THE Barcelona neighborhood of Raval has a singular atmosphere these days: The holy month of Ramadan started here on June 6; people are quiet, days are slow. But as night approaches the neighborhood transforms itself. Men carrying bags full of naan, samosa, dates and Moroccan sweets wander around the streets, visit restaurants, bring food home so that the table can be laid by 9:30 pm, when the fast ends.
A group of Moroccan men enjoy a traditional iftar (evening meal that breaks the day’s fast) dinner on a street corner. The streets are lively and everybody is cheerful.
Smells, shops, clothes, everything in the Raval reminds of far away, exotic places. 47.9 percent of the neighborhood’s total population is foreign-born, and the highest percentage of the city’s immigrants coming from Muslim-majority countries, mainly Pakistan, Morocco, and Bangladesh, live there.
This year’s Ramadan is a particularly challenging one. Days are hot, humid and long, and the daily fast lasts over seventeen hours.
For some of the residents of the Raval the work schedule during the holy month is rather flexible, making it easier to deal with food and water deprivation. Many have their own shops or work for Muslim employers. Some businesses have special opening times, shopkeepers often leave their shops when they have to pray, halal butchers set small tables with dates and water ready for iftar.
Sharmila, a young Pakistani girl, celebrates the end of fasting in her family’s South Asian grocery shop. “We eat dates and Pakistani traditional food together in the shop because we remain open until late, it’s nice!” she says.
But for those who work elsewhere conciliating work with fasting, praying and celebrating is not an easy task. Radwan, a Syrian national working at ‘El Principe,’ a baklava bakery in the district of Gràcia, explains: “You need to work as much as any other time of the year. I can’t really celebrate. I prefer to stay home for iftar, and go to sleep straight after the last prayer, at around midnight. Then, at 3 a.m. I am up again for suhoor, and at 6 I need to get ready for work. I am having a tough time! I can barely get 3 or 4 hours of sleep. Back in Syria everybody fasts and days are slower.”
One of the hardest aspects of celebrating Ramadan for many immigrants is the absence of family members. Many male migrants come to Europe without their families. It is estimated that only 24.5 percent of Barcelona’s Pakistani population are women. “It makes us seek solidarity among the larger Muslim community. We share food, we experience a feeling of unity regardless of language and ethnic background,” says Jamal El-Attouaki, the coordinator of the Islamic Cultural Center of Catalunya.
In Barcelona, people seek the company of their Muslim neighbors. Eating iftar in the mosque with others, an important aspect of Ramadan anywhere, becomes even more central to immigrants’ lives.
However, gathering during Ramadan can be challenging for Barcelona’s Muslims. Mosques are usually located in basement flats with very limited capacity, and women do not have separate prayer rooms. “Oratories are small. People who can afford it have their Maghrib (sunset) prayer, eat some dates and then go back home to leave space and food to those who need it the most,” explains Jamal El-Attouaki.
Apart from the mosque, a major element of cohesion for Barcelona’s Muslim immigrants is food. During the holy month in particular, traditional meals help create a feeling of home away from home.
“After fasting, sometimes we get together with other families and eat biryani (a rice dish from the Indian subcontinent). There is always a greater variety of dishes on the table at this time of the year, and luckily we can find all the ingredients we need to cook our country’s specialities here in the Raval,” says Abdul Muhit, from Bangladesh, who works in a technology shop in Carrer Joaquin Costa.
The Raval has an astonishing gastronomic scene that reflects its cultural diversity. Immigrants brought their food traditions with them and any kind of exotic delicacy is widely available in the neighborhood’s grocery stores and restaurants.
During Ramadan Moroccan bakeries display piles of chebakia (rose-shaped sweets covered in sesame and honey) while North African restaurants offer traditional iftar menus. For 5 or 6 Euros, costumers can enjoy a full feast of Moroccan specialities, starting with dates and ending with a piping hot harira, a spicy soup made of legumes, meat and noodles.
Virtually any shop catering for the Muslim communities has dates on display during Ramadan. They are the unmissable ingredient of any iftar table, regardless of the nationality of the diners. In fact, it is believed that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) used to break his fast with a few dates, and they also represent an excellent source of energy after many hours of food and water deprivation.
The special Ramadan food is starting to attract Spanish crowds too, and food exchange is becoming a way of bending different traditions and promoting cultural understanding. “The food is cheap and delicious. Moreover, the Ramadan menu gives me the opportunity to come into contact with traditions we know so little about, and maybe have a chat with people seating close to me who have been fasting all day. Food is a sort of cultural exchange,” says Pau, a Catalan costumer of La Paloma Blanca, one of the Moroccan restaurants offering iftar.
The potentiality of Ramadan feasting in helping overcome cultural barriers hasn’t remained unnoticed by Barcelona’s institutions. During the holy month, Casa Asia and Cultruta give curious people the opportunity to experience the ‘nights of Ramadan’ of the Pakistani community living in the Raval.
Another initiative conceived to foster inter-cultural understanding is the iftar popular’ (public iftar) organized by a committee of organizations belonging to the different religious groups that live side by side in the Raval. On the 16th of June Catholics, Protestants, Atheists, and Sikhs came together on the ‘rambla del Raval’ (the main walking street) to break the fast with their Muslim neighbors.
Before eating the traditional Moroccan meal, some of the event’s organizers reminded diners of the deeper meaning of Ramadan: An occasion to empathize and share food with the needy, to develop solidarity, and to have a broader reflection about materialism in our society.
“We want to demonstrate that there are more things that unite us than those that divide us,” states Marta López, a minister of the Protestant Evangelic Church Organization of Barcelona. The diversity of people sitting at the same table having an iftar demonstrates that eating, and fasting, can provide an opportunity to let go of prejudices and fear.