Before the Dawn of Ramadan (Preliminary Observations)

The sun sets over Sidi Bou Said


I am invited to eat Couscous. It is urgent, because one day later Ramadan might start, and so the friendly older man from the Carthage Museum cannot invite me for food during the day another time. When I tell a friend of mine about this dinner invitation around 5pm he laughs: "that is like lunch!" And indeed, we will not eat before the sun has set. No matter what, Tunisians are late eaters, I suppose.

The dinner is delicious, even if a little comical. Like established, the father had invited me - and who an invitation came from has so far always influenced my home visit experience - however I did not know off his three marriageable sons. Tunisia-trained, the next few hours feel a little like a bridal show. Ultimately though, the family was simply extremely welcoming and friendly, and I found no fine print with their generosity.

Before we eat, the oldest, 27, joins me. He speaks great English, studied Computer Science and works in fabricating medication. We talk about different cultures, knowing one's own history, and when we come to tourism, he explains: "You know, even our Prophet Mohammed had kind of tourists. The came to him from everywhere to learn the true Arabic from him. But he, it was a miracle, knew everybody's language. That's why we in Tunisia should learn the languages of those who come to visit us."


When Ramadan Begins

When we eat -- spicy couscous (of which I, the littlest, as always get the biggest portion) with lamb, potatoes, chickpeas and zucchini, the eggplant Salata Mechouia, the cucumber-tomato Salata Tunisie, and two kind of melons for dessert -- the younger 24-year old "car designer" (as in, he designs some parts of certain cars, but I did not really understand the details). This time, Ramadan is the big topic, on TV and also over dinner. 

"We will know for sure after daily news at 8pm." The word has been that Ramadan wills tart tomorrow, this means that after 3am tonight eating, drinking and any other possible consumption is to be paused for 17 hours until the sut will set at 8pm. But: "it depends on the moon!" everybody will assert you with a steady nod. 

Earlier my 20-something emancipated make-up wearing archeologist doctorate friend, had told me: "Some people find it shameful that we depend on such archaic methods. But we cannot know when Ramadan behind before we see it with our own eyes looking at the moon. Only when it's really full, we know that it is time." Alas, the after 8pm special show confirms: the eyes agree with former calculations and Ramadan will start tonight. I might imagine it, but it feels like my company is suddenly eating a little more intentionally at greater pace.

"I really have to go now." It is after 9pm and I still need to move houses tonight. "Okay, after tea!" This culture is so focused around food, I really really wonder what the next weeks will be like. 

So finally the 23-year old, who I didn't really get to meet before, is tasked to drive me home. He works as a chef in a hotel in Gammarth. An opportunity for me to check in that the start of the art of Tunisian tourism is still the same. "We have 1000 beds or more. Now there are only 300 guests, but they are all from Libya." He himself works as a chef, and chuckles when I ask him about tomorrow. Eight hours cooking while he cannot eat. Or drink. In general, I think, the water will be the hardest part.


Sidi Bou Said: a pretty little town near Tunis 

At "home" (the sparse two bedroom apartment where cockroach "pets" have always been forgiving about my frequent absence when I would visit families or travel), I grab everything I own and head towards a Tunis suburb, where I will stay with the family that I was first "adopted" by the week that I arrived. 

Sidi Bou Said, the city that I'm leaving now, lies on a hilltop, has great views over the sea, is wonderfully windy and with its whitewashed houses with blue doors and windows always lure people from the capital into the 30 minute train ride here. The cafes here are generally packed, but tonight feels even livelier. There is singing and laughing, and cars have a hard time finding pedestrians that let them through. Without a doubt, I can tell a holiday has started. Even more so on the train: it's packed and takes forever. People seem to treat the almost midnight Thursday like an early Friday evening. 

Young men prop the train doors open. Someone always does. Tonight, though, one group feels particularly off-showy and jumps up through the opening to climb up on the train. I don't know what they do up there, but it sounds like jumping. Rather than annoyed or worried, though, people in the wagon accept the noise as the new beat to their happy chatter. When we pass a station, I see employees raising their heads… and waving to the train riders!



Crowded, crowded, crowded. And worried phone calls from my host sister to find out what is taking me so long. The taxi driver tells me, he will sleep all day and work at night starting tomorrow. The busy streets, that are expected to get even busier the next few nights, tell me that his schedule is feasible eating-wise and working-wise. Those who can will simply relocate most of their activities from day to night. Secretly I wonder if that might defeat some point…


A Family Home 

Midnight: eat some melon, please. And here is salad and some bread. 2:30am. My host sister and I are woken up. I get a plate with yogurt, bread, cream cheese and "tajine" a quiche-like dish. The feeling in the house is funny. All four siblings, the mother, grandmother and aunt and uncle all are up. It feels like everyone has found their little corner where they stuff themselves with what they can. A veil of sleepiness surrounds it all. To finish off, everybody chugs a lot of water, and then a phrase that I cannot yet remember, but will sure learn quite well over the next few days is said to mark the starting of the fasting time.

I am sent back to sleep then, but while I hear my stomach grumble, I think about how much I'd love to watch the sun rise - and stay awake until I can strategically use my sleep to forget I am becoming hungry. In my dream the evening with "iftar," the breaking of the fast, comes quickly. But it involves flying to the moon and back in a superman-style race, so I do not know if I'm relieved when I wake up at 10am and the fasting's still ahead of me. 

One fail observation: we gather in the kitchen, where I find the father eating and find out that he will not join for Ramadan because he's diabetic. In the meantime, the woman of the house are all around him talking about: food. While the body cannot have it yet, thoughts and conversation topics are all about the evening dinner. I once read somebody's lament that people on a diet will not talk about anything but eating. Right now even my thoughts spin around the topic, and I am not even hungry yet. The no-water-drinking gets me worried though, as my head informs me of potential aching. Let's see what the day shall bring.