Saturday, July 5, 2014
'Tis the Season
We had a very traditional Fourth yesterday; the only catch is that the traditions themselves harked more from my husband's side of the family than mine.
We went, you see, for the first time this year to a Ramadan buffet. We'd found a decent enough little place not too far from here and had high hopes that their normally solid fare - good smoked babaghanoush, sambousas that manage to be flavorful without drowning in oil, kofta that, while to Mr. Muscato's discrminating tastes are more redolent of Beirut than Cairo, are nonetheless undeniably a step or ten up from the usual kebab joint - would translate into a satisfying Iftar feast.
And we were not disappointed. As the magic moment, the Maghreb call to sunset prayer, approached, the small restaurant bustled, extra tables and chairs filling every corner and spilling out into the parking lot, a pleasant and happy mix of families and students and others like us jostling around a pair of long buffet tables covered in salads and soups and all sorts of fragrantly stodgy and filling delights. A redoubtable matron in flowing robes and an elaborate floral-print hijab gave way to a pair of stunning young women in towering heels, skin-tight jeans, and rococo hair; a young father boosted his son up to their table, both wearing matching "I[heart]USA" T-shirts; and what was clearly an office party of single men all far from home completely covered their long table with more plates of food than any of them could ever hope to consume.
When the moment came, we all dug in - dates and lentil soup; excellent hummous conveyed by marvelous bread still warm from the oven; mains that included those staples of the Arab diet, maracrona bechamel and dejaj (chicken) stroganoff, juices and eventually baklawa dripping with honey and pistachios.
Iftars are not long meals; they make up in intensity what they lose to duration. In less than an hour, the table were cleared (the bachelors having made a commendable and very nearly successful attempt to clean their plates), the children were playing around the edges of the impromptu parking-lot dinner garden, and after-dinner treats from backgammon to shisha duly made their appearance.
As we sat back, replete, and watched the start of one of this year's muselsel, the inevitable Ramadan soap operas, on the satellite televisions, I decided that while our celebration this year lacked much in the way of hot dogs, deviled eggs, and molded salads (the staples of my childhood Independence Days), it was even so a pretty remarkably American thing.
I've been spending too much time, these past few months, checking out with alternating bemusement and horror what passes for civic discourse in online circles of the further right, out there at its most delusional and combative fringe. I've decided that what most characterizes those places is fear: of change, of difference, of loss of power because of a world-view that sees everything in society as a zero-sum game. I thought how horrified some of those sad people whose little screeds I read would be by our evening, how redolent it would seem of all they dread (vague terrors of Sharia law and Muslim perfidy). They make me laugh, sometimes, and sometimes they scare me more than a little.
To not see America, in its most fundamental sense, in a July Fourth Iftar, is to me a profound failure of both education and imagination. As is so often the case, I heard the voice of Mother Muscato in my ear as we headed for the car, her trademark saying. "They're their own worst enemy," she would say, with a little pause to emphasize the gravity of her thinking in regard to whomever the object of her pity might be, "And I think that's sad." To her there was no more complete dismissal. I wish we could dismiss our own homegrown crazies quite so easily, so thoroughly. If we can't, we'll just have to hold on all the tighter to what we believe, and what I saw in that summer evening: that vital, irreplaceable, and hugely enjoyable principle - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
At Ramadan, I've learned, one does more than wish a Ramadan Karim, a generous holiday; one goes further and offers a heartfelt "Kul el-sena wa intou tayibeen" - more or less, "all the year, may all be well." To you and yours.