The tiny suburban kitchen is a maelstrom of activity as Gulay Karci-McBeth, her mother Gursel and her aunt Ece put the finishing touches on the breakfast that will literally break the 30-day fasting period of Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish). This day, known as Eid al-Fitr (or Ramazan bayrami) is the most significant time in the Muslim calendar. The men have already been to the mosque to pray and they are now loitering near the kitchen, stomachs rumbling. “Why are you in here? Unless you want to cook or chop?” Gulay says with a laugh as she shoos them into the sunny backyard. “No way,” says her husband Dion in mock horror.
Outside, a long table is ready and waiting for the family and food that will come together to celebrate this time of reflection, restraint and community. “Ramadan is the best time of the year,” says Gulay, slicing tomatoes and feta to go with the olives that make up just one element of this morning’s feast. “Not just spiritually, but also with regards to family,” she adds. “Everyone takes turns to break the fast each night [known as iftar] and there are lots of different foods put out. If someone invites you over during Ramadan, you have to invite them back to your house within the 30 days. There are also evening meals served at the mosque – it’s a real community get-together at Ramadan.”
Ramadan is a 30-day period during which Muslims may not eat or drink between sunrise and sunset. It is also a period during which Muslims reflect on their lives in regard to Islamic guidance. Sawm, the Arabic word for fasting, literally means ‘to refrain’, and Ramadan is a time of not only refraining from food and drink, but also from ‘evil’ actions, thoughts and words. Observant Muslims aim to make peace over past injustices, strengthen ties with family and friends, and rid themselves of bad habits.
During this time, breakfast is eaten in the darkness of pre-dawn, and, after sunset, Gulay and her family break their fast with water and a few dates, and then perhaps a bit of soup before dinner. “The first couple of days are difficult,” explains Gursel. “I get a few headaches, but then you get used to it. With the fasting, you’re doing it for God, but we’re helping ourselves too. You don’t have to suffer in this life.”
Originally from Adapazari near the Black Sea, Gursel and her husband Nihat came to Australia from Turkey 40 years ago. “I was pregnant with my first child when we came, and when she was born, I couldn’t understand the doctors and nurses – there was no interpreter at that time. When the kids got sick, I’d take them to the doctor, but I couldn’t explain what was going on. I used to watch so many soap operas – that’s how I learned English.”
The three women have spent two days preparing for the breakfast to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The day before, they made jam, butter, bread, baklava and börek – paper-thin pastry known as yufka that’s filled with a cheese or meat stuffing and then rolled up before being baked. “When you’re kneading the dough for börek, it’s ready when it’s as soft as your earlobe,” explains Gulay, who owns Celini’s, a Turkish restaurant where Ece is the chef. Gursel is in charge of the baklava, which is layered with crushed walnuts before being cut into diamonds. In the morning, Ece cooks potato chips with chillies and a tomato sauce; polenta with cheeses (a dish that is often eaten for breakfast during Ramadan); and eggs with spinach and onions.
As friends and family begin to arrive, younger members kiss the hands of older family members as a sign of respect. In return, they receive money, and for the children, sweets. Gulay’s nieces run around as their excitement builds – chasing chickens in the backyard and sneaking pieces of bread. Meanwhile, the men are getting restless, and as the table begins to groan under the weight of lovingly prepared food, they break their fast with hot, sweet tea and the freshly baked bread and homemade yoghurt curd.
There’s a moment of silence as mouths are filled and grumbling stomachs are satisfied, and then the chatter begins as dishes are passed from one to another and fasting becomes feasting.
Photography by Christopher Ireland