Ramadan started yesterday so I thought this would be a good time to post a story I wrote that was first published in The Age on the first day of Ramadan (Sept 1) in 2008.
The instructions are clear: arrive before dusk. You may bring a gift of flowers or chocolates but not alcohol. Take your shoes off at the door.
With my friends Matthew, Louise and Paul I have crossed Melbourne to the outer northern suburb of Roxburgh Park for my first iftar, the ‘break fast’ evening meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Matthew has fasted since morning, the rest of us have been less conscientious but we tried.
We are one of about 40 groups of non-Muslims to sign up for an iftar meal on the Australian Intercultural Society website. The AIS was established in 2000 by a group of second generation Turkish Muslims who found themselves successfully straddling Turkish and Australian culture and wanted to use their unique position to do something positive for both communities. Bringing people together around the iftar dinner table is just one of a growing list of projects that also includes study tours to Gallipoli and mosque open days.
Our hosts, Konur and Meliha, and Meliha’s younger sister Nalan, greet us at the door of their two storey stucco villa. With his snowy white beard and balding pate, Konur looks much older than his 49 years. He later jokes that a friend’s 90-year-old father refuses to believe he is a day under 70.
Meliha is calm and reserved with sparkling eyes that suggest contained feistiness. A teenager when her family moved to Australia in 1974, her speech and conservative dress contrast starkly with Nalan, who was a pre-schooler at the time and now switches easily from Australian accented English to Turkish as the need arises.
In the lounge we are introduced to Emre, from the AIS and Konur and Meliha’s teenage children, son Aliriza and daughter Nurefsan. Emre’s role tonight is to make sure that the guests leave with a better understanding of Islam. He begins by showing us his Ramadan dance card; a small brochure listing daily prayer times with a space each day to fill in your iftar commitments. “Ramadan is like Christmas but it lasts for a month so iftar is like 30 Christmas dinners in a row” he beams, “can you imagine?” No, we can’t.
Suddenly the call to prayer erupts from a specially programmed alarm clock in the corner and Konur passes round a tray of dates. Eating a date is considered the best way to break the fast because its natural sugars give the body a burst of energy to concentrate on the evening prayer and to help digest the iftar meal.
The women of the house retreat to the kitchen while the men unroll their prayer mats in a corner of the lounge. An awkward moment ensues for the guests as we watch the men pray but the lavish spread that greets us at the dinner table afterwards dissolves any hint of tension. Lentil and tomato soup is followed by a lamb and chickpea casserole, a ravioli dish called manti, delectable bean salads, cous-cous, dolma and dips.
After dinner we return to the lounge for coffee. Relaxing into overstuffed armchairs we balance delicate cups of thick Turkish coffee on our knees. A bowl of dried rose petals nestles in folds of golden fabric on the coffee table in the centre of the room. Hanging from the chimney is a beaten copper plate featuring the signature of Suleiman the Magnificent, the 16th century Ottoman ruler revered for his fairness. Below it is a folding wooden stand supporting a copy of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
Conversation turns to the topic of Greek-Turkish rivalry. “We say Turkish coffee, Greeks say Greek coffee. Same thing” Konur shrugs. His theory is that the Greeks and the Turks have the same mother but different fathers. “Mother is Anatolia (Asia minor). Father for the Greeks is Jesus, for us Muhammad. So we are like step-brothers, always jealous and fighting.”
The spirit of adventure brought Konur, an archaeologist, to Australia in 1988. Coincidentally his first job in Australia was pulling coffee in a Turkish café in Mentone, just around the corner from Matthew and Louise’s house. “I love Mentone!” he gasps, with the enthusiasm he shows for most things in life, apart from his brief sojourn teaching Turkish at Saturday School. “It was terrible!” he laments, “so noisy! Such naughty boys!”
Now he works nightshift as a forklift driver in a factory. He likes his job; it affords him the headspace to compose stories and poems in his mind. Later, in the wee hours, as Roxburgh Park sleeps, he taps them out on his laptop. Last year he won first prize in a short story competition for a fable about racial harmony and now he is working towards his first collection of historical poems.
The final treat for the evening is a delightfully fragrant custard, called tavuk gogsu. The secret ingredient, Meliha tells me, is mustika, a middle-eastern spice sometimes chewed like gum. I later find it, appropriately enough, in my local Greek deli.
Is it hard to cook when you’re fasting? I wonder. “The hardest thing is you can’t taste” says Meliha. “That’s the worst thing, especially with dessert” chimes in Nurefsan. “Once I made a chocolate cake and I had it all over my hands, it was so hard to resist licking it off!”
The evening has been a success. But we all came here wanting to like each other. Is the AIS really achieving much by inviting liberal minded do-gooders to dinner? Emre tells us about one guest who worked at a major bank in the city. Her colleagues were horrified when she told them she was going to share a meal with unknown Muslims and insisted she give them details of names, addresses and phone numbers in case she was kidnapped.
Perhaps, when she arrived at work the next day with tales of warm conversation and Turkish delight to share, some of those colleagues might have paused to wonder if maybe not all Muslims are terrorists.