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     Volume 9 Issue 34| August 20, 2010 |


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A Roman Column

Roman Sunsets

Neeman Sobhan

Today, in Rome, the sun is scheduled to set at 20:17 precisely. I know it, because I have checked and rechecked it with bated, fast-er's breath, as if by some fortuitous miscalculation, the Iftar hour might strike a minute sooner as I sit over my glass of water and dates.

But no, the three time charts handed out by the Bengali grocery stores of Piazza Vittorio-- the 'Pobitro Romjaner Seheri o Iftarer shomoi shuchi' that I collected on my recent shopping jaunt into the ethnic heart of Rome, seems much more united about the rising and setting of the sun. Pity that this is not true about the sighting of the crescent moon, announcing worldwide the commencement of Ramadan itself.

Recently, having self-consciously embraced the new fervour of Bangladeshis wishing each other 'Ramzan Mubarak' (something I never saw in my youth, growing up in East and West Pakistan) I had called Dhaka for that purpose only to be rebuffed by a 'Oh! We are not fasting yet. When did you people start?' Well, we in Italy, like most folks around the globe, counted the first day of fast on the 11th of August. But Dhaka started a day later. And, apparently, some places in Chittagong started even a day earlier. Anyway, I guess this means that this year, again, I will have to remember not to share Eid greetings with Dhaka on the day we observe it in Rome.

Oh! Moon, it's always your fault. How wonderful it would be if we all lived under one sky.

The other evening, we had to go on an errand that could not be delayed. This meant we would be on the road during the fast-breaking time. I packed a picnic Iftar, complete with a flask of tea---the only thing I really miss while fasting, and we set off to the other side of Rome taking the motorway. On the way back, we decided to drive through town. It was getting close to sunset and there was not a car to be seen. The roads were empty. We parked briefly beside the road, long enough to break the fast, pour a cup of plastic-scented flask-tea and started off again. The magnificent Corso Francia bridge, the tree shaded Lungotevere road running along the Tiber, all were devoid of cars, except the odd few. My husband laughed, "It looks as if either there is a hartal or the Romans are all indoors breaking their fast." It was so apt, and I immediately missed the special Maghreb hour of Ramadan in Dhaka, the relative quieting of traffic noises, the scents of Iftar.

Of course, Rome had emptied because this was the Ferragosto weekend. Ferragosto, or Assumption Day (August 15, the day the Virgin Mary was assumed into Heaven), is the most important summer holiday in Italy. Everyone leaves the city for the sea or the mountains or elsewhere from the14th of August till the end of the month. Most commercial establishments shut down. Restaurants in the suburbs, shops, hairdressers, pharmacies, cinema halls all carry different notices basically announcing 'See you in September'. Large tracks of the city look deserted. Our entire neighbourhood looks abandoned with shuttered apartments all around and the piazzas gone silent. This is actually one of the most peaceful times in the residential areas of Rome, and even the inner city is quiet, except for the tourists and the shops and restaurants that have stayed open.

Most families have done their panic shopping, although it is just Sunday August 15 when absolutely nothing will be open except a pharmacy or two. But I don't panic too much, because the Bengali shops on Piazza Vittorio will be open to business, also the one restaurant selling their special Iftar of begoonis and ghugnis, and my pet dislike, the syrupy jilapi.

Fasting in a non-Islamic country is normally not easy, with all the explanations that have to be made throughout the day. Friends and colleagues want to meet for lunch and one has to decline. Dinners cannot be avoided, when I really prefer a quiet evening after a long day’s fast. The pressure of the social environment is not conducive to prayer and meditation. So in a way, I am glad that Ramadan has fallen in August this year. University and offices are shut, and most of our non-Muslim friends are away.

Yesterday, however, we were invited to an Indian friend's daughter-in-law's 'baby shower' or 'gode bharai' as she called it. At my table was a Muslim lady from Lucknow, who asked me if we have this same tradition. I told her that we Bengalis have a version called the 'shaad' for pregnant mothers in the seventh month, feeding her all that she craves. She told me that in their family it's the same except that it also included giving the mother all the necessary paraphernalia and clothing for the baby's arrival.

At this point our Hindu Punjabi hostess came to our table where there were some other Bengali and Muslim guests: "Okay, the sun has set. It's time to break your fast". I had come secretly armed with dates and was disarmed when she offered me some fruit juice, saying with a smile, "Let me share in the virtue of your fast, in the punya."

Later, as we women lined up to feed the young mother-to-be a spoonful of 'sweet rice' , to bless her and put our gifts into her lap, I blew a dua on her. "Thank you" her mother-in-law, our hostess whispered. It was my turn to smile. "Just sharing the collective punya," I whisper, "from the same creator of life."

The mother's womb, like the moon, waxes the same for all women. The sun rises and the sun sets for all of us. We live under the same sky. A month is holier when we divide its blessings. Ramadan sharif, a Roman Catholic holiday, a Hindu ceremony – calendar dates as well as the edible ones, all become sacred when we share them together.

Tomorrow, we have to take some visiting friends out to dinner. My husband asks me to choose the restaurant. As I wait for the sun to go down I mentally decide on our favourite: a fish restaurant on the sea beach near us at Ostia. It's a simple place where the owner hugs my husband in greeting, stops to chat at our table and throws in extra grilled scampi and prawns into our platter. It's a place of friendship and laughter, where the children run around, and the tables are close to the sand, and the sea absorbs the last drops of the melting, fading sun. But tonight as I watch the pink smear in the horizon and raise my glass of water, it's the name of the restaurant that seals my choice.

Tramonto di Roma. Roman Sunset.


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