Iraq’s Ramadan traditions alive
Iraq has gone through decades of turbulence and upheaval in its recent history, yet the country has managed to preserve its long-dated traditions, which become more visible during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. From their traditional al-Muhaibis game, special Ramadan food, and family gatherings, Iraqis show that their cultural heritage remains alive despite embargoes, wars and a protracted period of political and social unrest.
A grudging sense of optimism seemed to have permeated Iraqis in the early days of Ramadan with no terror attacks or car bombings. But such optimism was dashed when a series of bombings killed 18 and wounded more than 50 as people were preparing to break their holy day’s fast last Sunday. But some Iraqis insist on defying terror and they refuse to be dragged back to the murky world of politics in their country.
Mazen, a father of three boys and one girl, said he prefers watching Ramadan entertainment television programs to following the news and the unending story of political wrangling. Um Mohammed, an Iraqi woman, says she was more interested in her daily Ramadan activities than watching politics and news of violence.
She noted how local food products were sufficiently available in the Iraqi market during this year, Ramadan, as opposed to the previous year, in a sign that the Iraqi economy was coming back to life. Todat when I go to the market I find that local products are available, contrary to the previous years when local products were full only with imported goods,” Um Mohammed said. “This year, tomatoes, Watermelon and numerous fruits are available, and we prefer them because of their good taste and decent price.”
By MAJID ABDUL QADEREmail ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook 0 comments Links to this post Ramadan at Charlotte’s first bakery
At Charlotte’s new Arabic bakery on North Sharon Amity Road, Khaled Mahrousa says this is an easy day. It’s 3:30 p.m. on a roasting-hot late July day during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and the thermostat in the Golden Bakery reads 85 degrees.
It’s so hot, you sweat standing still, and Mahrousa hasn’t had anything to eat or drink since dawn. Sundown, when he can break the day’s fast, is 5 hours away. Still, he’s using only the brick oven and the stove today. He’s not heating up the Indian tandoor and the convection ovens.
“When all these ovens are on, it puts out some heat,” he says, smiling. “You’re lucky today.” Although the dates of Ramadan shift a little every year, based on the Muslim calendar, this year is particularly tough. The 30 days of penitence and fasting from dawn until dusk will go on until Aug. 18, through the hottest and longest days of summer.
“Punishment,” says Ahmed Azazi, smiling and shrugging. Azazi helps run Golden Bakery for the owners, his brother Moustafa and their sister Mayada. The Azazis have owned the Halal meat market next door for four years and opened the bakery in April.
It’s been a hit from the start, with people coming from all over, Greensboro to Gaffney, to stock up on pitas and pastries made from handmade phyllo. U.S. Census surveys between 2006 and 2010 showed 5,521 Arabs in Mecklenburg County, while North Carolina’s population has grown from 19,400 in 2000 to nearly 29,000 in 2010.
Azazi came to America at 18 and moved to Charlotte in 1981, when there was nothing here for Arabic people. That’s certainly changed, he says. While the Golden, perhaps Charlotte’s first Arab bakery, is Syrian-owned, people from that part of the world all share similar foods.
Syria, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, Iraq – people have always crossed each other’s borders. “Culture-wise, they eat the same food, they worship the same God,” says Azazi. “Half my customers are Jews, Christians. They don’t concentrate in one area (like some ethnic groups). Arab people don’t do that. They like to meet different people.” Handmade phyllo
Since the shop is so new, this first Ramadan has been a learning experience. Last week, they experimented with staying open until 2 a.m., since so many people don’t eat until late.
Azazi isn’t sure it was worth it, but afternoons have brought a steady stream of customers, as people pick out things to have in the evening, when many Muslims gather with family and friends to break the fast. Khaled Mahrousa was raised in a family of pastry makers in Aleppo, Syria.
He quit school and started training at 13, although he went back to school and got a culinary degree when he lived in California for seven years. Now he specializes in things like phyllo made from scratch and pastries scented with a syrup he makes using both rose and orange waters, giving them a haunting floral aroma.
Wearing a black rubber bracelet that says “Free Syria” and checking his smartphone for news on Aleppo, where rebels faced hard fighting last week, he rolled out 20 layers of phyllo dough so thin, each layer looked like white silk. It took two years to learn to do it, he says.
He starts with small circles of dough, tossing and patting them, then he layers each circle with a thick coating of cornstarch. He stacks 20 circles, then rolls them out quickly using a 4-foot wooden dowel. “You have to work quickly or you get into trouble,” he says.
“There’s a machine to roll it – it’s big, it would take up this whole place.” And yes, you can buy frozen phyllo. But customers wouldn’t go for that. “When you say ‘handmade,’ they like it more than when you say ‘frozen,’ ” he says, grinning.
He makes from three to eight pans of baklava a day, with fillings of pistachios, walnuts, cashews or almonds. For parties, people will sometimes buy the whole pan, cut into 140 tiny diamonds. Pastries and ‘pizza’
The glass case at the front of the shop is filled with Mahrousa’s pastries – baklavas, syrup-soaked fried dough called awamah, orange and green kenafah, soft cream-filled keshta.
Pita is made fresh every day or so, the circles of dough run through a conveyor to press them thin, then tossed on the floor of the brick oven. They fill with air and come out inflated, like paper balloons, before they flatten again, leaving a pocket in the middle.
The best-seller is called pizza, although it isn’t really. It’s made from puffy, browned flat breads. They might be topped with a cheese mixture called keshk or the herb mixture za’atar. Some, called fatayer, are folded in half and reheated for breakfast.
Lahme bi ajeen are flat and topped with mixtures like pomegranate molasses, yogurt and onion (more Arabic) or mint, parsley, tomato, onion, chiles and allspice (more Turkish). “It’s Armenian or Turkish,” Azazi says. “I’m not sure. They both fight over it.”
Azazi says Americans still don’t know all that Arabic cuisine can be. “Schwarma, falafel,” he says, naming two popular street foods. “That’s not our food. That’s fast food. McDonald’s food. I lived in Syria my whole life, until I was 18. I ate falafel once.”
by Kathleen Purvis