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July 12, 2012, Thursday

Some things to expect during Ramadan

Ramadan, which is the annual month of fasting and considered to be a very significant religious observance in Islam, will soon begin.

I’ve had a few people ask me questions about Ramadan, such as “What are the dates for Ramadan in 2012?” and “Why do Muslims break their fast by eating dates?”

According to the Religious Affairs Directorate, Ramadan this year will start on July 20 and end on Aug. 18.

As I explained in an earlier piece, “Mosques and Muslim holidays” (published on May 29), Muslim religious holidays change each year in line with the Muslim lunar calendar. As a lunar year is 11 days shorter, the holidays come earlier every year on the Gregorian calendar. Although these religious holidays are celebrated at the same time throughout the Muslim world, when exactly they will occur is not always clear ahead of time. Determining how many days a lunar month will have is the job of astronomers, who observe the phases of the moon and make the necessary calculations concerning its orbit. Turkish civil authorities will then declare how many days the civil holiday will be. The dates are officially declared and printed in the newspapers. It is always a nice surprise when there is just one working day between the holiday and the weekend and the authorities decide to join the two days together and make an extra-long holiday.

This year the official holiday known as Ramazan Bayramı or Şeker Bayramı (candy festival) or Eid al-Fitr in Arabic will begin on Sunday, Aug. 19 and last for three full days until Aug. 21.

I received a letter in response to the piece I referred to above asking, “Why do people eat dates during Ramadan?”

My guess is that because dates have many essential nutrients and have been a staple fruit in Middle Eastern diets for centuries it is a good choice. Also it is also said that the Prophet Muhammad would break his fast by eating a few dates. Millions of Muslims will thus break their fasts just as the Prophet did centuries ago, that is, by first having a couple of dates. Any nutritionist will tell you that dates quickly restore blood sugar levels, quell hunger and prevent overeating after fasting.

One of the things I love during Ramadan is the variety of soups. Over the years I have been invited to break fasts with Muslims, even though I do not keep the fast. When beginning the breaking of the fast, you usually start by eating one or two dates before moving on to the first course, which is typically some kind of soup. It is not an exaggeration to say that meals during Ramadan usually involve several courses. The main course is a pretty elaborate spread, similar to a large Sunday lunch or a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, but without the pork.

There is nothing better on a cold day than to warm our bellies and fill up with a bowl of homemade soup. In more recent years packages of instant soup have come on the market and since then cups of soup have been manufactured even though soup has been a part of Turkish cuisine long before packages or cups of soup. I remember when I was learning Turkish it seemed funny to me that in Turkish you say you “drink a cigarette” or you “drink soup.” I had always thought that I either just “had” or “ate” my soup and of course I have never smoked so that was a non-issue. English speakers typically associate soup and the verb “to eat” with a bowl and “to drink” with a cup. However, Turks traditionally have always served soup in a bowl with a spoon and have always used the verb “drink” for soups.

I was impressed by the wide variety of Knorr soups and their advertisements during Ramadan last year in Turkey. Their motto was “A different soup for each iftar [breaking of the fast].” It’s true that nothing beats homemade soups and other homemade dishes, but I must admit Knorr soups have made life easier for those people with two jobs. Maggi bouillon cubes and Knorr soups are essentials in my kitchen cupboard. If you are visiting Turkey, go to a supermarket and visit the soup section. You will see an impressive assortment of soups. You might even pick up a few packages and take them home in your bag so on that cold wintry day you can have a little sip of Turkey.

As the Turks say, “Afiyet olsun [enjoy your meal]!” You’ll also hear the expression “Allah kabul etsin [May your good deeds be accepted],” which is what a Muslim says to another Muslim who says they are fasting.

Note: Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey” 2005. Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email: [email protected]

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