Guest post by Samah Salaime, also published at Sikha Mekomit
Between the pots and the pastries, the delicacies, salads and culinary creativity, every year Arab women go on a month of reserve duty, or more accurately preserve duty, which is the month of Ramadan.
Women who raise traditional families find that whenever the family members fast, it is they who must maintain – without questions nor choice – a feeding factory for the duration of an entire month, under a strict and inflexible schedule. The family members, who act as though they are on the brink of starvation every day anew, send women, and mothers in particular, back to the most basic role that feminists struggled to abandon. During Ramadan, gender molds are replaced by baking molds, gender turns into mejadra and gender equality is placed in a slow cooker for a period of one month.
I have yet to meet a woman, as subversive and radical as she may be, who would go out in protest against the month of enslavement called Ramadan and against what is expected of her during this period.
The truth is that the men around me also undergo a transformation and become suppliers of raw materials, incredibly obedient, who buy in bulk and adhere to the cumbersome shopping list that comprises peculiar and unfamiliar items. And of course, they dare not deviate or err in even one product, even if the woman requested “Diet Lotus Spread” and the man knows that he will get dizzy from circling the aisles in an attempt to figure out what the hell that is. This wise man comprehends the existential threat of the nutritional nuclear lab at home blowing up in his face if he fails in his mission.
But forget about the men right now. They eventually get by, as always. Let’s go back to the perils of women: We are now in the middle of the month. It’s hot, exhausting and draining, and the monthly food budget has evaporated into thin air. My protest attempts have failed. The list of my feminist achievements amounts to the children setting the table, arranging the salads, drinks and pickles and partially clearing off at the end of the campaign. My dear husband sometimes supervises over the events of the battlefield. He has also appointed himself as the person in charge of the month’s spiritual dimension, including prayers, tradition, festive lighting outside and an allegedly special atmosphere.
“But who’s gonna do the dishes?!” I yelled on the sixth day of the fast and encountered a roaring silence. “I’m tired!” I exclaimed in protest. “Get some rest and continue in the morning,” I was told. “I’ll go on strike,” I threatened, and the reply was: “We are all on hunger strike, my dear. You’ll cook something eventually, right?”
And that’s right. Eventually I give up and I cook, and not just something but various dishes and delicacies. I think about what each one likes and what will make each one happy. In order to justify that, I establish comforting theories, such as the notion that “this is true motherly love,” meaning the most genuine and pure, natural and spontaneous. The good mother breastfeeds, and during Ramadan she joyfully resumes breastfeeding her offspring. On the other end of the scale are theories about a feminism of caring and containing, that which differentiates females from the parasitic creatures of this world who are called males and who need us in order to survive.
The feminist pendulum oscillates between the different ends, and I continue to search for a method that will shatter the socioreligious conventions concerning the roles of the sexes in our Ramadan or the Jewish Passover, in Easter or Rosh Hashanah – yet I fail to find one.
The Jews Are Coming
Another aspect that developed this year, and which I still don’t know how to handle, is all of the Jewish friends who want to learn and to celebrate Ramadan with us, and who suddenly discovered the culinary potential spicing up the peace and coexistence enterprise.
Indeed, how can you not cooperate with this beauty? Finally, someone is interested and wants to connect and to undergo this incredible cultural experience, and who am I to refuse? All those years I argued that we have to get to know each other and bring the two peoples together, and some of my favorite Ramadan values are generosity and sharing. This year, there is no “Operation Protective Edge” to spoil the pleasure, and one must cooperate with the cousins who are standing at the door with a huge salad bowl and a smiling face. “Tafaddalu,” I say, “ahlan wasahlan into my life.”
At the AWC (Arab Women in the Center) organization, we hosted a few young volunteers from Israel and abroad for an Iftar meal. I spent an hour explaining why we’re not blessing over wine, why alcohol is forbidden in Islam and why we don’t say cheers nor raise a glass. As I was still struggling to explain this in English, a young woman who was excited by the tamarind juice interrupted me, raised her glass and loudly exclaimed: “Wow, this juice is so cool, here’s to all the women around this table!” The women from Lod quietly raised their glasses with a half-smile in honor of the guest, because how do you explain to the kind-hearted guests how difficult Ramadan is for these women.
Almost all of my virtual support groups, of friends and sisters, cope with the same issue of cooking during the month of fasting. There are those who share photos of impressive culinary achievements, with a white flag of feminist defeat displayed over each tray, and there are those who mock and blame me. “You got them used to it, don’t complain,” they wrote me, and one of them even dared to explain to me that it’s all because of religion – if we didn’t fast, things would be different and everything would be fine.
But no, I want to fast and enjoy myself, eat well in the evening, host friends and relatives and be in good company, give to charity and relax – as one is meant to do during this month. I still haven’t found the formula, or more precisely the recipe, for doing everything right. I’m tired from what I’m doing and happy at the same time, both angry and content, I want to break free but the apron is still suffocating me – and not only because I gained some weight.
With all this burden and all these deliberations, tomorrow I will go to the “Women’s Film Incubator” seminary in order to promote the movie I have been dreaming about for years, about the women who remain after a woman in their family is murdered. “Forbidden Bereavement,” I call this project. I want to disconnect from my work, studies, writing and cooking.
I leave behind, home alone, four famished males who must survive five days without me. But before you give me a standing ovation for this courageous act, I must report that, as usual, I prepared food for an entire brigade’s weekly sustenance and left it in the fridge. But still, I’ve never left home during Ramadan, and I’ve never abandoned my important role as the “director of the feeding factory” in my family. It is with pleasure and honor that I pass the crown to my partner and to his little soldiers, and I am certain that they will bravely endure this journey.