat soup (Shorobit Il-Jareesh) and samosas after maghrib prayers.
SYRIA: Fatima Shaaban says "must-haves are fried bread with meat, soup, and salad" - traditionally Mohammed's Tirbiyali (barley broth) or the classic red lentil soup Shorabit Addas.
TUNISIA: North African Jary or Harira. Tunisian film Director Nouri Bouzid crystalizes the frustration and transcendance of Ramadan in It Is Sheherezade They're Killing through his portrayal of a family torn apart during the fast by disagreements over who are the heroes and victims of the war.
TURKEY: Yayla Corbasi, a tangy, buttery yoghurt soup deeply flavored with dill and made substantial with rice.
USA: Customs depend largely on cultural backgrounds, but I noted that Rockets superstar Hakeem Olajuwon is known to pick up an order of "soup to go" during Ramadan at Anthony's Restaurant in Houston to eat after sunset.
YEMEN: Seena Mustapha breaks the fast with a traditional soup of wheat, milk, lamb, and fried onions followed by dates--all in a family setting.

Here's what the great Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi sang about Ramadan in the 13th century AD (translation by A.J. Arberry):

"The month of fasting has come, the emperor's banner has arrived; withhold your hand from food, the spirit's table has arrived.
The soul has escaped from separation and bound nature's hands; the heart of error is defeated, the army of faith has arrived.
Fasting is our sacrifice, it is the life of our soul; let us sacrifice all our body, since the soul has arrived as guest.
Fortitude is as a sweet cloud, wisdom rains from it, because it was in such a month of fortitude that the Koran arrived.
...Wash your hands and your mouth, neither eat nor speak; seek that speech and that morsel which has come to the silent ones."
Many thanks to the people at Halalco Books in Falls Church, Virginia, for helping me with Ramadan texts. And many thanks to Marla and Jay Carroll for helping me test out the cited soup recipes. As always, I would very much appreciate corrections and additions to this SoupSong!

Again in Rumi's ecstatic words,

"O moon-faced Beloved,
the month of Ramadan has arrived.
Cover the table
and open the path of praise."

Best regards, Pat Solley

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