Hello dear readers! First I’d like to wish a Ramadan Kareem to all of those who observe the holy month. It took a comment on my Facebook page yesterday for me to realise that this is actually my third Ramadan as a vegan – and that in fact the first time I started to experiment with veganism was during Ramadan which I spent between Bahrain and Egypt.
I’ve mentioned before how this is one of my favourite times of the year – and that still holds true (although perhaps for different reasons – who doesn’t love shorter working hours?).
When I was younger, one of the things I loved the most was the inaugural first Iftar (the meal where we break our fast) of the month. My mother, not unlike other Arab homemakers, would put together a feast of epic proportions with all of my favourite Egyptian dishes – Molokheya with verimicelli rice, Mahshi Kousa, Wara’ Enab (stuffed vine leaves). My father would always brew the best batch of Er’e Soos (a traditional licorice drink that I absolutely adore) and Amar Eldeen(Apricot nectar). I would pitch in with the cooking when I could, and try my hand at dessert and decorations (oh the paper lanterns!). The extended family and an assortment of family friends would congregate at our house for the big feast – it was always a loud and festive affair and I loved it.
Betty Crocker would’ve been proud.
Fast forward to present day.
The first day feast? Not so fun. Aside from the sad fact that any holiday you experience as a child somehow manages to lose some of it’s magical lustre as you grow older – I’ve been away from home for a good 4 years. Which means inevitably feeling like an outsider amongst a sea of family friends and guests I barely recognise. And no matter how supportive my immediate family is, I still find it difficult to explain to a room full of strangers and extended family why I’m sipping on a glass of green juice to break my fast, or why no – I will not be having any of the duck, or any of the 4 decadent desserts my aunt laid out post the meal.
Although not specific to Arab culture, food is more often than not the focal point of family gatherings, and especially so in Ramadan. The whole concept of Iftar has become this grandiose ritual that brings people together through mounds and mounds of typically unhealthily prepared food, of which the vast majority isn’t veg-friendly. So how does a health-conscious vegan keep from feeling alienated in such a situation?
The honest truth? Sometimes, you can’t. As well spoken as I am when I write about what it means to me to be vegan – it’s just not that easy to speak the same words out loud, to a large group of people I don’t know, when there are 4 types of meat on the table, in Arabic (yes – I’ll admit my Arabic is nowhere near as strong as I’d like it to be). I find it easier to shy away and keep to myself, put my head down and politely smile and decline when someone offers me the egg salad.
My uncle made a comment yesterday about how I’m always the one who gets the short end of the stick at these gatherings – which prompted one of the guests to ask with a chortle “why, is she anti-duck?” To which my uncle replied solemnly that I have a specific diet which I follow, and that I don’t “junk out” like they do. The guest seemed thoroughly perplexed and stared at me with a questioning look – after which my aunt chimed in with “Nada’s a vegetarian.” I smiled awkwardly and reverted to my phone, not even bothering to correct her.
I’m not proud of this – but I feel as though I owe it to myself to be honest about these situations and acknowledge that sometimes, the battle is better left un-fought. In a different scenario, I would’ve brought along one or two vegan main dishes and appetisers to share along with some sort of crowd pleasing dessert to use as a conversation starter – but I just felt that at this particular gathering any efforts of mine would’ve fallen by the wayside.
In any case, I’m still looking forward to the rest of the holy month and have vowed to make the most of it- physically, spiritually and mentally. I’m particularly excited about the upcoming launch of the Arab Vegan Kitchen – but more on that later.