Suhoor, Fast, Iftar, Repeat
Six teenagers navigate food during Ramadan
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I don’t observe Ramadan, but every time it comes around I’m struck by its poetry, how it forces those who adhere to its rules to rely on a mode of living and survival that ignores every development in time keeping that occurred in the last 1000 years or so. You crane your head to the sky, tracking heavenly bodies; first the sun, which must be yet to rise or just set in order to start eating, and then the moon, whose new crescent must be visible before Eid-ul-Fitr can begin, clouds permitting. Along with the Jewish observance of the Sabbath at sundown, it makes you wonder if Christianity took a wrong point somewhere when it hitched its wagon to the Julian calendar.
There is also a danger of over-romanticising Ramadan, and its two meals of suhoor (the morning meal) and iftar (the evening meal). Some people hear the words and think platters of traditional foods, lovingly passed down from generation to generation, mother to mother. But KFC is also an iftar meal. In fact, from eating out with friends who do observe, I’ve learnt that anything is an iftar meal if you eat it late enough. There is also no such thing as a ‘typical’ suhoor or ‘typical’ iftar ─ not only does it ignore that ─ as this season has hopefully shown ─ we all eat differently, but it also ignores modern Muslim sensibilities. It also ignores the sensibilities of teenagers and schoolchildren, who are the focus of today’s newsletter.
When Will Yates approached me about this idea, I was struck at how absent the voices of our children and young adults are from narratives surrounding food, how you very rarely hear what they have to say in their own words (a rare counter example is the excellent project in Whetstone with 826 Valencia). Reading the interview, I was immediately taken back to my own school days: the abysmal canteen food, the joy of the tuck shop and 20p Space Raiders, the guy who operated an ice cream van 1m outside of the school grounds and who must have taken in £10,000 per shift in Panda Pops alone, the chicken shops, the fact that the two nearest takeaways were the McDonalds and Burger King on the M25, side by side for convenience. It made me pause; although some experiences might be your’s and your’s alone, perhaps there are some things that don’t change, after all…
Suhoor, Fast, Iftar, Repeat; Interview by William Yates
Walking up Hillingdon’s Yeading Lane, a two mile strip of A road that stretches from the asphalt vistas of the Hayes retail park at its southern end to the empty bowl of the White Hart Roundabout, a casual observer might be struck by the apparent dearth of culinary inspiration. In fact, the domestic food culture of the area is one of enormous variety. The area’s proximity to Heathrow means it has attracted significant migrant populations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan and Somalia over the last 30 years, alongside Turkish, Polish, Romanian and GRT communities. At my school, 85% of the students speak a language other than English at home, and the majority-Muslim student body means that we partially close for Eid-ul-Fitr. Appreciative students are much more likely to give teachers a box of Milk Tray or a Ferrero Rocher pyramid at the end of the year than a bottle of wine, although the most prized token of thanks is a takeaway container of homemade biryani (you can always tell that you’re in a student’s good books when they inquire about your spice tolerance three weeks before the Christmas holidays).
Jarringly, the school caterers do little to acknowledge this diversity beyond the provision of a halal option within a narrow cycle of standard school-dinner fare. By their mid-teens, students tend to steer clear of congealed pasta pots and acrid peri-peri chicken. Those not old enough to leave the site at lunchtime brandish corner-shop bottles of Boost (or litre cartons of Sun Exotic Juice Drink, if they’re feeling healthy) before school, and tubes of Pringles peep out of the handbags and backpacks on my classroom floor as evidence of alarms slept through and breakfasts missed. Students spend their first five years here developing a staunch allegiance to either Perfect Chicken or Virginia Chicken.
For the last few years, Ramadan has proved a fulcrum around which our school year rotates. The period of fasting has coincided with public exam season or its immediate run-up every year since 2016, adding the time and energy pressures of fasting, family commitments and religious observance to the pressures of the most important academic challenges students ever face. Across the last two years, these pressures have been compounded by a deadly disease that not only inflicts disproportionate harm on ethnic minorities but also precludes congregation in masjids and large family groups, where spiritual nourishment and fellowship would temper physical hardship.
A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with seven Muslim students, from Pakistani, Somali and Afghan backgrounds, to discuss their perspectives on Ramadan and food, both at school and at home, and how they have changed over the past couple of years. The students had hugely differing attitudes to Ramadan: a couple had just finished praying and had been fasting all week, whereas one student arrived late because ‘the taxi back from Taco Bell in Hayes took a while’.
The following is a verbatim account of the conversation we had, edited for clarity.
Present: Sabah, 18; Layla, 18; Zalma, 17; Asma, 17; Shahib, 18; Jannah, 16
Ramadan is often viewed as a time of spiritual strengthening, but it is also a time when you are undergoing physical stress. Where does the balance lie? Is it a source of strength, because of the spiritual nourishment you gain, or is it a cause of weakness because of the physical strictures?
Sabah: It’s a time of rebalance. It’s a time when I try to prioritise looking beyond the immediate future. After iftar I find myself focused – I can sit down and get quite a lot of work done.
Jannah: When I think of Ramadan, I don’t just think of the fasting side of it. I think of it as a time where I improve myself, and that’s about building habits that I know are good for me. Some days are definitely quite challenging, and they do cause me some stress, but when I pray or read Quran, the spiritual impact it has on me outweighs my mental stress and I break my fasts feeling kind of okay.
Layla: To be honest, I get really hungry, and I’m not very present some of the time. Some days it’s like, ‘oh, should I fast today or should I work? Which one?’ It’s about priorities, I guess, but that feels like a bad thing. I have to justify my choices, but the spiritual benefits do help a lot. It isn’t that bad overall.
Shahib: It depends what you choose to put weight on. We’re taught as Muslims that life is a blessing in itself, but you’re also chasing eternal life. For me personally, school life is my focus at the moment. By 3pm or 4pm, I’m not exactly in starvation mode, but I’m really thinking about getting round to eating or drinking, and I can’t really focus, so I try to sleep between then and eight, and I’ll only wake up to pray.
Zalma: Suhoor is at about 4am, and that’s like two hours before I get up. Sleep deprivation is a big issue.
Asma: When I don’t eat much suhoor, it affects me much worse. On the other days, when I do eat some food for suhoor, I do tend to focus more on my work. Although my exams are really important, I only don’t fast on the days where I really can’t fast, on the days when I menstruate, because you’re not allowed to fast when you menstruate.
That actually leads onto something I really wanted to discuss as well – do you think that experiences of Ramadan are gendered? [all the girls in the classroom nodded vigorously at this point, with a chorus of ‘yeah’ and ‘definitely’]
Sabah: It’s definitely gendered, along with the rest of the culture. It’s like the women have a huge amount more responsibility to cook and clean and stuff while the men just sort of come in and sit and eat and, like, leave, but that’s cultural rather than religious.
Layla: Yeah, being unable to fast or pray when menstruating definitely makes it gendered but being unable to talk about it and having that sense of stigma around it is hugely frustrating – you have to act like you’re eating or act like you’re fasting around the men and not talk about it. I feel like that’s just a taboo that has nothing to do with the actual religion. The sense of stigma is really frustrating.
Sabah: Aunties will say you shouldn’t eat outside because it sends a message you’re menstruating, like it’s shameful. I feel like at school people go out of their way to make us feel comfortable, which makes a difference – here it’s less of a problem. But at home, it’s like men…well, it wouldn’t be an option at mine [to go home and sleep]. You have to clean, you have to cook, you have to prepare iftar for anyone who shows up.
Layla: Yeah, it’s like there’s a completely different set of expectations for men at home. In my house my brothers get involved, like, it’s Ramadan for everyone, not just for the men. But my cousins? The men will eat, get up and leave, and the women will have to cook and clean up and everything. It leaves a one-sided view of what Ramadan is all about.
Shahib: Yeah, to be honest I don’t know a huge amount about how periods and stuff work with Ramadan, because it’s quite taboo. My mum is the only woman in the household – sometimes I don’t know how she does it – and she’ll be cooking from five to eight after not having eaten all day. My dad, my brother and I just sit on the sofa. We clean up, but it’s not nearly the same. If my mum had had a daughter, there’d be a much fairer share of labour.1
What is your relationship with food like during Ramadan?
Jannah: I think food is something that I take for granted during most of the year. During Ramadan though, I feel more grateful for always having enough food to eat, and I think this is one of the best things about Ramadan. The feeling of hunger and thirst for a day is something that a lot of people have probably experienced at some point in their life but having to feel this every day for a month is a lot different.
Sabah: I appreciate food more. As a family, we try really hard to put more effort into cooking outside the box, so like, samosas, spring rolls, pastries, biryanis, different types of pastas – we just cook what we like, but we put more care and attention in…
Zalma: Yeah, we make a real effort to eat together, which we don’t make time for during the rest of the year.
Jannah: Same. Normally, we don’t really eat together and eat where and when we want, really. But during Ramadan, eating together brings the family closer together.
Asma: Samosas are a favourite. I don’t like to eat them outside of Ramadan because then it becomes a special thing to eat at that time. We mostly eat in our rooms for the rest of the year, but we get together a couple of minutes before iftar, make du’as, and stay for a couple of hours after the meal has finished, reading, praying and doing stuff like that together, which is quite special for us as a family.
Jannah: I guess samosas are a staple food for many Muslims during Ramadan, and yeah, they’re tasty, but eating them every day for a month does get a bit boring. I don’t think my food preferences during Ramadan are much different from what they normally are - like, hearing that we are having pizza for iftar always gets me excited.
Layla: And dates! Dates are a big deal during Ramadan. [widespread agreement]
Sabah: It’s more about the effort involved. We always have a starter, main and dessert. It’s like the magic of Ramadan – doing all these things with your family, with a sense of unity, is what makes it special.
Asma: Yeah, those really labour-intensive foods are a big part of what make Ramadan special for me, and why I look forward to it.
Layla: When people get a corner-shop samosa or whatever, I’m like... sure, yeah, but why would you when they could be so good?
What does iftar or suhoor usually look like for you?
Zalma: The colonisation of Somalia by the Italians means they had mass influence on our food, so we do like to enjoy foods like lasagna or a nice macaroni and cheese dish. With homemade bechamel of course, none of that Tesco rubbish! Honestly, the food we eat for iftar varies nightly so it may be pasta one night, or a nice biryani the other. Spontaneity is key to a happy life.
Shahib: Suhoor is like breakfast but with a lot more water. Iftar is a time to forget the weighing scale and be grateful for the food and accept the consequences the day afterwards. In other words: a huge dinner, almost like an all you can eat buffet at times, with kaboli, mantu, bolini, fried potato, cofta…
Asma: When we make samosas, we normally start at about 5 – it takes about an hour and a half from start to finish. My mum and my sister usually make the samosa dough first and I make the filling. The filling is usually meat and some vegetables like peas and carrots, which is my favourite, but sometimes I make a potato filling. Then we all fill the samosa together. That’s my favourite part, probably because it’s the messiest and you can just have fun with it. My sister and I tend to add too much filling – mum’s the expert. Once we’ve filled them, my mum fries them all in batches and that’s it. I don’t eat a lot of cultural food for suhoor because it’s too early. I usually have some sandwiches or some food I didn’t manage to finish at iftar. Sabaayad, which is flatbread, with soup is another thing we eat for iftar.
Zalma: Suhoor, as Asma said, is more laidback. It’s sort of a free for all, everyone makes their own food or just eats leftovers from iftar. Salads are nice because they are easy on your stomach.
One of the things I noticed when I arrived at the school was that this doesn’t seem to be an area where there are loads of good options to eat out, and the school canteen doesn’t seem to be that varied. How do you guys feel about your food options at school and outside?
Layla: It’s good that there are halal options, but by the time you’re in Year 11, you’re potentially in school from 7am to 4pm, so it would be nice to see a bit more variety.
Sabah: Yeah, but why isn’t everything halal? Loads of schools do it.
Zalma: The canteen’s bland, and all you’ve got outside is chicken shops. And even if you do go down into Hayes, it’s still mostly just chicken shops, or McDonald’s. There are no healthy options.
Layla: A lot of the kids don’t actually eat meals from the school canteen because they’re so bland, and that’s a big deal at school because you’re just sitting there thinking about food when you should be learning. So yeah, more variety would be good.
Sabah: And the prices are really high.
Shahib: Yeah, the prices are too high. When I was growing up, we didn’t have much, and I wouldn’t want to pay those prices for food I didn’t like, so I would just wait until 3 and have my lunch when I get home. You could only choose so many things, and they weren’t going to nourish you, so I didn’t feel good taking money from my parents for that.
Body image is obviously a massive issue in schools. Is that something that you think about during Ramadan?
Layla: You always gain weight…
Sabah: Yeah, you always gain weight during Ramadan, and I really don’t feel comfortable when I do that, so I kind of overcompensate and start to work out like crazy towards the end of the month.
Layla: And the food you’re eating is really heavy, like fried food and stuff, and you’re always eating it at night, so everyone does gain weight.
Shahib: One thing I used to do with my brother was go for a run just before breaking our fast. Say we were breaking our fast just before 9 – we’d go for a run at 7:45, come back at 8:30, shower, down some water and break our fast that way. It wasn’t nice, but it felt like the only way to avoid gaining a ton of weight.
Sabah: I was a fat little kid, so I have a real fear of gaining weight. When anyone comments on my appearance, I really take it to heart, and I’ll be really careful about what I’m eating.
Asma: It’s kind of the opposite for me. I tend to lose some weight and then gain it back immediately after Ramadan, and my parents are always telling us to eat more so we don’t complain about being hungry.
What has been the effect of the last twelve months on your experience of Ramadan. How have things changed?
Layla: Not being able to see my aunties and grandma last year took a big toll, but it gave me time to be with just my immediate family. I really liked it – it was one of my favourite Ramadans. You had obligations at home, but my mum was at work less, so we could spend more time together.
Zalma: It didn’t change so much for me. Normally, Ramadan is pretty simple: I eat, I pray, so it wasn’t that deep for me. Last year I didn’t have GCSEs to do, but this year I’ve got stuff at school to focus on, which is different I guess.
Asma: It was easier for me during lockdown because I didn’t have to use that much energy. But coming out of lockdown and spending energy going to school, from school – it’s been more tiring for me at least.
Shahib: Actually, I’m kind of the opposite. Usually, during Ramadan, it’s good to have something distracting you from being hungry, so when I’m at home, food is all I think about, but if I’m at school, I’ve got other stuff to focus on.
If or when you have families of your own, what do you hope your kids can get out of Ramadan?
Jannah: I would want them to understand how grateful they are to always have enough to eat, because there are people out there who barely have enough to survive. I would also want them to learn how important it is to not waste food, because it is a blessing!
Sabah: I just hope they can get the same sense of unity that I get out of it. A feeling of love for religion, love for fasting.
Layla: I want to make it like my parents did and try to avoid having too gendered roles within the household. One hundred percent I don’t want girls to feel that they have to deal with more pressure or that they have to hide things just because it might make men uncomfortable.
One final question: what are you looking forward to eating at Eid?
Asma: I’m looking forward to eating a Somali sweet called halwad we buy. It’s unhealthy though so we don’t eat much and only eat it on Eid.
Zalma: After a month of cultural foods, my family and I are going to enjoy some Nandos.
Will Yates is a secondary school English teacher in West London. You can find him on Twitter and occasionally writing for TES. Will donated the fee for this newsletter to the Trussell Trust, a charity which provides support and emergency food for people in crisis.
Many thanks to all the interviewees for taking part in this newsletter. Due to rules on safeguarding, everyone has been paid for their time in Nando’s Gift Vouchers.
The illustration is by Heedayah Lockman, a Glasgow-based freelance illustrator and graphic designer, with an architectural background. Inspired by still life and food, she enjoys exploring colour and different techniques by using grids and patterns that contrast the shapes of everyday objects. Please find more of her work on Instagram; @heedayahlockman.
With that, the students went off to their afternoon lessons. Later in the afternoon, I received this email from Shahib:
In the conversation, we talked about there being a gendered experience for fasting and I will be honest I never paid attention to the different experiences of the genders during Ramadan.
After the meeting, I asked my mum how it was like fasting and how women dealt with their periods during fasting. It needs to be said it is rare a mother and son will ever discuss this topic in a traditional Afghan household but seeing as I have an all-boy house she openly explained the process.
For her and nearly all women growing up in Afghanistan, it was weird or even shameful to have and openly discuss having a period during Ramadan, and to avoid the awkward realisation your sister or daughter is not fasting most women would fake fasts in front of the men or eat when there are no men around.
My mum spoke about how she would go down to the kitchen hungry and eat (when she is on her period and not fasting) and would eat whatever was there and would quickly rinse and clean any evidence of the food so that to avoid any questions from the males in the household.
I asked her if this happens anymore and she admitted women in Afghanistan still act this way and even women in England of Middle Eastern background find it incredibly taboo to speak about their periods and would often find themselves hiding themselves eating. I was shocked to hear this.
Seeing how your blog focuses on food I hope some of this is relevant and how women would hide food as it sometimes became an image of shame. Not only would eating food be a sign of no fast but also having a period which I am not sure which was worse.
Again thanks for having me in the conversation, it must be said without the meeting I would have never heard my Mum’s story which rings true for many Muslim women.