Ramadan fasts and feasts unite Seattle Muslims

Surahs in the Koran describe how the holy month of Ramadan should be observed with fasting and good works. (Photo from Flickr by Faris Algosaibi)
Surahs in the Koran describe how the holy month of Ramadan should be observed with fasting and good works. (Photo from Flickr by Faris Algosaibi)

Ramadan Kareem to all who are observing this fasting season!

For Muslims around the Greater Seattle Area today marks the first day of Ramadan, a month on the Islamic Lunar Calendar of religious obligations observed by fasting and charity work.

“Anyone is welcome to try to fast from sunrise to sunset for a day,’ invites Arsalan Bukhari, Director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Washington State (CAIR-WA), encouraging non-Muslims to get a taste of the Ramadan experience.

Ramadan fasting is observed by abstaining from “food, drink and other sensual pleasures from before dawn to sunset” according to media advisory sent by CAIR-WA.

With the long summer days here in the Northwest, that means Muslims start their fasting as early as 3:00 a.m., and break their fast in the evening around 9:00 p.m.

Once you’ve fasted for 18 hours, you can imagine that the way you break it becomes pretty important. Muslim families in the Seattle area have different traditions for the evening meal (or iftar) according to their ethnic heritage and background, from East Africa, to Southeast Asia, to the Middle East to the U.S., but some traditions are universal.

“We break the fast with dates, then some fruits, we cut them and add some spices, we make samoosa and garbanzo bean and tea or milk,” Munir Rizvi, a Pakistani American who’s lived in the U.S. for 36 years, said over email.

Medjool dates, one of the most popular Ramadan treats. (Photo from Flickr by Amy Bradstreet)
Medjool dates, one of the most popular Ramadan treats. (Photo from Flickr by Amy Bradstreet)

Dates and water are common starters for the iftar — differentiating Ramadan meals from regular season meals for most Muslim households.

“When you break a fast, it’s dates and water. And then we pray,” said Lena Ismail, a Palestine American who graduated from UW this spring. “And then we have Palestinian dinner like rice, soup, chicken and salad.”

She says Palestinian families have unique desserts that include baklava and katayes, which “kinda looks a pancake” but filled up with walnuts, pistachios and covered with syrup.

“What is…funny are the food myths around Ramadan,” Tarek Dawoud, a Microsoft software engineer who hails from Egypt, said via email. “In Cairo it’s common not to have fish during the month of Ramadan, and then to have fish in the Eid celebration after Ramadan. While beans are a big staple in the pre-dawn meal, falafel (made from beans in Egypt) are an absolute no-no because they allegedly make you thirsty.”

When local families break-fast at dawn, they have a few options. They can dine at home or with friends. But also many mosques and Muslim restaurants will start serving dinner around 9:10 PM. If you ask your Muslim friends and acquaintances how they’re celebrating, you might just land yourself an invite to dinner.

Some mosques and restaurants specialize in serving iftars even for non-Muslims. Top picks include Olympic Express in the Rainier Valley, Jawhara Cafe in Redmond and Maza Grill in Kent.

“This year is my second Ramadan in Seattle, and I know it will be difficult just like last year,” said 19 year-old Alia Marsha via email. “But I vow to fast for the full 30 days instead of the three I did last year. Ooops.”

Alia Marsha (third from right) and her family celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Indonesia in 2011. "Every year, the younger siblings of the family would make visits to the older ones. Since my father is the youngest of 8 siblings, we would go to so many houses which was a curse because traffic but a blessing because food!" (Courtesy photo)
Alia Marsha (third from right) and her family celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Indonesia in 2011. “Every year, the younger siblings of the family would make visits to the older ones. Since my father is the youngest of 8 siblings, we would go to so many houses which was a curse because traffic but a blessing because food!” (Courtesy photo)

Her mother, who lives in Indonesia, advised her it’s okay to follow the dawn and sunset times in Indonesia so she wouldn’t have to fast for such long hours.

Marsha, who is a student at the UW Bothell campus, said even so, fasting in Seattle is not as easy as it was back home.

“It was so easy to fast and not feel tempted to break fast early when you’re around 200+ million people who are doing the same thing,” she said.

She suggests that non-Muslims (including her boyfriend), should be supportive, but try not to obsessively question Muslims who are fasting about the practice or how hard it is.

“…it gets really old. It’s a part of the religion and things will not make sense to them, but it makes sense for the people who practice it,” she said. “We do it because it teaches self-control, empathy and it cleanses our body, mind and soul. It is not torture.”

Away from family, Marsha says she misses traditional Indonesian Ramadan cookies called nastar and kastengel.

Local Muslims and friends at the MAPS + CAIR Interfaith Iftar in 2011 (Photo by Faisal Aminy)
Local Muslims and friends at the MAPS + CAIR Interfaith Iftar in 2011 (Photo by Faisal Aminy)

But it’s not all about food.

Additionally, local Muslim communities have planned several fund raiser and community events in the  Greater Seattle Area.

“Abstaining from food and drink is a part of a bigger picture where we try to exercise self-control and restraint,” Dawoud said  “We try not to lose our tempers, not to be unkind/untruthful. Ramadan is the best time to find Muslims on their best behavior.”

MAPS, a mosque in Redmond, will hold their annual interfaith iftar/dinner, open to the public, on Monday, June 29, from 7pm to 10:30pm. You can RSVP here.

Wasat is holding weekly iftars at Jaam Rek in the Central District every Friday this Ramadan. Anyone can join.

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