Noor’s deflated the bouncy castle again!” complains one of the children. I look over at our newly planted persimmon tree onto which the now-flaccid structure has fallen, right by our “Happy Ramadan!” garden flag in the lawn. I sigh, but it’s almost sunset and guests are arriving in droves, setting up their dishes of choice in the back yard. It’s potluck iftar tonight. What could be a more appropriate way to celebrate just a few days away from July 4, Independence Day?
A few of my friends get to work laying out assorted prayer rugs, beach mats and throws on the lawn in anticipation of the prayer that will commence minutes after sunset. Later, we expect the kids to sit on them, glow sticks in hand, listening to the ghost stories one of the older girls has promised them.
Two boys set off some firecrackers close to the bamboo trees and earn a scolding from one of the men. A few tired toddlers wail in the background. A couple of other kids try to sneak peeks at the goodie bags that have been set aside for them as those of fasting age anxiously await the call to prayer, the adhan, signaling it is time to break the day’s fast. One of the guests prepares a Caribbean jerk marinade from his native Virgin Islands in a blender by the grill, serenely oblivious to the hubbub around him.
We’ve hung decorations and set out dates on tables scattered throughout the yard accompanied by glowing lanterns. Soon there is nothing left to do but restlessly check iPhone apps to see if it’s time yet. When someone’s phone goes off with the melodic adhan, we become still and listen.
The holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar, during which the observant fast from food, drink and worldly pleasures from dawn until sunset, Ramadan has a special significance everywhere, but it is a source of particular delight and anticipation in Muslim communities of the Western world. It is a month for spiritual recalibration, a time for purification of the soul, a time families and communities who are otherwise insular or busy keeping up with popular trends can calm down and, in the evening, come together around a single meal. It is a time to feed the soul, both figuratively and literally.
Columbia, in Howard County, Maryland, where my family and I live, is a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., and it’s an incredible place to encounter “Muslim Americana.” We know families that have been here for generations as well as recent immigrants and refugees. From Bosnia to Palestine, Senegal, Puerto Rico, Malaysia, Africa or Europe, we all share a common purpose in this one sacred month when friends and family slow down, gather for evening prayers, reflect on the year gone by and the standing of their faith, and share meals.
And what meals they are. Iftar fare! Meals prepared uniquely during Ramadan. They are both nourishment and a reminder of what to be thankful for after a day of material deprivation, vehicles to carry histories and traditions. And only at an iftar in the us, where the history of Islam dates back to the era of slavery, can one experience a mélange like that which appeared on our tables. Welcome to the potluck!
Escarole and Bean Stew (Scarola e Fagioli)
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If you are born into a Muslim family, Ramadan is second nature. If you come to Islam later in life, tradition is cultivated.
Born to Puerto Rican and Italian parents and originally from Brooklyn, Francesca Pagan now lives in Laurel, Maryland. She became a Muslim some 15 years ago while she was in college. She says she takes her Italian grandmother’s tradition of cucina povera, or peasant food, and adapts it to Ramadan.
“I like [my children] to feel simple; I like them to feel less entitled. I think that’s the spirit of Ramadan. You’re supposed to simplify your life.”
After a day of fasting, she tells me, iftar is “better than your favorite birthday cake. It’s better than the best Christmas present. I don’t think there’s any other experience that you have [that is like it]. The water tastes sweeter than you’ve ever tasted it. The pleasure you get from everything is increased.”
That, she jokes, makes it “a good time to introduce vegetables to your kids!”
“Iftars are kind of, to me, very much a party. There’s this vibe, this kind of energy. Kids are excited. Parents are anticipating. Everybody gets together. They stand and they wait. The moment that you hear the adhan, the call to prayer, people begin handing out water and dates, and it’s very quiet, and nobody’s really speaking. Then there’s this burst of energy—people start moving around. People start getting happy. Everybody then goes to pray. Food is one of those things that you do without during the day so you can get spiritually closer to God. But the reward of enjoying it after the sunset takes it to a whole new level.”
Suriati Othman and Nabeela Mohamed
Tapioca Cake (Bingka Ubi Kayu)
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Suriati Othman meticulously arranges and rearranges her flawlessly cut diamond-shaped tapioca cakes on a vibrantly colored batik cloth layered with a banana leaf. In the middle sits a small bowl of water.
“The water is to cleanse one’s hands after eating the cake. It’s traditional in Malaysia,” explains Suriati. “Presentation is critical,” she emphasizes.
For Suriati and her daughter Nabeela Mohamed, 18, America is a home they adopted more than a decade ago when they came with their husband’s and father’s work. At first they assumed it would be temporary, but 13 years later, they have put down roots in Howard County.
Like many an immigrant, Suriati found herself sorely missing home, especially during Ramadan. Picket fences made her miss street-long holiday markets—and iftars. “Gradually we learned how to connect with the Muslim community and then organize activities and fun things together. The community basically becomes part of the family. But the first few years were tough.”
Nabeela recalls how, on trips back to Malaysia during Ramadan, she would watch her grandmother spend hours whipping up elaborate dishes. This time spent cooking together for a month ranks among her fondest memories.
“Everyone jumping in, helping out. My dad, he’ll make a drink, or he’ll pitch in to help out. Little cousins or something like that, it’s always nice to just have everyone together in the process of cooking.”
“In Malaysia. She’s talking about in Malaysia,” her mother solemnly tones in.
The move was a big change for Suriati, and she is constantly reminded of it, especially during meal preparation. Her extended family of 30 or 40 suddenly shrank to four. But she has learned to “extend” her family through her community—and that there is no better time to do this than in Ramadan.
“Ramadan for me is about self-reflection. Thinking about myself, thinking about my relationship with the people around me: my loved ones, my family, my friends, my community. The most important thing is my relationship with my creator,” says Suriati.
For Nabeela, as with many children, the deeper purpose of Ramadan came gradually. “When I was little, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, we’re not going to have food and water for like the whole day.’ Obviously, as I grew older, I realized that it’s not just about fasting from food and water. It’s also about refraining from bad habits, and it teaches you discipline, and ultimately it brings you closer to God. Or that’s the goal!”
“Upside-down” Rice with Lamb (Maqlouba)
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Yassine Daoud carefully steadies a large pot brimming with steaming spiced rice, packed with roasted cauliflower and fork-tender lamb. He places a large stainless steel tray on top, then flips the entire pot in one swift motion. The contents empty out neatly in a cake-like mold that we then jewel with fried nuts and chopped parsley.
“It’s the rite of passage of the man of the house to flip it. The women do all the work, and then we men can come around and say we actually participated!” he jokes.
Though not necessarily a Ramadan-specific dish, maqlouba is synonymous with Palestinian family gatherings.
“It’s healthy. It’s homey. It’s filling. And it’s a diverse dish with multiple ingredients,” he adds.
Yassine knows much about health and home. From a childhood in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and then winning a scholarship to boarding school in New Mexico at age 15 before he knew more than a few words of English, he is now a leading eye surgeon at Johns Hopkins.
Ramadan for Yassine brings back memories of cherished moments in the camp—staying up all night with neighborhood kids, waiting in anticipation for sweets and indulging in holiday desserts. But the most important part was when the entire family would come together.
“We were oblivious to the fact that we lived in poverty. We were very happy and joyous, very nurtured and nourished. People were incredibly supportive and looked out for each other.”
He and his family of 11 shared a single room, but on any given Ramadan evening, they would entertain or feed 15 to 20 guests, often by kerosene lamp light.
When he came to America, “there were not many Muslims around me, as well as a lack of festivities and social support. You just don’t feel it. In the us I got the hunger but not the spirit of Ramadan because not many people know what you are doing.”
How did he keep the spirit of Ramadan alive? Yassine poignantly notes that it worked the other way around.
“I think the spirit of Ramadan keeps you alive in that regard, not vice versa. There’s an incredible blessing in the month. There is a switch that turns on for many people. It accentuates the spirituality, brings out the best in people and therefore it becomes an incredible, almost magical time of communal and social well-being—no matter where you are.”
Nuriman Mamut Sheets
Steamed Dumplings with Meat and Butternut Squash (Pitir Manta)
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Nuriman Mamut Sheets surveys the living room and makes herself comfortable in the middle of the floor. She fans out an embroidered Turkish tablecloth, tidily arranges platters and gets to work grating squash, mincing onions, slicing and spicing steak, and rolling dough. Three girls, two of them opportune visitors from next door, draw close.
“Come! Join Auntie Nuriman, and I’ll show you how to make manta the way my grandmother did!”
Intrigued, the girls get comfortable.
Nuriman makes little folds to seal the dough, one on top of the other, then instructs the girls. “It’s okay if you don’t do it perfectly! That’s how you learn! My mother would ask me to repeat, ‘What goes into the manta?’ as I was making it. And I would repeat. That’s exactly how I learned! Sometimes she would say, ‘You put too much flour,’ or ‘You put too much water,’ and that day we’d have to cook something else!”
Nuriman, 40, was born and raised in the small town of Atush, in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, close to Kashgar on “the old Silk Road,” she explains. She met her husband, David, at university in China and later moved with him to the us. The transition from village to suburb was jarring. What she missed most was her community and sense of belonging, which she wistfully refers to as “communal love.”
During Ramadan, she says, she found it again, but differently: not one community, but many. All American and all bringing with them different traditions.
“My love for food started when my mom sent me to the farmer’s market every day,” she recalls. “And when I would come home, and we would wash, and we would cook together, and we would all eat together.”
Now Nuriman continues this tradition with her own family: She grows her fruits and vegetables in the summer and raises chickens, which her six children help keep. They also make regular visits to her local farmer’s market, where there is seldom a purveyor who does not know her name. Many a neighbor and friend have been at the receiving end of her bounty.
“My mom also saved a plate for somebody else,” she says. “You would never know who comes to your door. In Arabic it’s called ‘their share,’ or naseeb, because God provides for everybody.” She, too, hands out food to her neighbors.
“[They] are getting to know our culture through this. When you eat together, all the spirits come together, and we say thanks in our different ways.”
Faridah Abdul-Tawwab Brown and Fatimah Fanusie
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The pies are not setting yet. Faridah Abdul-Tawwab Brown opens the oven door to check on them, apprehensive.
She keeps her Ramadan cool, however, and places an emergency troubleshooting phone call to her mother, Najwa, in Florida.
We are making bean pies, a dessert popularized in the 1960s by African American Muslims.
The kitchen is abuzz. My own two girls are scurrying about, one clumsily pouring Turbinado sugar into the mixer, the other making herself useful by licking leftover pie mix. My husband helps open cans of navy beans (“If Mommy were to find out we weren’t using dried beans, that’d be the end of us!” says Faridah), as Fatimah Fanusie, Faridah’s twin sister, moves nervously around. Baking 12 pies that you can’t taste-test because you are fasting is risky. Butter is whipped, and billows of nutmeg, cinnamon and cornstarch float through the air. “Fasting and cooking is an adventure,” quips Fatimah.
Faridah and Fatimah were born and raised in inner-city Boston, surrounded by colleges and college students from all over the world. Their parents came to Islam through the political and religious movements of the time. It is an experience perhaps few Muslims outside of their own communities are familiar with across America.
“Halloween trick-or-treating, Christmas, and we weren’t allowed to participate in most of those. Ramadan was our time,” says Fatimah.
“As African Americans we got to experience the traditions coming out of our community and from all over the Muslim world. We would have our iftars—you know, the bean pies, the fried fish, barbecued chicken, things of that nature that were distinct to our experience as northern African Americans with a rich history in the American south.
“Ramadan has always meant a time of reaffirmation of our own particular cultural stamp, and also it’s been about sharing. It’s always been a multicultural experience for us growing up.”
As for the iftars themselves (which Faridah describes as “30 days of Thanksgiving”), they were neighborhood affairs.
“We would just have the whole block party if it was during the warm weather, and the food would be out on the streets, and everyone would come and partake. I loved Ramadan, and I loved iftar for exactly this reason,” says Fatimah. “I knew I would eat Iranian food with Amene and Iraqi food with Zahara and Sudanese food with Moonah Shantur. I loved the smoky incense from one culture, and then the beads from another. You were just really enveloped in a whole new world. I think that was one of the reasons I loved learning about people and traveling so much as I got older.”