After the fast comes dinner, dinner and more dinners

By Jessi Bellama ’11 / Bangladesh 

Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, started on October 15 in 2004. From then until November 15, I didn’t eat lunch. I wasn’t technically fasting like the rest of Bangladesh. I didn’t even really do it on purpose, but since the workday was ending an hour earlier and no one was taking a lunch break, it just seemed easier. It’s the only time of the year when I found that I could actually control my food intake.

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My favorite part of the day was iftar, the breaking of fast. In a culture centered around food, the giving, feeding and consuming of food and the demonstration of love through food, iftar is the pinnacle. Meals included spicy chickpeas eaten with puffed rice, onion cakes that are crisp and golden like hash browns, battered fried eggplant, lots and lots of dates from every corner of the Muslim world, and crunchy sweet pastries soaked in 

syrup. So for a month I didn’t eat lunch.
 Another thing I didn’t do was get up at 3:00 a.m. to eat before sunrise.

Breakfast is a heavy meal intended to provide enough energy for the whole day. On most mornings this meant rice and dal, a thick stew made from lentils. That’s a little too heavy for me. I did, however, wake up every morning at 3:00 a.m., thanks to the call of the muezzin. This communal alarm clock woke everyone, regardless of religion, and was followed by the foot thumps and clunks of my upstairs neighbors preparing their early early morning feast. So even though I wasn’t technically fasting, or technically getting up at three in the morning, by the end of Ramadan, I was tired. Not hungry, but tired. And sad that iftar was almost at an end.

The official end of Ramadan is signaled by the sighting of the new crescent moon with the naked eye. At dusk on November 13, I was visiting my taekwondo instructor for iftar. At the sound of the call to prayer, everyone reached for their glasses of water placed neatly to the left of extravagantly piled plates, ready to take their first sip of the day. An elderly gentleman went outside and returned to report that he did not see the crescent moon. People had been speculating all day. Some pointed to Saudi Arabia and said that people there had seen the moon. Others sniffed at the fancy Saudi instruments and technology used to find the moon. But those who searched the evening sky in Bangladesh didn’t see the moon, so there was still one more day of fasting and one more evening of iftar.

The next day was a government holiday, so I went to the town of Rajbari, about an hour away, to visit the Peace Corps volunteers posted there. I was determined to make it back to my town of Faridpur in time for the final iftar, but because my bus had to wait to fill up with passengers, I didn’t quite make it. I was getting into a rickshaw for a ride to my apartment, when I heard the call to prayer. As I rode back to my apartment, people were lining the streets, children were picking up smaller children, and everyone was smiling and pointing. I kept turning around in the rickshaw trying to see what they were pointing at when it finally occurred to me: the moon. They were looking at the narrow sliver of the new moon, indicating the end of Ramadan—the end of fasting—and the beginning of Eid, the Muslim holiday. Firecrackers were going off and people were jubilant.

When I returned to my apartment building, after paying my rickshaw wallah a generous 20 taka, about double the normal fare and the equivalent of 30 cents, the ground floor apartment door was open, the lights were on, and no one was home. Finally, the hired boy emerged and told me that everyone was on the roof looking at the moon. I ran up five flights of stairs to the roof to and children running in circles around their mothers’ legs, and those same mothers talking to each other about Eid preparations while adjusting scarves displaced by yanking children. I half-listened. The moon was beautiful. “God’s thumbnail,” my dad had called it once, when I was little and we were sitting on the porch swing looking out at the Rocky Mountains in the United States. This moon was a dusky orange, brought out by the Bengali version of sparklers that flashed around in childrens’ hands. It felt like something special, and I felt thankful to be a small part of it.

We knew that the next day would be Eid, the absolute counterpoint to Ramadan. I was mentally prepared. I had accepted eight invitations knowing full well that I would have to eat at each house. I had a schedule mapped out, and the first thing I did when I woke up was jump rope to burn off some calories. Then I skipped breakfast—I wanted to be able to eat at each of the places that I was invited to. I wrote Eid cards in Bengali for my hosts (part of my good-home-training, as my Tennessee mom would say), which over the course of the day would prove to be a big hit and a good party trick to remember for the future. Writing in Bengali works wonders.

Feeling festive, I decided I would dress up a bit. I put on a maroon shalwar kameez tunic top with pants, laced with gold flowers, some bangles, even a little make up. I considered a teep, the decorative dot on the forehead, but decided against it. The last accessory was my camera. At 9:30 a.m. I walked up one flight of stairs to my neighbor’s apartment and pressed the doorbell, listening to the bird-tweet sound echo. My first meal of the day consisted of a plateful of kichuri, a Spanish rice-like mixture with distinctly Bengali ingredients—lentils, spices, egg, beef and ilish, the national fish, followed by paes, which is rice pudding. By the time I finished, I had already received a call from SP Sir, the superintendent of police, asking me where I was and if I would be attending the dinner he was hosting. I ran out the door with promises to return later and take pictures of the children in their fancy colorful Eid finery.

Instead of taking a rickshaw, I walked. It was a beautiful sunny day, music was coming from shops and stereos brought outside, and lots of people were out walking in crisp starched white and embroidered punjabis, gorgeous richly colored saris and shalwar kameezes. I was struck yet again by feelings of optimism and festivity.

At DC Sir’s house, the district commissioner, a video camera panned the faces assembled in the living room—civil surgeon, principal of Yasin College, doctor, doctor, lawyer, one female American Peace Corps volunteer, district commissioner, another doctor, and the deputy director of the Department of Youth Development—all eating pullao, roast chicken, cucumbers and sweet yoghurt, followed by a skinny glass of cold Sprite.

By the time I reached my ground floor neighbors’ apartment, I didn’t think my body could physically consume any more food, but it did. Luckily my neighbors were understanding and allowed me to leave some food on my plate (normally a cultural faux pas in Bangladesh). I then proceeded to my supervisor’s apartment, where I had some of the best food I’d had all day. Bhabi, DD Sir’s wife, was one of the best cooks I’d met. Most of the houses I visited for Eid had the same cuisine—pullao, roast chicken, beef, cucumbers, paes or shemae—but Bhabi had prepared some things I’d never seen before, including a creamy pudding with fresh fruit and an orange-colored sweet rice dish with chunks of pineapple in it. This was it, however. The end of the line. My body would not hold any more. I went home for a nap before the second round. I felt heavy yet happy.

That afternoon I visited my fellow Peace Corps volunteer’s host father, who had promised not to feed me, but instead had his son make me a delicious fruit lassi yogurt drink. The last meal of the day was with my host family, and that was the right place for me to end up. Rahi, my 10-year-old host-nephew, was wearing a Spider-Man shirt his father had bought for him, and everyone sat around the table laughing. Diba, my host-brother’s wife, reminded me that I had arrived in their house more than a year ago, then promptly handed me a plate. They let me serve myself.

Jessi Bellama is a 2011 graduate of Thunderbird School of Global Management. She grew up in Cameroon, Guinea Bissau and Zimbabwe, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bangladesh from 2003 to 2005. Jessi now works as an Account Manager and Head of Eact Coast Newtwork Cultivation for Context Partners in Washington, D.C.