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Hungering to Do Without: Spirits stay high during the 30-day Ramadan fast
By Amy De La Hunt - Photo by Jonathan Swegle
Posted On: 10/15/2006   


At sundown each night for most of October, thousands of people across St. Louis will eat dates and milk. These will be the first things to cross their lips since dawn.

They’ve been fasting during daylight hours since Sept. 24, when Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, began. They’ll keep it up until the sighting of the new moon, around Oct. 23.

It’s a time of deprivation – Muslims avoid daytime eating, drinking and sexual relations during these 30 days – yet participants are enthusiastic. “One of the reasons [we] look forward to it,” explained Maliha Aziz of Town and Country, “is that families try to get together and visit.” Breaking the fast with relatives or friends is common, especially on weekends when there’s more time to cook.

The social component is combined with a spiritual element: “It’s also a time you really ask for forgiveness,” continued Aziz. “We are trying to do three very important pillars [of Islam] – prayer, fasting and helping the needy.” During Ramadan, Muslims try to avoid lying, back-biting, speaking in anger, swearing – in short, “control your animal instincts … so you can concentrate on your spiritual instincts,” said Maysa Albarcha of Chesterfield.

Whether it’s human nature to long for things we can’t have, or because, as Aziz put it, “our lives revolve around food,” suhoor (the predawn meal) and iftar (the evening meal) are daily focal points – and Eid al-Fitr (the festival marking the end of Ramadan) is highly anticipated.

Suhoor

For this extra-early meal, Heba Hasic, a Bosnian who’s lived in St. Louis for 11 years, chooses “something solid, like beans” for protein and yogurt or sour cream to relax the stomach. She drinks tea or chai to get antioxidants, help control stress and decrease thirst. Following suhoor is a time for prayer. Then she may go back to sleep “or, since this is America, go to work.”

Bridgeton resident Shaheen Rafiq, originally from Pakistan, might “make tea, have a couple of toasts, a glass of water and that’s it.” Her daughter, Rabia, said she’ll dig out “whatever’s left over in the fridge.” Albarcha usually drinks only water. “It’s hardest the first two days – especially because I have major caffeine withdrawal the first day!” she said.

Fellow fasters agreed their bodies stabilize fairly quickly after the initial detox effect. Even those who cook for others don’t get hungry. (Prepubescent children aren’t required to fast; neither are the ill, pregnant or menstruating women or nursing mothers. Non-Muslim spouses or family members may choose not to fast.) Shaheen Rafiq, who runs a Subway with her husband, doesn’t find work difficult. “My customers, they know I am fasting.” Because the majority of them are Christian, she said, “I have fun with them during Lent. ... They understand. It’s like a brotherhood.”

Iftar

The first item consumed after sunset is dates, which were eaten by the prophet Muhammad to break his fast and have the added bonus of being easy to digest and high in carbohydrates and fiber. Milk or water washes them down. Then there are prayers, followed by the iftar.

Naheed Jamil, a Des Peres resident, said some parents fix special foods for their kids, as her mother did in Pakistan. With her own sons, Jamil would hit the supermarket on the way home, where the older one would buy donuts and junk food. “He used to put everything on the table and be ready to eat,” she laughed.

At the Rafiq home, iftar often includes fruit chaat, a spiced fruit salad of cut-up apples, pears, bananas and grapes dressed with orange juice and sugar. Accompanying this are battered and fried potato discs and cholay (garbanzo bean curry). Other Pakistani families might have samosas (deep-fried pastries filled with meat or vegetables) or dahi bara, falafel-like balls of gram flour (made from dried chickpeas). Milkshakes and juice blends, especially mango or strawberry, quench the thirst.

The Hasics’ meal typically begins with a thin, warm soup, followed by Bosnian foods like pita filled with meat, cheese or vegetables like zucchini, plus bread and salad and perhaps more meat or vegetables.

Albarcha, whose roots are Syrian, might prepare stuffed grape leaves, eggplant dishes, salads and rice with yogurt. She keeps portions small, explaining that Ramadan is a time to keep in mind the prophet Muhammad’s instruction to fill the stomach only a third full, leaving the rest for equal parts water and air. That’s easier said than done, said Aziz, who left her native Pakistan 19 years ago. “This particular month, a lot of people tend to overeat.”

Rabia Rafiq is among them. “I pretty much crave anything,” she said. “Even if I don’t normally like it, if I smell it, I want it.” But she does try to limit her intake of rich foods at iftar. After the meal and evening prayers, some people eat an additional snack of fruits or sweets before bedtime.

Eid al-Fitr

One of the month’s holiest days is the 27th, when the Quran was revealed. By then preparations are under way for Eid al-Fitr. (This is one of two Eids – the other, Eid al-Adha, will be in early January.) New clothes are purchased, special foods are baked and charitable donations are made.

“This particular Eid is a lot of finger food,” Aziz said, “and a lot of desserts.” Among them might be sheer korma (milk pudding with vermicelli), baklava, cheesecakes … “every fatty food that you can think of.” She admitted that it’s a time to remember the poor, but “it’s a more commercial event now, just like Christmas.”

“During Eid, it’s tradition [that all the region’s Muslims] go to prayers all at one time,” typically at a stadium or convention center, said Albarcha. Then individual mosques often host bazaars or meals. Following that, “you take turns going to each others’ houses.” Among the Syrian families she’ll visit, it’s nearly a guarantee they’ll serve maamoul, shortbread-like cookies of semolina flour and ghee, stuffed with dates or pistachios. “You go around tasting everybody’s cookies to see whose are the best,” she said with a laugh.

Her three daughters will receive money from relatives. Monetary gifts for children are also a Pakistani tradition, even for Rabia Rafiq, age 22. For how much longer, she joked, she didn’t know. “I will give it to you all your life!” her mother exclaimed, adding that she still gets money, too. In other ways, the younger generation is more Americanized. Rabia Rafiq might serve pizza at an Eid party. And Hasic said, “After Ramadan, [my kids] will go to McDonald’s for a Big Mac.”

How long greetings of Eid Mubarak (Blessed Eid) are exchanged depends. In some countries it’s a three-day event, but in America, unless Eid falls on a Friday or Saturday, it’s usually a single day. Either way, the Muslim diaspora basks in an atmosphere of harmony. “When [we] go for prayers, I really enjoy it,” Jamil said. “From every culture and every part of the world, people are different colors – and wearing different colors. It’s so beautiful.”

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