Kitchens, Prayers, and Politics

We walk down to the first floor and stop by the kitchen, and I wait for Selma to draw the hanging spoons.

We’re in the Museo Casa-natal-de-Cervantes, in Alcalá de Henares, the suburbs of Madrid.

The Kitchen in Casa de Cervantes

A low chair is placed close to the low stove in the kitchen.  In the corner, an earthenware pitcher, large enough to hide a two-year-old standing upright, with a wooden cover across from the small window for ventilation. 

“It’s a miniature of the kitchen in Chakwal“, I say to Selma, “and less cluttered.”

But the kitchen wasn’t tiled like this, I think. And it’s large enough to feed Cervante’s family but too small for ours. There’s no way a meal for fifty could be prepared here.


The Kitchen in Chakwal

I am back in that kitchen below the four storied home with generations of family members. It’s somewhere between midnight and sunrise. The time for sehri- the pre-dawn fasting feast. I’m five years old and I think I will keep my first fast. I think I’ll be fine not eating or drinking anything— even swallowing a few drops of water as I swish it around to cleanse my mouth when it gets dry. 

Grandfather’s house in Chakwal

The smell of fried parathas and eggs envelopes me in this kitchen where Abidah oversees the servants cooking for the extended family and for themselves. I hold the plate with both hands not wanting to drop it. 

The early morning hour is enchanted, and I am hypnotized  by hunger and the circling paratha sizzling in the home made ghee. I wait patiently for the tight layers of flatbread cooking on the tawa to be put on my plate. 

From where I sit on a tiny peerhi, a low woven kitchen stool, I can see a sparrow’s nest in the half-open roshandaan—the skylight. It’s been there a few weeks now and I’ve even checked the light blue eggs that should hatch in a few days. 

Just below the roshandaan, in the corner a pile of huge—heads.  Heads with faces turned to the wall.  No ears.  No hair.  Heads of giants, I think. 

I look closer.  I squint and am about to point them out and I realize.  A pile of unwashed earthen pots huddled near the hammam, the upright water container, waiting to be filled in the morning.  The waterman will come with his buffalo water skin brimming with fresh sweet water from the Persian wheel well pulled by two oxen. The waterman will have to return to the well many times, carrying the animal-like water skin on his back.  With the left hand he will hold the back side up, with the right, always the right, he’ll loosen the opening and let the water flow into the hammams. The hammam in the kitchen, the ones in the bathrooms, and even the small one in the dining room to wash our hands before and after dinner. 

The paratha is now golden brown, and I move my plate closer to the fire ready for when it’s done.

A bird fast

“Not yet, keep your hand away from the fire bibi”, the cook tells me. “You’re fasting today? A bird fast?”

I’m indignant but don’t know how to respond. I will not fast like a bird. I will not end it by midday. 

“That’s all you need”, the cook tells me.  “You’re too young to stay without food and drink all day.”

I say nothing.  I will prove that I am old enough to fast all day.

Later that morning, after coloring pictures with Selma and mummy in the schoolroom upstairs, I find my way to the vegetable gardens.

To get there, I’ll go down three flights of stairs. I’ll peep in again at the bird’s eggs in the kitchen window and take some grain to feed the chicken and ducks.

A group of young girls wearing similar outfits
Anniqua and Selma with their cousins

Behind the kitchen I’ll check the newly washed pots covered with a fresh layer of clay  hanging from the branches of a dead tree.  I’ll walk past the tall Peeple tree—the Ficus religiosa—steering clear from crow droppings that might fall from it.  I will pass by the neem  tree—the Azadirachta indica—with its yellow seeds that will be dried to create prayer beads. I’ll stay away from the jujube tree—Ziziphus— in case I forget I’m fasting and pop one in my mouth. 

Instead, I’ll go watch the donkey pull the plow in the vegetable garden. The gardener and his family will be planting cauliflower, white radish, and carrots. Near the wall, they’ll plant peas. 

I’ll follow the gardener and his family to the well with the Persian wheel. 

From a safe distance, I will watch the two blindfold oxen harnessed together circling the Persian wheel. They will pull sweet water from the darkened depths of the well. The water is first lifted a meter high and then it drops into a trough. 

My mouth feels dry. I wonder how long till I can break my fast. Water gushes out from the side into the stream toward the newly planted vegetables. Water pouring gushing in lines and rows. 

Bullocks pulling a persian well wheel
The Persian well wheel

“Bibi, Bibi”, the cook says gently,  “your paratha is ready. You better eat before the sehry time ends.”

She drops the paratha on the plate in my lap, and I carry it to the dining room.  In the center is a wooden table with eighteen chairs around it.  In the corner of the dining room is a raised takht for anyone who prefers to eat with their legs tucked under them. My Dadi Amman, paternal grandmother sits there.  And I join her with my paratha.


A pot in the kitchen
Selma’s interpretation of the kitchen in Chakwal

My uncle is the lantern sign. He’s in some kind of competition.  I’ve decided it’s a race because otherwise it is all so confusing. Everyone has a sign, all the men in the race.  I don’t think there are any women.  Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, the father of Bai Nazir, is in the race too. His sign is a sword. 

Will he run with the sword and my uncle with the lantern?

All I know is that we want our uncle to win, so we’re sitting here praying for him to win this winter morning in 1970.

We’re sitting on a mat in the dining room.  The table has been pulled to one side.  Women and children, no men.  In the center is a pile of dried dharkanu. We reach forward for a handful and on each bead, we have to pray. Combined, we will recite the prayer one hundred thousand times.  That will help my uncle win. Someone is counting to make sure we read the complete amount for our prayers to be received.

Abidah, my aunt, has written the prayer on a piece of paper with her quill: Subhanallah walhamdulillah wala ilaha illallah wallahu akbar.

I don’t know what it means but I know it is about Allah.  Selma reads out loud and I follow her.  Each time we finish the prayer, we drop a dharkanu seed from our handful. 

All this praying will make us thirsty, but I haven’t told anyone yet. I took the cook’s advice.  I have fasted like a bird. I ended it in the afternoon by drinking a glass of water when no one was looking. 

And now I am sitting with the grownups praying and waiting for them to break their fast. 

I can smell the samosas being fried in the kitchen and someone has already brought in trays of dates and jugs of rose flavored milk.

Little do I know the impact my prayers might have on the politics of my country and my own life.

The family

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

Stories from the Kitchen is a one-of-a-kind anthology of classic tales showcasing the culinary arts from across the centuries and around the world.”


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