IFTAAR: The Folklore and Traditions in Mauritius

The tradition of Iftaar (fast-breaking) must surely rank as one of the world’s greatest social events of people coming together.  During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast, pray and celebrate together while also trying to be thoughtful and generous to friends and family, but especially to the needy and poor.  It is a month of warmth, compassion and generosity.  Notwithstanding the intense spiritual values embodied by Ramadan, it is the popular tempo, the folklore and cultural traditions, marked by the vibrant atmosphere of Iftaar that mostly attract the attention of the outside public.
In Mauritius, the early lascars, who settled in Port Louis during the French rule, had indeed celebrated Iftaar long before the establishment of Camp des Lascars Mosque (today known as Al Aqsa Masjid) in 1805.  Documentary evidence shows that the lascars residing in the vicinity of the Port Louis harbor had invited the emissary of the Mughal Empire, Mirza ItesaMoodeen to an Iftaar in 1765 where his ship had docked at the port of the island on its way to London via the Cape Route (Ref: Marina Carter’s article in the book “The Maritime History of the Indian Ocean, co-edited by Dr. Khal Torabully and Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim).

“Bateau mouillé”
In the olden days long before the introduction of loudspeakers, the Muezzin of Camp des Lascars Mosque used to climb on the top of this building to hoist a green or white flag, just in the same manner as the lascars/sailors used to dock their ships at the harbor.  According to the childhood recollections of Cassam Uteem, ex-President of the Republic of Mauritius, citizens residing in the vicinity of the Mosque would watch the gesture of the Muezzin from a far distance.  The moment he put down the flag, children would exclaim “bateau mouillé”, meaning the ship has docked.  People would know that it was time for Iftaar.  Today, with the powerful siren system of Jummah Masjid and host of other Mosques, the entire capital and the island is alerted of the exact time of breaking the fast.
Observing from the eyes of foreigners strolling in the streets of Port Louis, the spirit of Ramadan is readily evident.  They come across many people who are fasting while keeping up with their daily routines.  The grocery stores and shopping malls replenish their stalls with more fruits, dates and items of Iftaar.  In fact, the preparation for the evening meal, Iftar, starts by a shopping venture to the bazaar where the sellers would attract the attention of the customers to fresh greens and vegetables and best cuts of meat and chicken.  The supplier of vegetables may be a Hindu, the grocer may be a Chinese and the fisherman may be a Creole: they all have a special consideration for their Muslim customers and for the specific commodities in demand during the month of Ramadan.  The purchase of the day often looks a week’s worth of food throughout the month of Ramadan. It is customary to cook extra food to cater for not only the family members, but also guests, neighbours and the congregation of the local Mosque.  During the shopping stroll, while passing by several restaurants and food outlets, those observing the fast remain steadfast in abstaining from food and drink.  There is also thoughtful and tolerant spirit of the Mauritians who try to be mindful of not inviting their Muslim friends to lunch or drink during Ramadan.  
Once back at home, the womenfolk set to work, cutting, slicing and mincing the stuff they bought from the bazar.  Throughout the month of Ramadan, it is a tradition to invite guests at home or to be invited at the places of relatives and friends to share Iftaar together.  There is a sense of full dedication and discipline that is observed in preparing for such a special time.  It is also a big gesture and a pleasure to be invited to someone else’s home and be received with full hospitality.  The people who are in charge of the cooking have a big task at hand in preparing delicate dishes.  This provides an opportunity for friends and relatives to team up in the kitchen and demonstrate the best of their cooking talents and also plan ahead for the menu of Iftaar for the next day at another relative’s home, planning who to invite and what would be served.  The month of Ramadan is also an enchanting moment for our young girls to be initiated to various cooking style.  Each one takes the pride of having prepared at least one dish for the Iftaar.  Some will even have the passion to search for the most original recipes of the Muslim cuisine, dating back since the early days of Islamic Civilisation including the Mughal or the Ottoman cooking books.  It is only when people feel the physical pangs of hunger throughout the day that they realize the treasure of having access to food and company at home.  No food goes waste in Ramadan, whatever in excess is given to the needy with all discretion.  Whatever the right hand gives, the left land must not know.  The poor who receives it must not feel belittled, but feel honoured or comfortable.
While the preparation of Iftaar is going at full swing at home, people leaving their work or office in the afternoon will make a call at home to check whether any missing item has to be purchased. Of course, they will not forget to stop at the gate of the mosque and queue up to buy some naan (the Ramadan bread which resembles the Turkish pide).  Tired and hungry, they want to rush to their homes to join their loved ones over an anticipated Iftaar.
At home the tables are beautifully set with a large varieties of Iftaar dishes.  In the Mosques, the tradition is to break the fast by being seated on carpets in long disciplined arrays.  Before the sinking of the sun, everybody takes place at the table or on the carpet.  The eyes are frequently on the clock.  The seconds tick slowly.  There is a complete silence.  Everybody invokes a prayer in his heart.  They all wait for the precise time when the siren will blow.  Here it goes.  It is the time to eat.  The first thing to put in the mouth is a date, then a sip of water.  The entire plate with a variety of dishes is now ready for celebrations.  But conscious of the Maghrib prayer that follows a few minutes after the Iftaar, the practice is to eat one or two items and consume the rest after the prayer.  Now, it’s time for everybody to wait for Azaan (the call of the Muezzin) and rush for prayer.  For the Maghrib prayer, it is again a spirit of togetherness since everybody lines up in several rows for congregation and offer the prayer in unison.  One can feel the harmonious and jovial atmosphere closing in.
As people share the determination to get through the long hours between sunrise and sunset without any food and drink, there is huge encouragement to be gained from the spirit of togetherness.  Family ties are strengthened; friendship is revigorated.  Sharing Iftaar at home of relatives or old friends or together with the community at the Mosques constitutes an important occasion when strained relations are healed and people seek to give forgiveness.  But more importantly there is a strong determination among the Muslims that no one should go hungry during Ramadan just because they cannot afford to eat.  Iftaar is much more than a simple breaking of the fast.