Article by: Ali Ibrahim
Illustrations by: Fathmath Azleena
There is perhaps no religious festival celebrated so comprehensively in the Maldives than the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, or Ramazan as we locally call it. Maldivians as well as Muslim expatriates around the country prepare extensively for this month. From waking up just before dawn for a carb dense meal and plenty of water to the countdown of seconds as they tick by until the sunset prayer call, Ramadan is definitely a celebration in itself.
From the time of our forefathers, Maldivians greet Ramadan with extensive cleaning and home repairs. Most of the furniture and household items are often replaced with brand new items, while houses are renovated and repainted. And for just that, businesses get ready for Ramadan with special promotions. A month or so before Ramadan, people flock to supermarkets such as STO Home Improvement, Agora and Red Wave in capital Male to buy electronics, home appliances and furniture at discounted prices.
Before Ramadan, Maldivians also make sure that they stock up on essential food items. State Trading Organisation (STO), the main trading company in the country, ramps up its import of egg, potato and onion, and impose a ration system on these items. Despite the increase in supply, these items are sold out as soon they hit the market, driving up prices throughout the month.
Ramadan also means good business for local vendors from islands that sell local produce such as fruits and vegetables for the people residing in capital Male. Men and women swarm around the local market at the western end of Male after office hours to buy fresh salad leaves, papayas, bananas and watermelons – a fruit synonymous with Ramadan in Maldives. Almost every year, prices of these local products also skyrocket, especially during the first two weeks of Ramadan.
Welcoming Ramadan with Maahefun
Like every tradition handed down from our forefathers, the origins of Maahefun are shrouded in mystery. But the tradition of having one last meal before Ramadan has been around for as long as most Maldivians alive can remember.
Regarded as a means of welcoming the holy month, Maahefun parties take place about two weeks before the start of Ramadan and up until the eve of the first fasting day. The traditional celebration involves groups of family members, friends, neighbours as well as co-workers coming together for an afternoon or evening of homemade traditional foods such as Maskurolhi (mix of shredded coconut, dried tuna and spices), and maafuh (finger millet and banana mix).
Maahefun has seen its fair share of transformations over the years. Offices and companies as well as political parties now organise their own Maahefun parties to reward employees and supporters. These events often come with cultural performances such as Bodu Beru. Cafés also offer special Maahefun packages, allowing friends and families to come together and enjoy some local cuisine without the hassle of preparing them.
Festival of food
As Ramadan begins, the preparations and Maahefun parties give way to calm and quiet during the day, especially in the otherwise crowded and noisy capital city. Crowds and traffic jams disappear from the streets of Male, as the pace of daily life slows down to accommodate the challenges of being on an empty stomach – that too in the tropical heat of Maldives.
However, true to the religious spirit of the holy month, mosques and nearby streets overflow with worshippers during the five regular prayer times. The same goes for the special Tarawih prayer late evening and the midnight prayer.
Religious significance aside, Ramadan in the Maldives is a festival of food.
Maldivians break their fast with a handful of dates and a glass of water or fresh juice – watermelon is an all-time favourite – as prescribed by the Prophetic traditions. It is followed by sweet and savoury short eats. Up until recently, these short eats (locally known as hedhika) were made at home. But with the changing times, most people have shifted to the habit of just buying the popular Husnooge Bajiya or Saatanuge Gulha – two of the most famous short eat ‘brands’ in the country. In the afternoon, people would be seen queuing up at drive-thru like stalls operated by these two ‘brands’.
The ‘real’ fast breaking begins after the round of short eats. This is when containers of mashuni (a mix of tuna and salad leaves) and bowls of curries of different varieties and other meat-based dishes are served. Some families also prefer to go traditional with Banbukeyo Riha (breadfruit curry) or Kandukukulhu (tuna chunks cooked in coconut milk and homemade curry powder). Roshi (local flat bread), folhi (a crepe-like item) and rice are served as accompaniments.
As with every other tradition, fast breaking (or Iftar, as it’s commonly called now) has evolved overtime. A week or so before Ramadan, restaurants and cafés release their Roadha Menu, helping people to compare and decide where to break their fast. Several families now opt to go out and break their fast at one of these restaurants or even in a nearby resort island. Groups of friends and colleagues also organise their own get-together Iftars at local cafés, which serve buffet dinners with a wide variety of cuisine; from traditional to Arabic dishes.
One might think that all that food at Iftar – that too after being on an empty stomach for about 12 hours – would be enough. But just after the evening prayer and the Tarawih Prayer, which falls in just two hours after the sunset prayer, families again gather around the dining room table to savour short eats and drinks – a tradition known as Tarawih Buin. Most people go with traditional drinks such as Sooji (a drink made from Semolina and tropical almonds) and desserts like Pirini (a rice pudding).
Haaru (supper) is also taken sometime in the night, with carb-dense food items such as Baiypen (a rice porridge) and banana. This meal is traditionally taken just before the dawn prayer, though families have now started eating Haaru before going to bed in the night. Waking up to eat is just too much of a hassle!
Ramadan festivities from sundown to sunrise are not restricted to food. Maldivians also immerse themselves in sporting events such as football and basketball tournaments as well as entertainment programmes and game shows on TV, making Ramadan a festival of food and cultural celebrations as well.