Growing up, my Ayeeyo (Grandmother in Somali) would feed, care for and clothe us while finding time to guilt us into remembering how fortunate we were for the service.
During the holy month of Ramadan, she would remind us that our fasting and hunger was pointless if all we thought about was eating. This while we were devouring our faces in warm plates of samosa, dates and some dangerously sugared up homemade milkshakes laid out on traditional African floor mats. For Muslim families like my own, this is neither a strange assortment of items, nor an unfamiliar scene. Without fail the holy month of Ramadan silently creeps into our yearly cycle.
The onset of ritual fasting has a sense of comedic timing. Aided by a monsoon of filtered snaps, videos and stories, distant family and extended friendship circles again feel close by with the exchanging blessings for the holy month. Our Iftar dinners (where we break our fast at sunset) become a forum for sharing experiences and anecdotes of how hard (or easy) they found adjusting to a day without food.
Photo by Faysal Farah
As can be expected, the absence of eating makes you think only of one thing: Food.
Thoughts of coffee seep into your mind despite your best efforts to filter them out as you stare at your computer screen at work. The zing of Nando’s perri-perri sauce won’t leave you alone while your lecturer asks the class how everyone is going on the assignment you haven’t started. Your dry lips crack under the tense strain of explaining for the thousandth time to your non-Muslim friends, ‘no…not even water’.
To some, these are moments of pain. With time they have become opportunities to contemplate and reflect why does food still centre our cultural identity and our social world. Fasting in Ramadan, positions us to make a choice that is underlined by privilege, and what greater privilege than giving up food.
At any moment we are exposed to a myriad of options to accommodate our tastes. Selecting our favourite luxury delicacies, our privilege becomes more entrenched.
One afternoon, while walking along Swanston St, in Melbourne’s CBD, a friend made this point apparent to me. Lost in the flurry of options I craved to eat at, I began listing suitable restaurants without the help of Google. Laughing he interrupted ‘You are privileged for even having cravings.’ For reasons I did not understand initially, this really unsettled me. I suddenly felt so aware of how obnoxious I appeared to him. Where I saw food as pleasure, my friend could not fathom food beyond its mere vitality. This ultimately served as a point of mental reflection for me. I needed to reimagine my own state of fortune.
The words of my Grandmother begin to ring loud again.
As kids we often would tune out gradually during Ayeeyo’s regular sermons. In Ramadan of course, you could count on the theme being hunger. She would recall with startling clarity, long fables of people she knew in Somalia who were left behind. Like clockwork, she would end on how back home, people do not have the option of buying fast food on demand, or even opening a fridge with a variety of selections. Although privately we held suspicions, as we fidgeted sitting down in front of her on the cold living room floor, that this was her way of avoiding taking us to McDonalds on our way home from school.
By the time Ramadan comes to a close, over-indulgence is far from my mind. My stomach has shrunk and I am accustomed to the routine of going without. It is in this moment that Ramadan leaves just as it came, in the most dramatic fashion possible – Eid. Eid, much like Christmas or Sabbath, is a festival of immoderation and excess as once again families gather and reconnect (with a new snap filter to share of course). Yet whatever the faith, food remains central to these exhibitions of intemperance. The sight of dozens of plates of rice with meat and fresh vegetables that quite often go to waste reinforces my point. We are privileged to have such access and choice.
Celebrations of culture would undoubtedly become more enriching with an acknowledgment that for some people, food is truly a matter of survival.
Many years later I have accepted the uniquely Somali way my Ayeeyo brought home to us children how fortunate we were to be in a position to exercise choice. Perhaps it also served as a warning against waste and indulgence. As always she was right, but I do wonder how she would react when I eventually tell her about UberEats.
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