Christmas in our little Spanish mountain village of El Hoyo is a low-key affair, but charming. A banner pronouncing ‘Feliz Navidad’ is hung across the entrance to the village and the trees in the square are decked with white fairy lights. Although people don’t send each other Christmas cards, they do decorate their houses with a Belén, or intricate, miniature nativity scene. Our neighbours always proudly show us theirs, displayed in their living rooms in pride of place. Unlike the UK, where Christmas is a massive commercial event, Christmas in Spain is much quainter and focuses far more on the religious significance.
Joe and I love Christmas in El Hoyo, so it’s quite a wrench to be here, in the Muslim Kingdom of Bahrain for Christmas. However, we’ve been quite surprised. Funny little Christmas trees have sprung up in odd places, like our hotel lobby, and some of the bigger stores are actually selling Christmas merchandise. Bahrain is home to thousands of expats, so I guess that’s to be expected.Checking exactly when public holidays fall in Bahrain is not a simple matter of looking at the calendar. Islamic months start when a crescent moon is actually sighted by the appropriate religious authorities. Some festivals and holy days might fall a day before (or after) the predicted dates because if the moon is obscured by cloud, the holiday cannot be declared until the moon is actually visible to the naked eye. So you can imagine our confusion.
Some holidays are only officially announced 12 hours before the start of the day, frequently leading to great uncertainty on the part of schools and business establishments. Occasionally, one or other of the neighbouring countries decide to start the holiday a day before the rest of the Gulf states, which leads to yet more confusion.
And even more confusing is the fact that the Islamic calendar is approximately 354 days in length, resulting in annual events shifting by eleven days each year.
This December, Bahrain was not short of public holidays. On the 2nd December the King of Bahrain declared a holiday to celebrate Bahrain Day. We all wore red and white, waved flags and our school was closed. Then on the 7th December, work stopped again for the Islamic New Year. On the 15th, Ashura took place, another important religious holiday.
And finally, Bahrain celebrated its independence on the 16th and 17th of December. Yet again shop doors closed and out came the the red and white flags. For two solid days, work stopped. Cars hooted, headlights flashed, people shouted, flags waved and Joe and I were kept awake most of the night by the noise. The frenzy reminded us of earlier in the year, in El Hoyo when Spain won the World Cup.
So, yes, Christmas may be cancelled for us this year, but we are certainly not short of celebration days.
My Middle Eastern recipe of the month – Kibit Rus
You will need:
3 cups rice 2 medium sized potatoes
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1½ lb (700g) ground beef or lamb
3 medium sized onions
½ bundle chopped parsley
1 teaspoon mixed spices
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
oil for frying
PATTIES: Wash the rice, peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into small pieces and add to the rice. Cover the rice and potatoes with boiling water. Add salt and turmeric. Cook and, when ready, drain. Mix in the tomato paste, then mince the mixture, or stir until smooth. Put aside.
STUFFING:Finely chop onions, fry until golden brown in three tablespoons of oil, then add ground meat, spices, salt and pepper. Stir until cooked. Remove from the heat, leave to cool; add the parsley and mix well. With wet hands, take medium sized pieces of rice and potato mix, shape each one into an oval, making a space in the center by pushing your finger through from one end. Fill this space with meat and onion stuffing. Close by pressing firmly on both ends. Fry patties in heated deep oil, making sure they are covered by oil. Serve hot.
Recipe from “Saudi Arabia Magazine” Summer 1996
“a charming and funny expat tale” The Telegraph (UK)
“Weeks later you will be doing the dishes and recall some fleeting scene with chickens or mules or two old fools and laugh out loud all over again.” The Catalunya Chronicle