A Taste of Home
East Bay Muslim women prepare for Eid by sharing recipes and cultures.
Photograph by Holly Shaffer
(page 1 of 2)
The double ovens are on at Bassamat Bahnasy’s house in Walnut Creek, and soon the doorbell starts ringing. One by one, Bahnasy’s friends arrive, air kissing, streaming hellos in different Arabic dialects, and laden with bags of cookie-making supplies.
It is a couple days before Eid ul-Fitr, the Muslim holiday that celebrates the completion of Ramadan, the month of fasting. Many Muslim families mark the holiday by baking cookies, visiting friends and family, giving toys or money called eidi to kids, and purchasing new clothes.
To many Muslims, Ramadan is the holiest month in their lunar calendar. During Ramadan, the Prophet Muhammad received his revelation from God, in the form of the Qur’an. It is also the month of fasting, as the Qur’an states: “Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that ye may [learn] self-restraint” (2:183).
The fast, from sunrise until sundown each day of the month, requires abstinence from food, drink, and impurity. It is an expression of piety, control, patience, and charity. After the difficult personal test of Ramadan, the joyous end of the month, Eid ul-Fitr, comes as a well-deserved reward. This year, Ramadan spanned the month of September, with Eid falling on the last day of the month.
In Bahnasy’s kitchen, each woman has found her space at the granite countertops. Bowls of homemade dough emerge from various sacks, along with bags of pistachios, walnuts, almonds, mashed dates, and powdered sugar; bottles of orange-flower water; and jars of honey. Soon, the kitchen is filled with activity, the fragrance of sweets, and animated chatter.
Ghania Daoud, a lively Algerian woman who used to teach preschool and is now a student at Diablo Valley College, makes crescent-shaped cookies stuffed with a mixture of sugar and almonds, then rolled in fragrant water and coated in powdered sugar. Her 16-year-old daughter, Sonia, has just powdered her first cookie of the day and turns to ask her mother, “Is this right?” Her mother smiles, subtly fixes the shape, and hands it back.
Next to them, Tara Fikrat, who comes from Iraq and works as a pharmaceutical consultant, is shaping her own dough just as studiously. She will sprinkle it with poppy seeds and spread it with date mixture. Sonia’s question prompts Fikrat to look at her own cookies and laugh brightly. “My grandmother would say these are so ugly!”
To an outsider, she is expertly folding the pastry, but her grandmother was apparently more discerning. “She taught me the recipe, and she was a perfectionist. Luckily, their looks don’t affect their taste. Everyone in my family waits all year for these cookies.”
Called klaitcha, “they are what we make in Iraq. Even now, with the war, people will bake.” We are all still for a minute, wondering what Iraq must be like now. Yet, it is almost Eid, and thoughts turn back toward celebration.
In the women’s home countries, their whole families bake for days. Daoud says, “In Algeria, we would bake a hundred different types.” She looks lovingly at her daughter. “But here, I just make two—in our house we only have four hands!” Throughout the day today, though, there are many hands from Syria, Algeria, Iraq, and Egypt, working together to bake cookies.
Bahnasy’s idea to get together and form a cookie-baking family of friends came from her longing to continue the Eid tradition in the United States. Bahnasy, an architect, explains that the women met by chance through friends and work.
“It took a little while, but we all met,” she says with a smile. “But it was a couple of years ago when I was missing the city-wide festivities that occur in Syria that I thought, why not do that here?”
The women nod in agreement, remembering that when Bahnasy suggested they bake together, the idea resonated.
“This way we get to learn each other’s traditions and bake all the cookies we need,” Fikrat says, popping her cookies
into the oven.