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Non-Muslims invitied to Iftar

August 11, 2012

LONDON: I have two strangers coming for dinner. This is nerve-racking: who in their right mind invites strangers into their home? Also, I’m worried I’ve over-seasoned the curry I’m making, but there’s no way of checking: I’m fasting so I can’t taste as I go.

I’m taking part in Dine@Mine, an initiative set up by 25-year-old Maryam Douale from Manchester, northern England. The idea is that Muslims host an Iftar for non-Muslims, to forge better understanding over food.

“Ramazan at my house is loud, fun and full of love and good food,” Douale says. “I thought what if we could give non-Muslims a chance to see what a normal Muslim family is like?”

My guests, Jack and Jenni, live nearby. I email to say we will break our fast at 8.49pm, while my husband, Richard, wonders helpfully if it’ll be “really awkward”.

Meanwhile, I have a meal to prepare. I think of what I grew up with in Ramazan, my mother’s big steaming pots of hearty, spicy Pakistani food.

I settle on my dishes: saalan (a yoghurt-based chicken curry infused with coriander), sabzi (a vegetable curry of chickpeas, spinach and potatoes) and muttar pilau (peas and rice) with mint and cucumber raita - particularly satisfying when your taste buds haven’t been used all day.

I skip the deep-fried pakoras and samosas that feature at most Iftars as I find them heavy after a day’s fast.

We’ll open our fast the traditional way, with a date and water, a practice that goes back to Islam’s beginnings.

Jack and Jenni arrive. We offer them elderflower drinks, explaining we will wait until we’ve opened our fast, but they say they want to wait with us. Although they haven’t fasted, they are excited about joining in: “When would I ever get the chance to experience any part of Ramazan?” Jenni asks.

At 8.49pm, Richard passes the dates round. Then we help ourselves – there’s no formality with Pakistani food. Our guests’ plates are laden with rice and both curries, and, reassuringly, they both want seconds. Jenni asks what we normally eat in Ramazan, and I confess that when I lived alone, I’d gorge on pasta, which left me bloated after a day without eating.

Now I cook Pakistani food for special occasions - after a day’s fast, there’s nothing like it.

I was worried the experience might put us on show - Look! Here are Muslims who fast! - but it hasn’t at all. Friends and colleagues are intrigued about Ramazan, but shy of asking questions and I want our guests to feel they can ask anything.

Being used to fasting, I forget this is what baffles people most. “Do you really get up at 3am?” asks Jenni, who thinks Sehri, the pre-fast meal, sounds “magical”.

I tell her that eating bagels while half asleep is quite mundane. They’ve been reading up on Ramazan, and instead of bringing flowers, made a donation to a charity.

Religion can be one of those subjects you steer clear of at dinner with strangers, but in this context it’s easy to be open and honest with our views.

The simple act of sharing a meal together has laid down the foundations of a new friendship - Douale will be pleased to hear we’re going over to theirs for dinner after Eid.

By arrangement with the Guardian