Food, Music and Prayers of Thanks in Any Language

The Eid al-Adha holiday is just now over in Saudi Arabia and all over the Muslim world. This is a festival that is tied to the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. One of the pillars of Islam is that every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so must make the pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lifetime. Meanwhile, during the Eid al-Adha holiday, or the Festival of Sacrifice, Muslims spend time with family and acknowledge the gifts of food and shelter. So while thousands or millions of pilgrims made their way to Mecca (the reported number varies crazily), millions more stayed home and celebrated one the most important holidays of the Islamic year with food, music and prayer within their own communities.

In our tiny Eastern Province compound, the company hosted an Eid luncheon for the whole town, with a buffet in the dining hall. The hall looked quite elegant, the big square tables dressed up with white tablecloths topped with smaller cloths of gauzy blue-gray. In the center of each table was a big pitcher of “Saudi champagne,” which is simply sparkling apple cider with chopped apples and oranges (the types of fruits can vary) and mint. It doesn’t scratch the itch if you’re dreaming of real champagne, but it is a tasty drink!

The generous spread included flatbreads, hummus and baba ghannouj (eggplant spread), tabbouleh (crunchy bulgur, parsley, and mint salad), lamb kofta (cylindrical dumplings made with ground lamb and spices), fried hamour (or grouper, a very common, tasty white fish here), and the ubiquitous chicken fingers for the children. (Is there any part of the world that has not yet been besmirched with chicken fingers?) Frankly, the buffet just seemed like a showcase of the dining hall’s best offerings, and maybe that’s the point. With Eid al-Adha being celebrated in countries as widely disparate as Morocco and Somalia, Turkey and Pakistan and Russia, it is difficult to say what a “typical” holiday menu would look like.

My husband and I enjoyed the Eid lunch, despite the fact that both of us were still stuffed from the outrageous American Thanksgiving dinner we had eaten the night before! In the heart of the Saudi desert, we enjoyed an American feast, southern-style, with some new friends. It included a brined turkey and all the traditional trimmings, plus baked beans (flavored with beef pepperoni rather than bacon), sweet potatoes with pecans, southern style slow-cooked green beans (again with the beef pepperoni. Oh, for a slab of bacon!), and two different kinds of devilled eggs. We sat around the table with friends from America, Scotland, and Bangladesh, and offered thanks and toasts with southern sweet iced tea. (Oh, for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc!)

Anyway, we waddled home after the Eid luncheon thinking we would never eat again. That evening, as we lounged around our house with the windows open and the curtain swaying in the cool breeze, incredible noises began drifting up the street from the park. We heard what sounded like flamenco drumming—or was it more African? Then a haunting Arabic chant drifted down the street.

Of course, we had to check it out. We were halfway down the block in our jeans and t-shirts before it hit me that I might be acting like a completely tacky, disrespectful American if I showed up at a traditional Arabic celebration looking like an umkempt suburbanite. But it was dark, and we didn’t want to miss anything, so we kept going.

We stood in the grass about 20 yards away from a large ring of folding chairs that had been set up in the town’s grassy central park. A group of maybe 25 men wearing traditional white thobes were singing a rhythmic call-and-response, and some of them were playing wide, flat frame drums that looked a lot like traditional Irish bodhrains. The rhythm was compelling and exotic, sounding, what? Moroccan? Not exactly.

The drummers stood in one group, holding their drums aloft as they played them, their thobes and their drums glowing in the bright lighting that had been set up for the celebration. They looked like a little grove of lollipop-shaped Dr. Suess trees, their bodies like white trunks and their big drums bobbing above their heads. They wailed away on these drums with extended, flat palms, framing and embroidering on the rhythm of the chanting. Another group of maybe a dozen men stood in a line facing the drummers, swaying and doing a simple side-to-side step like a Southern Baptist church choir. These men were offering their vocal response to a man who was wearing a dark-colored thobe and holding a microphone. This man was leading the call-and-response, walking among the drummers.

My husband and I were grinning hugely and swaying to the sounds when a guard crossed the lawn towards us. I thought, uh-oh, here we go: I’m not covered up for this very traditional occasion and he’s going to give us a hard time. But no! He approached us and asked us if we had ever seen a celebration like this before. When we said no, and told him that we were brand new residents, he welcomed us warmly and introduced himself, shaking Michael’s hand and then mine too. We tried to ask him about what we were seeing, but his English wasn’t great and our Arabic is practically non-existent at this point. After a few moments he wished us a good evening and moved on.

A few Saudi women, wearing the traditional abaya and hijab, visited with each other at the perimeter and watched after their children, who were playing in the grass or jumping in the two moonbounces that had been set up for the occasion.

Later, the musicians took a break and we watched as the drummers carried their instruments over to a big grill fire and warmed them up over the flames—to tighten them back up after playing? We couldn’t figure it out. We headed back down the street towards home. As we neared our house, we could hear the music start back up again, the voices calling and responding in universal praise. The drums and the mysterious Arabic chants echoed off the red clay roof tiles and down the residential street, as the stars winked in the clear desert sky.