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When faith overcomes hunger and thirst

The alarm rings. It is 4 a.m. on Saturday morning in Mönchengladbach. Fedua Djelassi pulls the bedclothes over her head one last time. Then she sits up. Gets out of bed. Her mother is calling her, her father too. Gradually, they all make their way wearily to the kitchen, followed by her two brothers. There is cornflakes, bread, fruit, yoghurt, coffee and tea. "I always eat cornflakes." And today is no different. "The main thing is to drink something, otherwise you notice it later." For during the day, Fedua is not permitted to drink. Not a single drop. And she will not eat anything else, either. A new day in Ramadan, the month of fasting, has begun.

"And eat and drink until a white thread can be distinguished from a black thread at dawn. Then complete your fast until the night appears," it says in the Koran in relation to the length of the daily fast – for a period of 30 days. But before the daylight banishes the darkness, you may eat the sahur meal in the morning. Fasting is one of the basic duties, the five pillars of Islam. The Koran was revealed in Ramadan, which is why for Muslims the month of fasting is a particularly holy time during which they dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to their faith.

Empathising with the poor

The Djelassis do not have a white thread. A calendar hangs on the refrigerator showing the exact times when fasting begins and ends. In summer the days are long "and then fasting is sometimes more difficult," says Fedua. "Sometimes I get thirsty, mainly when I’m working and talking a lot." Now in her final year at school, the 20-year old has a casual job in a restaurant. But fasting is part of her religion, she explains, and must be endured. "Children in Africa don’t have anything to eat for months." During Ramadan, you learn to appreciate what you have.

The fact that the fasting period is sometimes in summer and sometimes in winter is depends on the Islamic lunar calendar. Ramadan falls in the calendar's ninth month. A lunar year is shorter than a solar year, which is why the month of fasting changes compared with the standard Gregorian calendar. People who are ill, pregnant or travelling and children do not have to fast. Everyone else combines it with their daily life.

For most of the Djelassi family this means work. Their mother, Mongea Djelassi, has a job too, but fasting and working is not a problem. "My body rests during the fasting period, it's good for me." She feels strong and rested. Today she does not have to work for long, but in the week she works until 8 p.m. Before she goes to work, she prepares the "chorba". This strongly spiced fish soup is a traditional dish for Tunisian families during Ramadan. It is important to eat with the family, she says. "And above all, it is very important to give food to the poor."

A physical, spiritual and social experience

During Ramadan, Muslims are particularly required to think of their fellow human beings. It is also a question of inner cleansing. The person fasting should not think or say anything reprehensible. "Many are the people who fast, but gain nothing from it but hunger," the prophet is said to have proclaimed.

Suras from the Koran are playing on the cassette recorder. It is not long now until iftar, the breaking of the fast. Wonderful things are being created in the kitchen. The Tunisian salad of tomatoes, onions, paprika and apples is ready: "This is always my job," says Fedua. As is the brek: fried flaky pastry parcels filled with potato, parsley, onion, eggs and tuna. Cousksi bel ham, or couscous with beef, is the main course. Her mother explains each stage. "You mustn’t be stingy with the olive oil in the couscous," she says. Over and over, she puts the couscous into different bowls and kneads it through using water. Only the stove, with its four hotplates, limits what can be prepared: one pan with soup, one with meat and steaming couscous, one with chickpeas and a frying pan with brek.

Praying in community

Some families meet to eat together in the mosque. During the fasting period, Muslims try go to the mosque as often as possible to pray together and recite the Koran. In Ramadan, at the end of evening prayers they pray an extra prayer,  the tarawih. The prayers can, however, also be said at home.

Breaking the fast takes place today at 8.35 p.m. precisely. The final minutes pass, the guests arrive. And then it's all action - like a final sprint over the last 50 metres. Mother fetches plates and glasses from the cupboard, Fedua hands out the cooled bottles of water and flat bread. "Quickly, quickly," she laughs in the hubbub. The table is set…but first a date and a sip of water. Only then do the other traditional Tunisian dishes for Ramadan follow: soup (chorba), salad, brek and couscous.

A sweet feast ends the fast

Hands stretch towards the delicious pastries and fresh coffee. "Baklava is also a part of Ramadan," explains Fedua. The other pastries are made of honey, pistachio and enormous quantities of almonds. Everything is flavoured with rosewater.

"During the sugar festival there are lots and lots of sweet things and presents for the children and families visit one another." The fast-breaking festival (Id al-fitr), that ends Ramadan, lasts three days. This year, it begins on 20 September.

And another day has passed. Fedua crosses it off her calendar with her red pen. Her mother is meanwhile packing everything in foil and bags for the guests to take with them. She is hurrying, it will soon be midnight. Only four hours until the alarm rings again.

Naima El Moussaoui, 13.09.2009

About the author: Naima El Moussaoui is a freelance journalist. She is involved in dialogue projects, and also works for Deutsche Welle (radio) and the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger (newspaper).

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