So what is it with Ramadan in Lebanon?
Let’s take a walk…!
The smell of traditional dishes wafts out from the windows of the houses as the hour of sunset nears by. Through the residential streets of Beirut and Tripoli, where our large communities of the Islamic faith reside, there is this subtle excitement emerging from the calm of tiredness of a long day of fasting.
Lentil soup boiling out the scent of cumin, Sambousek baking its dough around the melting cheese, garlic roasting in butter as chickpeas boil for the Fatteh, the chopping of fresh parsley and onions and the aroma of Sumac soaring out the promise of an invigorating Fattoush salad….and the hum of murmured prayers of the women cooking….
Soon the sun will set and the families will gather to break their long-day of fast.
It’s Ramadan in Lebanon, and there is more to tell, for in our country it’s different in many aspects.
First, for my lovely readers of the western world, let me tell you what is Ramadan.
The holiest month of Islam, and probably the most important in its religious traditions, Ramadan is a month of adherence to its core values, and of fasting from sunrise to sunset, with total abstinence of food and drink, even water.
That strong test of will aims to connect them to the plights of the poor, humbles them in their humanity so to feed their souls instead, open their hearts to forgive and be forgiven, and thrive to behave righteously; all with the main purpose of attaining righteousness.
With the fasting, prayers intensify and charitable deeds increase.
For thirty days, from the dusk after the appearance at eve of the Crescent Moon on the ninth month of the Islamic Hijreh Calendar, our Muslim communities are on devoted observance.
They daily commemoration with fasting culminates with family or social gathering at sunset with the Iftar meal that breaks their fasting.
The second meal of the day, which follows hours later, is an occasion of family and social celebrations, many at a large scale hosted in restaurants and event venues.
These are our famous Ramadan Dinners in Lebanon, which are enjoyed nationwide in festivities.
A Month of Old and New Traditions
I do want to mention two of the most notable century-old traditions of Ramadan because of their interesting particularities.
The start of Ramadan follows a couple of days of expectation as the Muslims await an official announcement of the date, which ensues upon the appearance of the Crescent Moon.
However, many families in Beirut still adhere to the tradition of sighting the moon as their ancestors did.
They take to the parks and the streets, late in the evening, their eyes in the darkening sky, the mood in excitement, the talks of tales and history on-going, as they wait to witness the emergence of the Crescent and the start of their holiest month.
A tradition dating since the onset of the Islam nations, Istibenett Ramadan is assumed with honor and joy, as many keep the tradition alive in their families for generations.
The Call for Soohoor
Another most notable old-century traditions, dating back to the Ottoman rule, comes with the Soohoor, the pre-fasting meal consumed at dusk just before the first of their 5 daily prayers.
An hour or so before sunrise, a Moossaharati, or Ramadan Soohoor caller, roams the streets with a drummer, calling in a chanting tone the Muslims to wake up for their Soohoor.
I still have vivid memories about it, when, in my early childhood in Tripoli, the almost musical sound of the reiterating call, followed by the three hits on the drummer, resonated through the dark residential streets, and under my bedroom’s balcony.
It would then fade away with the Moosaharati continuing his round. Soon after, chanting voices would resonate throughout the city from the various Mosques, calling for the morning prayer.
I wonder if this tradition is still ongoing in Tripoli as it used to be. The war has crippled many of such customs, although various remote villages and cities still enjoy their Moossaharati.
Ramadan in Lebanon: Fasting & Celebrating
Despite the physical strain, specially on the laborers and those working on the streets, nothing changes outside during the day: shops open their normal working hours, people assume their usual work schedule or do their errands, students attend their schools or universities, and traffic fill the streets.
Unlike most other countries with Ramadan’s observance, Ramadan fasting in Lebanon remains a personal endeavor, tied nonetheless with one’s religious community, yet not imposed on non-Muslims or others.
Restaurants are open and serve their usual three meals a day, with the added festivities of the Ramadan Dinner at night, and, depending on the regions, the special fast-breaking meal or Iftar.
What is most notable daily is certainly the hyper-mood in the Lebanese Sweet stores and bakeries late afternoon and through the evenings, as the demands on local desserts and pastries increase substantially during Ramadan, specially for dinner celebrations.
Dinner events in major restaurants are plenty in Lebanon during Ramadan, gathering families, friends and acquaintances of all religions.
Ramadan Dinners and Iftars have long been good occasions, which have become a custom, for companies to host annual events, and organizations to host fundraising ones.
Iftar is also an occasion for people to receive at homes a social gathering, be it gender-mixed or by gender.
Like in Christmas, the Lebanese President hosts also a traditional and formal Ramadan dinner celebration at the Presidential Palace for a large number of community leaders, politicians, religious figures, and diplomats.
In Lebanon, we share our celebrations and respect others’. We are a dynamic society weaved in multi-denominations and multi-religions since the onset of times.
We take care of each others, and we love being a tight variety that makes our country wealthy in its diversity and related traditions and celebrations.
No entities impose on the others their rites and ideologies. Instead, we accept and respect, with kindness and love, like a big happy family, whatever our differences.
In that, we are special; a country unique in its kind, nestled in the Middle-East among different nations of not as open stance and heart as ours.
It is with the same bond and along the same line of our principles that Ramadan is observed in Lebanon on faith, forgiveness, and charity, and shared celebrations.
The traditional greeting “Ramadan Kareem”, is not only expressed among the Muslims, but by all Lebanese of other religions to Muslims.
Ramadan Meals and Food
Soohoor: The Pre-fasting Meal
The Soohoor Meal is meant to keep the Muslims sustained for at least a good part of the day.
It is usually a breakfast meal that could be composed of milk and/or juice, with any or some of the following breakfast dishes:
Iftar: Breaking the Fasting
It typically starts with a powerfully vitamin-vitalized juice of Licorice, Jellab (grape molasses) or Apricot Nectar to make up for the loss of energy and ready the stomach to gradually receive more consistent food.
- The juice is followed by Dried Fruits and/or Dates, and healthy Lebanese food bites, like Sambousek Cheese and Fattayer Spinach.
- A rich fresh salad, like Fattoush, comes in to invigorate the body with vitamins;
- A thick soup of lentils, or similar, fills the stomach with relieving nutrients,
- A more consistent dish, like Fatteh dish of Chickpeas and Yogurt, completes the meal, and…
- A dessert of Lebanese pastry or sweet concludes it.
The Lebanese Cuisine Reigns at The Iftar!
Iftar is usually four freshly prepared courses, but can be more with an added array of Mezza dishes. The size of the menu depends on how modest or large the gathering is.
Families being large in Lebanon, it is common for relatives to share the 3o days of Iftar, by taking turns in cooking and hosting, adding as such a joyful mood of expectation to meet and share, and enjoying different Iftar experiences.
Depending on the gathering, Ramadan Dinner Menus range from four courses to a large variety of dishes enjoyed for two to three hours with friends and relatives or in restaurants and events.
While appetizers and Mezza dishes could be included like with the Iftar, salads and side dishes come in varieties, and the main dishes are certainly more festive and more consistent:
There is no limitation or restriction on the chosen dishes as long as it is nutritiously consistent.
Ramadan ends with the major annual celebration of the Eid al-Fitr, that Lebanese Muslims celebrate like many other communities do: new clothes, firecrackers, visiting each others with gifts and sweets, and more dinner events.
I take this occasion to wish a Ramadan Kareem of peace and shared love to my countrywomen and countrymen of the Islamic faith.