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Iftar: Breaking the Ramadan Fast 

And bringing a Muslim community together

click to enlarge Evening prayer during Ramadan.

Photo by León Villagómez

Evening prayer during Ramadan.

The holy month of Ramadan is supposed to be hot. The word itself comes from the root Arabic term for intense heat, which is what you'd be feeling in the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar if you were in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan or Syria. All the better to burn away one's sins, to fast and commemorate the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. But it's cold and drizzling rain in Humboldt, the clouds obscuring the sunset and the moon whose crescent shape starts and ends the observance.

Just after 8 p.m., Emran Essa and his son Nabil begin shuttling boxes of tablecloths, utensils, water and food into the D Street Neighborhood Center in Arcata, their coats beaded with rain. They turn on the lights and set up long folding tables and chairs for the small gathering of Muslims and their non-Muslim guests who'll share the Saturday community iftar, the daily fast-breaking meal. It's a largely immigrant group, with members hailing from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Syria, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen. They're joined by a common faith, if not a first language, ethnicity or food culture. With graduation past and most Humboldt State University students out of town, it will be smaller than the last couple of weeks but no less important.

At a recent prayer service, Emran Essa talked about observance of Ramadan — through prayers and abstaining from sex and food and drink of any kind from sunrise to sunset each day — as one of the Five Pillars of Islam along with testimony of faith, prayer, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca. Essa, who owns Lacey's Cookies manufacturer Desserts on Us, is a Palestinian American of Syrian birth and the local imam, leading worship every Friday in a room off of the Arcata Library that, with a few rugs angled toward Mecca, serves as a mosque for a couple dozen men and one or two women. "Even crying babies are welcome," he says.

"I don't have anybody professional to do it but it's a very small community, so what can you do?" he says with a shrug. Essa took over some 20 years ago when the previous imam left for Turkey. He says he mostly builds his services around things that interest him, things he can study and share. But he steers clear of politics.

"God doesn't talk about Trump," he says. "God doesn't talk about Saddam Hussein. God talks about people who are just and unjust."

People trickle in as Essa and his son unroll rugs at a 45 degree angle from the southeast corner of the room.

"As-salamu alaykum," each of them calls, meaning "peace be with you."

"Wa alaykum as salamu," Emran replies, meaning "peace be with you, too," as he steps over to greet the men with light hugs.

Women arrive and mostly cluster in the back of the room, where a trio of children have discovered the stage and its black velvet curtain. The women give the same greeting and hug their hellos.

At 8:35 p.m., Essa taps his watch and says it's almost time to break the fast and prepare for the sunset prayer. People come to the first table for bottled water and dates. Shoes crowd the doors — hot pink sneakers, worn loafers, pristine high tops all removed before stepping on the carpets. The men line up shoulder to shoulder on the first row of rugs, Essa before them, singing out the opening of the prayer. In the back, a handful of women follow suit. They go through a cycle of three supplications, or rakas, chanting, bending, standing and kneeling to touch their foreheads to the ground with the recitation of passages of the Quran. On the stage, the children are still scuffling along, playing, giggling as the girls in their fancy dresses and matching braids play at scolding the little boy, who is on all fours, pretending he is a cat.

When the prayer ends, most make their way to the long table to fill paper plates. There are fried shrimp, Pakistani stew and rice with chickpeas, a saffron-colored Yemeni rice dish with lamb and potatoes, naan bread, Moroccan savory pie, a dish of tofu and vegetables, and delicate Jordanian sweets.

A shorter man in a brown leather jacket points to the pan of rice, meat and potatoes. "This is zurbian," he says, adding that a web search will reveal how difficult it is to make. (It checks out — some recipes require 23 ingredients.) He gives only his first name, Abdul, but is effusive on the subject of Yemeni cuisine — his wife's in particular. "The spices are like no other spices," he says, adding that those are often smoked before cooking. "It takes time to do."

Essa points to the filet of salmon he brought to the feast and the black seeds on its pale orange flesh. It's seasoned with turmeric and black seeds mentioned in the Hadith, an account of the Prophet Muhammad's words, as "cure for any disease."

"It's fennel seed," says Abdul.

"Science has proven it's beneficial for the body," says Essa with wonder. "It's a cumin seed."

Abdul turns toward the sweets, almost whispering, "It's fennel."

Leaning against the kitchen doorway in a Gap logo hoodie and a baseball hat, Humboldt State University student Tariq Aoqahtni surveys the room. He came to the U.S. from Saudi Arabia in 2013 and, after working on his English, began studying criminal justice. "It used to be bigger than this," he says. "It's getting smaller." A fellow student pointed him to the annual gatherings and he says his family in Saudi Arabia is please he found a community he can connect with here. "I don't have any family here but," he waves a hand toward the people moving along the table of food, "I consider these people my family."

Back by the prayer area, a large, bearded white man in a flannel shirt stands in a tight circle with some of the men who've been praying. His name is Paul and he is converting to Islam.

The process is outwardly simple, according to Alaa Abdelrahman, a slim, large-eyed man from Jordan who works on spent fuel storage installation for PG&E's nuclear department. The man must, of course, have faith in his heart and commit himself to prayer. But, Abdelrahman says, to make it official, he need only pronounce in Arabic: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah with no partners. I bear witness that Muhammad is his prophet." Then it's done and the other men embrace him one by one.

Aisha Abdelrahman wears a rose-colored hijab and a long black dress with a lace hem. She sits with her curly-haired 7-month-old daughter Diana on her knee. Aisha has made the plates of katayef, small, sweet pancakes stuffed with cream and coconut or lightly savory cheese and sprinkled with chopped pistachio nuts. Diana makes a grab for them, pulling at the tablecloth and the other women at the table laugh. Aisha will make more sweets for the Eid al-Fitr, the final breaking of the fast at the end of Ramadan.

"I love the weather and the trees," she says. "In Jordan there's nothing like this." But she misses the iftars with 71 relatives all coming together to share the fast-breaking meal each night of Ramadan. Still, she finds bodily and spiritual rest in the ritual of fasting, and joy in the Arcata gatherings she's attended in the three years since immigrating to the U.S. Instead of finding a Jordanian-American community, as she might have in a large city, here she breaks the fast with families from all over the world.

She met her husband, Alaa, in Jordan, when he had already been living in the U.S. for several years. He was looking for a wife and, she says, "My family knew his family. He see me and," she smiles, "he loves me."

Beside her, Atul Zulkurnain, a high school student from Malaysia attending Northcoast Preparatory Academy in Arcata, breaks into a giggle.

The feeling was mutual, says Aisha. Having granted permission for Alaa to propose, her father told her she could say yes or no. "I love him," she says, beaming at her baby, who opens her toothless mouth wide. "In Jordan it's so easy." She was up for the adventure of uprooting to California, too, and after a year-long engagement and waiting for her papers, she did.

Abby, who is married to Abdul, leaves the table and returns with chocolate covered baklava from the Desserts on Us boxes at the table. Everyone nibbles the sweets with dark mint tea, a specialty of Marrakesh. Abby's hijab is purple with sparkles woven into the pattern of flowers and falls over the shoulders of her tweed coat. She nods at her husband's assertion that while every day is a time of connection to God, Ramadan is special. Children, she says fast only for a few hours at first, gradually preparing to fast all day as adults. "Only try," she says. As for preparing meals while fasting, she's used to it. "It's practice. ... I'm starting feeling full when I fast. I make a lot of food, a lot of sweet," she says, laughing, "but I don't eat."

One of the little girls runs up and hugs Toheed Ahmad's leg. Originally from Pakistan, Ahmad owns the Fourth Street Market-Liquors shop on Samoa Boulevard in Arcata. Asked about the late-night crowd, he grins and says, "Lot of crazy people come in but we get used to it." He's tall with a narrow line of beard circling his mouth.

Essa throws an arm around Ahmad's shoulder and says he's very important. "He brings a lot of people and a lot of food." After a chuckle, they lament the shrinking of the group, which Essa estimates hovered around 75 people but is now down to between 40 and 50, with people moving away and students returning home over the summer.

Ahmad appreciates what he feels are the health benefits of fasting — the body taking a break from digestion — and the time of spiritual contemplation. "It teaches you the self-control because the food is in front of you but you're not eating it. ... It will also teach you about the people who are hungry."

Essa points out that part of the fast is a focusing of intentions. There are exceptions for those who are ill or traveling, he says. But, "You cannot complain, 'Oh, I'm hot, I'm fasting,'" or whine about the length of the day. In Humboldt, for example, daylight lasts about two hours longer than places in the Middle East. "Imagine in Alaska," he says, earning a puffed laugh from Ahmad.

"It's important not to forget religion is all one," says Essa. "How do we deal with one another? Treatment is religion." He added, "The same God sent the Torah, sent the Bible, sent the Quran."

The meal is done and many of the guests are leaving, some with long drives ahead. The food has been packed up and cleared, the tables folded, stacked and stored. Only a handful of men and three women are left to begin the evening prayer. Essa explains that while normally one doesn't use a physical copy of the Quran for services in a mosque, there's nobody available who has it memorized. "The hafiz had to go back to Willow Creek," he says.

At 10:30 p.m., Alaa Abdelrahman stands ahead of Emran and Nabil Essa on the carpets, with Atul Zulkurnain and another woman behind them. He reads from his phone, singing out the first prayer raka in a high tenor that rises above the industrial fan in the kitchen. In the hallway off the side, Diana fusses a little and Aisha retreats to nurse her.

The passage of the Quran chosen for the evening prayer says "that God accepts repentance," Essa explains, running his finger across the pale green page of a worn copy with a silver cover and a crumbling spine. The reading also covers charity for the poor and needy.

"People say religion divides people," Essa says after the service. "You and I read the Quran and get a different idea." But in this hall and in this county, faith seems to have bonded people from wildly varied backgrounds. He says some friends who've moved away have told him they miss praying with this tiny community, even without a proper mosque, because they all know one another and visit each other's homes.

"I love birds, you know," he says, "but people say they only sit together [with their own kind]." He says we can overcome that mental training to separate ourselves from those who are different, but "only when your heart is open."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the Journal's arts and features editor. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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About The Author

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor of the North Coast Journal. She won the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2020 Best Food Writing Award and the 2019 California News Publisher's Association award for Best Writing.

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