Mountainous, landlocked Afghanistan sits almost at the crossroads of central and southern Asia at the heart of the region.
This Islamic republic of 32million people has a rich and often turbulent history but retains its strongly independent spirit and its sense of community.
Rehal Ahmed was born in Portland, Oregon, and lived in Riyadh for six years. Her paternal grandmother was from Afghanistan and Rehal still goes there twice a year to see family. A graduate of Stanford university, she currently lives with her surgeon husband and three children in California.
Rehal enjoys traveling and exploring different cultures. She loves cooking, especially traditional Afghani dishes, and helping people with mental health concerns.
“It’s hard to do justice to the Ramadan and Eid celebrations in writing,” she says, “but it is the most beautiful family experience.”
We asked Rehal to describe her experiences of celebrating Ramadan in Afghanistan.
How does Afghan culture mark Ramadan?
Before Ramadan, the whole family gets involved in cleaning the house. They change the décor if they can and use bright colors around the home. They also arrange lighting such as lanterns in the dining room around the table. Women start planning the special Iftar meals that will be cooked when breaking the fast, so they start buying necessities in advance. People dress in brightly coloured kaftans or loose clothing.
What are the rituals around Iftar and Suhoor?
The day begins very early with the preparation of Suhoor, the meal before the fast begins at sunrise. Then the family pray the Fajr prayers, and the day begins. Men leave for work at around 7am and the women start on their domestic chores.
Afghans typically live with their parents and siblings. As the day comes to an end, all the women gather at the home of the oldest member of the family and each relative brings a dish for the meal. During Iftar, there are dates and all kinds of juices to break the fast, and meals are prepared for everyone. After praying, the meal is eaten and everyone then gathers outside or takes part in family activities.
What special dishes do you prepare?
For Suhoor, the family eats various types of sweets such as jam, cookies, pastries and sweet bread with tea. This is a contrast with Saudi Arabia, as Saudis tend to eat savoury dishes at Suhoor, such as yogurt, rice and chicken. For Iftar, some of the favourite Afghan dishes are: mantu (spicy meat dumplings), ashaak (mince dumplings with chana dal and garlic yogurt), bolani (stuffed flatbreads), kabuli palaw (pilaf-style rice), kofta (meatballs), kebabs (grilled meat) and soups.
Afghanis mostly believe in home-made food and they love their delicious cuisine, whether it’s home-made cookies, such as gosh e feel or main meals.
How do you celebrate Eid?
Grandly! The night before, girls usually apply henna and prepare their clothes and jewelry for the next day. After the Eid prayers, the whole family gathers at the oldest family member’s house for breakfast. Different types of cheese, sweets, pastries, cookies, ras malai (milk balls in cream), jalebi (fried sweet batter), candies, and chocolates are prepared for everyone.
Young ones are given Eidi (money) from all the older people at the house. Everyone wishes one another a happy Eid and we say: “Roza was namaz qabul basha,” (may Allah accept your prayers and fasts during the holy month). Everyone wears new outfits, make-up, jewelry, and it’s just like a grand party.
There are lots of cookies, dry fruits and nuts, teas, fruits, and pastries prepared for guests who start coming in from the afternoon onwards. Decorating for Eid is important for Afghans. They buy new cutlery and dishes and they decorate the room with low sofas and new curtains to welcome guests to the house. Friends and relatives visit one another’s houses to wish each other Eid and celebrate together.
Where will you be spending Ramadan this year?
This Ramadan, I’ll be in Florida celebrating with my close family members. Again, it will be different to Ramadan in Saudi or Afghanistan, but what’s striking is how there are more similarities rather than differences.