In the center of a traditional Maghribi house is a riad. It is a sky open-space where women historically performed most domestic activities. But beyond a central patio where laundry and washing dishes were done, it was a sanctuary for family vigils during summer nights and Ramadan evenings, where divinatory būqālah – a poetic pastime – brought loved ones together.
Since the riad was a transitory garden that gave access to different rooms, gendered social norms were important. That is why in Constantine, like many other cities, men made sure to announce their presence as they moved from one bearing of the house to another by knocking or coughing to give women time to preserve their privacy.
Similar to Algiers, a custom that signals preparation for the holy month involves repainting and cleaning the walls of cottages with lime. Furniture is removed and varnished, curtains are unhooked, tablecloths are cleared, bedding is replaced, and cupboards are rearranged. Into the streets of the old medina the smell of hazelnuts, almonds, pistachios and butter dance beneath each passerby’s nose. Recipes for traditional desserts like qalb el-luz (literally “heart of almonds”) are passed down from mother to daughter.
One example of Algeria-specific Ramadan culture is the presentation of a copper tray full of delicacies that are served during suhoor night gatherings. One of these treats is jawziya, a special nougat from Constantine flavored with honey. Mint tea is served in a pot called berrad. Orange blossom water distilled in a mrash must accompany the traditional thermos called baqraj for those who like to flavor their Turkish coffee with it.
Northern Algeria can thank their indulgence of shbah es-safra, a sweet tajine, to Constantine. Rose water buns (shrik, literally meaning partner) are associated with Ramadan and are served alongside the famous Algerian rice pudding (mhalbi) and a selection of fruits. This trio is called smat.
Constantinian cuisine is considered one of the finest in the country and in the Maghrib. The famous clay borma dethrones the tasteless pressure cooker for the month. Creamy jari frik, a staple soup in eastern Algeria, simmers over low heat as kids rush in and out the door bringing their families bread for dinner. Mothers vigorously grind and sift spices while the sound of Zineddine Bouchaala’s voice echoes in the background.
On the first day of Ramadan, most families in Constantine prepare ghrayef (called baghrir in other regions) which is a spongy pancake of sorts made out of semolina. At the halfway point of Ramadan, called naqfa in Constantine, a special meal is prepared and depending on the family, varying from shakhshoukha (ripped pieces of rougag or thin round flatbread steeped in stew), trida (artisanal pasta squares), or gritliya (vermicelli-like pasta dipped in a broth made with lamb, chickpeas, and kefta balls).
The Emir Abd al-Qadir mosque, where people have vivid memories of hearing Shaykh Abdul Muttalib ibn Ashoura’s voice beam, is adorned with a thousand lanterns. Taking a detour into the popular district Wad al-Hed is to enter an atmosphere of divine conviviality, one that seems to escape the environment until Ramadan comes around the corner.
Before national independence, it was custom to fire cannons as a signal that it was time to break fast. Its origins date back to Egypt during the Fatimid dynasty between the 10th and 12th century. It is said that the caliph received a cannon that he immediately wanted to test. The legend goes that the first shot was set off at sunset on the first night of Ramadan and the people of Cairo had never heard anything like it before. They saw it as a sign of God and the practice soon spread to other parts of North Africa. Shortly thereafter, the sunrise shot was added to announce the beginning of fast as well.
Historically in Constantine, brotherhoods would collect money and distribute it to the needy before the start of Ramadan. The approach of the holy month involves not only these generous acts but performances by orchestras to set the mood.
We should take note of Constantinian heritage not only because it is worth basking in its splendor, but because it serves a sentimental purpose. Mirroring materialistic norms that have reigned in the West and spread around the world will only deprive the spiritual basis of Ramadan. With Christmas being completely commodified, many of us may feel pressured to compete by curating a Ramadan ambiance through the same capitalist means. Consumer culture that has proliferated through globalized markets is beginning to exhibit real pressure on how Muslim countries and Muslims in the diaspora rejoice periods of religious significance. While Etsy decor is a nice way to add that extra umph to our homes, we should pay attention to marketing schemes that will increasingly target our communities. One cannot stress enough the importance of aesthetics in Islam, but we should not forget that we can create beauty out of time spent cooking traditional foods with our families, listening to melodies in praise of God and His beloved Messenger, and giving charity.
Cover Photo: Constantine, Algeria, 1982. Photo credits: Attar Abbas
About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a graduate student at the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago. Her interests include Maghribi history, Arabic poetry, and Algerian heritage. You can follow her on Twitter here.