I’m sitting on a plastic mat under an enormous lemon tree in a paved courtyard. The evening breeze is pleasant and cool; overhead a few stars are visible through the city lights. My friend Rana sets a plate of dates near me, and Ilsa turns to me and whispers, frantically, “Do I HAVE to eat dates?” Her entire face wrinkles in dismay at the thought.

“Just one,” I tell her. “But try not to make a face.” I don’t know why all my kids hate dates—after all they’re pure sugar—but they do, and it’s not well understood. It would be as if you invited an Arab family over and offered their child m’n’m’s. Wouldn’t you be mystified if that child pulled a horrible face and choked over them?

Rana is Palestinian and we are breaking the fast with her and her family. The call of the muezzin, signifying the end of a long day of heat and thirst and deprivation, has floated to us on the air, and the family is gathering round. Rana has told me earlier that this year, her seven-year-old brother is keeping Ramadan. It’s a matter of pride, a way of showing that you’re growing up, but by the end of the day, he can barely whisper to her, “When will the call to prayer sound, Rana?”

We eat dates and drink bissop, a sort of iced tea made with hibiscus flowers, cranberry-coloured and tart-sweet and refreshing. Then we gather round the plates and enjoy the feast. There are fatiyahs (meat-and-onion filled pastries) and salad, and harira soup, the traditional Moroccan soup served during Ramadan all over the Arab world. It has chick peas and lamb and lemon juice and all sorts of other ingredients, and it is superb. The Palestinian version is very nice.

Then we have succulent lamb served with fragrant saffron rice, vegetables and home-made yogurt. Afterwards we sit back with sighs of contentment. We opt to stay outside as it’s so hot. This family speaks Arabic but little or no French, and only Rana speaks English. Abel scores points by reciting the Arabic alphabet, the entire family helping him over the rough spots. Afterwards, the kids play together without a common language, racing and wrestling and shouting.

I announce regretfully that we must leave; Elliot has a geography test tomorrow that he hasn’t studied for yet. School ends at 5:30 and this invitation was for 6, although we were late. The family protests—no, no, dessert is coming!

Dessert is incredible, the pinnacle of an already-excellent meal. There are 3 kinds of pastries—all still hot. I can’t remember their proper names. One I call honey balls; deep-fried balls of dough coated with honey. Ilsa loves these. Another are crescent-shaped pastries, stuffed with raisins, nuts and coconut, also dripping with honey. I especially love these. The third is a kind of honey-drenched cake with a topping that has the crunchy consistency of cornmeal. I don’t know what it is, but it’s good. With this we have Palestinian tea, which is black tea with an herb added. I forget the name. It’s got a sharp scent, a little like eucalyptus although not that strong. They give me some to bring home to add to my own tea, and a plate of pastries to enjoy the next day.

The next evening finds us breaking the fast with an international group of women—Swiss, Mauritanian, Sudanese, American, Palestinian. The harira is from a box but it’s still tasty. There are crepes, cookies, and bread, plus the inevitable dates and crème fraiche. The kids slouch, bored, their noses in books. We were invited to a party but it turns out to be more of a discussion group, and they the only kids with the exception of a shy and inarticulate three year-old. Afterwards they are still hungry, so they eat sandwiches at 9 p.m. before heading off to bed.

The following night, we are again invited out. (What a week!) This time, we visit Moroccan friends, and the harira is the best we’ve had yet. There are dried figs as well as dates, and crepes and bread. It’s wonderful. We drink Moroccan tea; lighter than Mauritanian tea, sweeter and more minty. I visit with a good friend that I haven’t seen for almost 2 years—she’s been studying in Morocco and this is her first time to visit her family since January 2005. We talk and talk, but it’s ok, because the kids are playing with her younger siblings, and don’t want to leave even when it’s past their bedtime.

Finally it’s Friday. Three friends spend the day at my house—it’s their period so they’re not fasting, as you are considered unclean and God won’t hear your prayers during this time. My house offers a safe place to eat without upsetting other members of the family. We eat spaghetti and salads off large plates, gathered round a common platter with spoons in hand. Afterwards I make iced coffee with lots of sugar and cream for them (black for me).

In the evening, we head off for a picnic on the dunes with a group of fellow Americans and Canadians. We miss the turn-off and end up driving through a herd of camels, coming in for the evening with their herders. They really do walk in single file. A visiting Canadian nephew tumbles out of the car to take some pictures. We drive through piles of garbage and eventually end up on a low dune, sitting amongst some scrub brush for a picnic while watching the sun sink toward the horizon. Afterwards, on our way back into the city, the policeman at the checkpoint is mystified by our behaviour. I think it’s the piles of trash that we’ve just driven through that confuse him. The real dunes are away north and east of the city, and he’s not too clear on the word “picnic.”

It was a wonderfully social week. The problem with all these break-fasts, though, is that I wasn’t fasting during the day. Guess it’s time to dig out my exercise videos and try to get some of this off before we begin our own season of feasting, with Thanksgiving and Christmas coming up.

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