a typical iftar.

When it’s time to break the fast at the end of the day, everyone is downstairs by at least ten minutes before maghrib (the maghrib athan is what signals the end of the day’s fasting). On each placemat, there is a bowl for soup, a glass, and a spoon. The plates of sambousa are in the middle of the table.

As we migrate toward the table, each person busies himself or herself in setting up their place. Soup goes in the bowls, glasses get filled. Somewhere on the table, there is a bowl of dates, and each person chooses several dates and piles them up next to his soup bowl—an odd number, partly because eating an odd number of dates is sunnah, and partly because an odd number is always a step more than an even number, and dang it, we’re hungry.

We sit. I take one sambousa and peel off the crispiest, pointiest parts before handing it to Lavender. She starts gumming the sambousa as she watches the scene.

Sometime during the beginning of this Ramadan, my father-in-law decided that it’s high time for me to learn Arabic. Now, up until this point, my father-in-law has been the person most dedicated to translating for me when I find myself in the midst of a rapid-fire family conversation in Arabic. Everyone else usually gets caught up in the discussion and I get left behind, but he always takes time out to do his best to translate everything for me, which I find terribly sweet.

But now, it’s been two years since I moved to Riyadh, and while my Arabic has improved during that time, I’m still pretty bewildered when I’m in the middle of an intense conversation. So every night before iftar, he has been busy teaching me words (even words I already know), having me repeat them, and giving me commands to follow in Arabic.

Mendeel,” he says, pointing to a box of Kleenex.

“Tissue,” I say, to show him I know the word.

Eywa, mendeel,” he says. “Mendeel. Gooli mendeel.”

“Mendeel,” I say.

This continues with various other words. Except there’s just one thing. My father-in-law pronounces his S sounds in an unorthodox way…like, he doesn’t exactly have a lisp, but when he makes letter sounds in the S family, they sound very thick, if that makes any sense. And in Arabic, there are two letters in that S family—seen, which makes the same sound as an English letter S, and saad, which is like an S but is made a bit further back in the mouth and has more emphasis. These two letters sound basically the same to a native English speaker (at least, a native English speaker who is also an Arabic language learner), which is part of the reason that Americans never pronounce Saleh’s name totally correctly, because in Arabic, his name begins with the letter saad.

Anyway, I can pretty much distinguish between those two letters now, except when my father-in-law says them. So it makes it a whole lot harder to understand when a word he’s having me repeat has one of these two letters.

After I attempt to repeat the word he is teaching me a few times, getting it wrong each time, someone—usually my brother-in-law—says the word, so that I can understand it clearly, rolling his eyes at how my father-in-law is trying to make me speak Arabic. In response, I say eagerly, “No, I really appreciate him teaching me!” Because it’s true.

“It’s not that,” my brother-in-law says. “You’re never going to learn that way. He’s speaking to you like you’re a plumber from Pakistan.”

“What?” I say, confused as to what Pakistani plumbers have to do with this.

“He’s talking to you like you don’t speak Arabic or English,” he clarifies. “He’s speaking very bad Arabic, the kind of Arabic that people pick up from other people who speak very bad Arabic, so you can understand him better. But you’re never going to learn that way.”

While I’m having this conversation with my brother-in-law, my husband is scolding my father-in-law for using nonstandard Arabic with me, and they are heatedly discussing (in Arabic, naturally) what is the best way to teach me. My mother-in-law and sister-in-law are also offering their input. After my brother-in-law finishes explaining to me what’s going on, he jumps into the conversation between my father-in-law and my husband.

As the minutes until maghrib tick by, my mouth is watering, and everyone is choosing a few sambousa to pile up next to their soup bowls. I grab a few of my favorites as the Arabic debate continues (to hear it, it sounds like they’re in the midst of a very serious disagreement, but at this point, I know they’re not. Like my mom told me when she first met my in-laws, “When they talk, it sounds like they’re really arguing, even when they’re talking about the weather!” I see what she means. In Arabic conversation, there’s very little concept of waiting for your turn to speak, as in English conversation. No, in Arabic, everyone talks at the same time, and you listen and speak at the same time).

The athan on someone’s phone goes off. “Athan,” my sister-in-law says, picking up a date, signaling that it’s time to eat.

La, barra,” my father-in-law says. No, outside. He’s saying that it’s not officially maghrib until we hear the athan being called from the mosques outside. As soon as this is settled, the boys go back to discussing Arabic.

While I stack up my chosen sambousa in preparation for the sound of the proper athan, my mother-in-law holds up a plate and says over the din of the arguing boys, “Nicole, do you want laham?”

“La, shukran,” I say. Then, in an attempt to demonstrate to my father-in-law that he really is teaching me things, I add with a smile, “Ahob jubna.” I love cheese.

“Eywa, jubna!” says my father-in-law proudly, taking a break from the debate when he hears me speaking Arabic. Another athan sounds, this time on someone else’s phone.

“Athan!” my sister-in-law says.

“La, barra!” my father-in-law insists.

My mouth is watering and I want to eat so badly and I’m so close. Why, oh, why hasn’t the athan sounded barra?

“I think you need to say, ‘Ahob al jubna,’” my brother-in-law says. “’I love the cheese.’ That’s what you’d say in English, right? Because you like the cheese sambousa?””

“No, she can say ‘I love cheese,’” Mr. Mostafa insists. “That makes sense, too.”

My father-in-law jumps in with his own assessment of the cheese quandary. Soon everyone at the table is offering their input, still all in Arabic, of course, and the volume of the discussion rises so that we can just barely hear the sound of the athan outside.

“Athan! Barra!” my mother-in-law calls, but the cheese debate rages. I don’t want to be the first one to eat, but I’m holding a date to my lips, waiting for someone else to take the first bite.

Finally, the cheese question is sufficiently settled for my father-in-law. He bows out of the discussion and eats a date. I follow suit.

And then we’re all eating.

And I am learning Arabic.

And it is glorious.

date bowl 750x660 a typical iftar.

the joy of sambousa.

During Ramadan, Mr. Mostafa and I always (or, at least, as long as we’ve been living in the Kingdom) end the day’s fasting by eating iftar (or fatoor, as it is sometimes called) with my in-laws. (Of course, Lavender is there, too, but obviously she doesn’t fast, so she eats with us, but she’s not breaking any fast.)

While some families really do up the iftar meal, ours is always relatively simple: shorba (soup), sambousa, dates. We drink water, or Vimto, or fresh juice. The soup is always made from scratch by my mother-in-law, and it varies from day to day, but Quaker soup is one of the soups in the rotation. Sometimes there is addas (lentil) soup. It depends, but all are delicious. After we eat our iftar, we migrate to the living room, where we drink gahwa and eat a dessert.

Along with the soup, we eat sambousa, which are a small, savory (although you can also make them sweet, as a dessert food, if you prefer; my mother-in-law makes some amazing banana-filled sambousa), pastry-like food that are very easy to prepare. All you need is a pack of sambousa wrappers and some sort of filling. You can get pretty creative with fillings, but we usually have three basic types of sambousa on the table every night: two jubna (cheese), and one laham (red meat). My absolute favorite filling is simple: feta cheese mixed with fresh shibt (dill). To make the filling, all you have to do is take a chunk of feta, mash it up, and mix a good bit of dill in with it (you can choose how much suits you). If you have leftover cheese after you’ve made all of your sambousa, you can put the cheese in a Tupperware in the fridge and save it for the next day.

So, to actually make the sambousa, you just take a sambousa wrapper (they are long and rectangular) and lay it out. At one end, put a spoonful of filling; probably around a teaspoon is a good measurement. Then you fold it lengthwise, maintaining an equilateral triangle shape as you go along. When you reach the end, tuck the loose end into the fold of the triangle.

sambousa 750x375 the joy of sambousa.

sambousa 2 750x375 the joy of sambousa.

sambousa 3 750x375 the joy of sambousa.

sambousa 4 750x375 the joy of sambousa.

Now that I think about it, the whole process is startlingly similar to how I used to fold notes in seventh grade.

Anyway, after it’s folded, place the sambousa in a baking pan with a little bit of olive oil in it, turning it to get a bit of oil on both sides. Once all the little triangles are in the pan, just bake until the outsides are lightly brown, and voila! You made sambousa!

Some people fry theirs instead, but we just find that to be unnecessarily greasy. Baking works just as well, if not better; the sambousa come out of the oven nice and crispy and just slightly oily, not saturated with grease.

It can take awhile to perfect your sambousa-wrapping technique. It looks easy, and it honestly is, but it may take some practice to get it just right. During my first Ramadan in Riyadh, I was awful. During my second, it was hit-and-miss; some looked perfect, others looked like they had been assembled by a toddler. But this Ramadan, I’ve made only one wonky sambousa thus far. When Mr. Mostafa picked it up, he looked at me and said jokingly, “Let me guess—you made this one!”

I gestured toward the plate, which was loaded with perfect sambousa, and said, “Yes, but I made all of these, too!”

His eyebrows rose. “Really? I’m impressed!”

Also, here in Saudi Arabia, there are tons of different brands of sambousa wrappers; you just have to find one that you like best. In the States, we never found sambousa wrappers at all, even at the Middle Eastern store in the city where we lived, so we improvised by using those egg roll wonton wraps that you can find in the produce section at Walmart. They didn’t taste exactly the same, and because they are square rather than rectangular, they took some creative folding to end up with the requisite triangle shape, but they worked well enough.

I haven’t actually been making many sambousa this year, since Lavender’s current sleep routine is such that she’s often napping around sambousa-making time, and I can’t leave her alone up in the apartment while she naps, nor can I lay her down somewhere downstairs (she will wake up–it’s rare that she naps anywhere except in our bed or on my shoulder). So most of the sambousa-making has been left to my mother-in-law and my sister-in-law this year. But I’m still pretty proud of the technique I’ve perfected over the years, and I’m sure it will serve me well during Ramadans to come!

why ramadan requires two alarm clocks.

I’m laying in bed when I wake up, thinking that it must be almost time to wake up for suhoor. Half asleep, I reach out to the nightstand and flip my phone over.

3:43 a.m.

Saleh! Saleh!” I say, nudging Mr. Mostafa urgently. “It’s like, one minute until fajr!”

“What?” he replies groggily. “No, it isn’t.”

“Yes, it is,” I insist. “Why didn’t you wake us up?”

“No, it’s—“ He sits bolt upright in bed as he looks at his phone. “What the hell? I set my alarm for 3:15!”

“Well, obviously you didn’t, or—“

“No time!” He cuts me off and leaps out of bed, making a beeline for the kitchen. We’re not going to have time for a proper meal before the day’s fasting starts.

I roll out of bed as quickly as I can, taking care to not wake Lavender. I go to the water dispenser and grab the water bottle sitting on the dresser next to it. I fill the bottle and gulp down as much water as I can. As I do so, I head toward the kitchen, where Mr. Mostafa is cramming dates into his mouth.

“Why are you drinking from my water bottle?” he snaps when he sees me. “That’s my water bottle.”

“Uh,” I say.

“And now it’s empty!” he says. “Get me water in my water bottle.”

Stunned and still brain-fogged from sleep, I go back to the water dispenser, fill the bottle, and then bring it back to him, sitting it on the laundry machine in the kitchen. As I angrily walk out of the kitchen and into the bathroom, the fajr athan sounds. Fasting has started for the day.

I make wudhu, splashing plenty of water on my face. I’m furious. Once I finish, I go back into the bedroom and get ready to pray. A few minutes later, Saleh comes into the bedroom, having finished his own wudhu.

We pray fajr, and then crawl back into bed. After a few minutes of silence, I say, “You were a real jerk.”

“No, you were the jerk,” he grumbles.

“How?” I demand. “How was I the jerk?”

“You took my water bottle,” he said.

“Uh, because you went to the kitchen. You didn’t even take your water bottle with you; you left it in the bedroom. And if I had been the one who slept through the alarm and made us miss suhoor, you would be blaming me left and right. The least you could have done was apologize for sleeping through the alarm.”

“Whatever. It wasn’t my fault. The alarm didn’t go off.”

“Oh, come on. We both know what happened. You woke up and pressed stop and went right back to sleep. We’re both lucky that I woke up when I did or we wouldn’t have gotten anything.”

“You have your own water bottle on your own nightstand. Why did you have to take mine?”

“I didn’t take your damn water bottle! It wasn’t even on your nightstand! It was on the dresser! And you are being such an asshole about it, anyway—I’m the one who has to drink enough water because I’m breastfeeding our kid.”

“Oh, that’s just great. Just great. Keep on talking like that. Why don’t you just break your fast? You said all those bad words. Just break your fast now. Go drink more water. Your fast doesn’t count now.”

“Oh, shut up. Last week you were watching TV before maghrib and you said that whole caliphate thing in Syria was bullshit. You didn’t break your fast. It didn’t end the fast for you. It’s all about you, right? You can say all the swear words. You can sleep through the alarm and not wake us up and I’m supposed to get you water.”

“Just stop it, okay? We could be back asleep now but you keep bitching—“

“Ahaaaa! That’s just great! Why don’t you break your fast? Break your fast, Saleh! Break your fast!”

Silence. We lay awake in bed, each fuming, for about a half hour.

Finally, Mr. Mostafa rolls over and pokes me on the shoulder. “Honey? Hey, honey? Are you awake?”

“I am now,” I say rudely, even though I had been awake the whole time.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I was really a jerk about the water. You’re right, you needed the water more than I did. But it made me angry that you took the bottle off my nightstand. I didn’t understand why you took my bottle instead of using yours.”

“I told you, it wasn’t even on your nightstand. It was on the dresser, next to the water dispenser.”

“I know. It doesn’t matter, anyway. You needed the water more than me. I’m really sorry. I was a jerk. I didn’t even drink the water when you brought it to me. I drank laban in the kitchen. I know I was a jerk.”


“Do you want to snug? I’d like to snug with you.”

“No. I want to sleep.”

“No snugging?”


“Well, I love you.”

“I hate you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”

“I still love you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do.”


“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“Good night.”

“Good night.”

Ramadan kareem, all.

water bottles 750x393 why ramadan requires two alarm clocks.