Ramadaan in Kashmir, a family affair

Kashmiri Muslims perform congregational prayers on a street during the first day of the fasting month of Ramadan in Srinagar on July 21, 2012. PHOTO BY SHUAIB MASOODI

In the conservative Muslim society of Kashmir, where past years of conflict have diminished the social spaces, Ramadan is an increasingly family affair. RIFAT MOHIDIN reflects on what the month means to her and her family.

This Ramadan, I am fasting the longest days of my life. The longest day – June 21, the third day of Ramadan – was 16 hours and 11 minutes long. Although I have a made habit of fasting since childhood, it has still been a difficult experience in the hot and humid weather: either I fall sleep all the time, or I end up washing my face dozens of times to make sure I feel fresh.

In Kashmir, if you forget to set an alarm to wake you up for Sehri, the predawn meal that commences the day-long fast, the drum beats of sahar khan that echo through the night are enough to end your sleep. I always feel that it has been just an hour of sleep before sahar khan arrive near our door to wake us up. Sahar khan, who arrive from far-flung villages, are the drummers who act as human alarms during Ramadan. Every family in our locality in Srinagar invite sahar khan to break their fast at Iftar in turns.

The first days of Ramadan have always been exciting for me: I wake up an hour before Sehri, but as the days pass by, it is a hard to maintain this. My parents ring my phone again and again and to remind me there is just 10 minutes left. I tell them to wait five minutes, and in recent days I wake up for Sehri while rubbing my eyes. One day I tripped on the stairs as I was still half asleep.

In the last few days I snooze till there are really only 10 minutes left to finish my Sehri. I do not like to have nun chai (salt tea) during Sehri like everyone else in my family – I eat only rice and drink a glass of milk.
After meals and morning prayers there is at least time to sleep again for about five hours. I sleep more in Ramadaan than usual days. The whole day I feel lazy and drained.

During Ramadaan, the days start late and the streets in Srinagar are much less crowded.  Unlike the other months of the year, people keenly follow religious practices; they prefer to stay indoors and pray, rather than roam the streets or go out with their friends. Like some Muslims around the world, most of the girls take to wearing hijab.

In Ramadan, most of the street vendors, who witness brisk business during this time of the year, open their stalls late, at around Iftar. Many restaurants and food outlets that are veiled during the day allow those who are not fasting to eat behind the curtains. As brushing teeth is prohibited during the fast, people chew meswak to clean their teeth.

I remember when Ramadaan was in winter: the days were short and we would break our fast at about 5.30pm, but now the days are longer and the fasting hours stretch from 3.30am to 7.50pm in the hot weather.

The most awaited and loved part of Ramadan in my home is Iftar: the preparation starts hours ahead of time. I wait for Iftar to eat Firni (semolina pudding) –  this is known as the dessert of Ramadaan in Kashmir. Throughout the day, I kill time just to get to this moment: my eyes look at clock every five minutes after the afternoon Asr prayers.

Iftaar in most houses follows a traditional pattern. When it is the time for Iftar, the muezzins in all the mosques call out for Iftaar – this is immediately followed by the loud voices of kids in the street, joyfully repeating it many times.

Cool-basil-drinkWe break our fast each day with dates: Arabian dates are preferred, although costly. We also drink a special drink that is a part of a local tradition and an important way of quenching thirst. Known as “Babri beoul Tresh” is Kashmir, it is sweetened milk sherbet of basil seeds. The drink is made at home and also served on the roadside to those who are travelling. The tradition has continued from the time of Sufi saints who came to Kashmir from different parts of central Asia.

Some people add a little quantity of Tracaganth gum (known as Qateer in local lingo) to the drink to fight dehydration in Ramadan. The basil seed drinkis prepared by leaving the seeds in water till they have swollen well. They are then mixed with milk, sugar, dry fruits, dates and Tragakanth gum.

The Iftaar is followed by dinner, which consists of simple steamed rice, often accompanied by mutton or chicken. My friends call me a typical Kashmiri girl as I can hardly imagine my meal without rice – “rice” is synonym for lunch and dinner. There is a famous saying in Kashmir that if people do not eat rice, they consider themselves to have eaten nothing.

Dinner is followed by taraweeh, the special night prayers exclusive to the month of Ramadan. Most of the people pray in the month of Ramadan, and the mosques are full, but as there are no mosques for women in Kashmir to we all prefer to pray at home. The taraweeh is followed by the salt-tea known as nun chai as well as local bread or “tchot”,  sprinkled with poppy seeds and mixed with ghee.

In Kashmir, the last days of Ramadaan are mostly spent shopping in preparation for Eid – the day which celebrates the end of the fasting month – including buying special Eid clothes imported from Pakistan. Kashmiris also love to serve pastries and baked delicacies for Eid and the bakeries tend to run out of stock days before Eid.

Arfa – the day before Eid – it is the busiest day for the women in every family as we prepare Wazwan – a special Kashmiri cuisine of meat and chicken – prepared on occasions like Eid and weddings.

For me this month has been about patience, testing, blessings – and a lot of food. It is the month when devils are chained and we become more faithful. Although Ramadaan this year was demanding, the blessings are always plentiful, as the atmosphere of the holy month pervades my home.