Ramadan: 30 Faces, 30 Places

Islamic Relief USA is delivering food packages to 30 countries in the world this Ramadan. We wanted to capture what Ramadan feels like in each of those countries, so we talked to 30 people living in the United States about their experiences fasting there. Follow along with us this month as we explore Ramadan through their memories.

Day 30: Ramadan in the United States with Imam Johari

Day 30: United States“We have iftar here for 1,000 people every night. Which is uhh-ma-zing!”

Imam Johari spoke with us just before one of those busy iftars at Virginia masjid, Dar Al-Hijrah. Amidst the palpable community energy building in the moments before breaking fast, he reflected on what makes Ramadan in the United States truly special.

“It is probably more like the Ramadan of the Prophet (pbuh),” he said, “living in a society where Muslims are not the only people who live there. A Ramadan where life has to go on as it does so that people are up during the day, working and taking care of what they have to take care of, then breaking their fast in the evening, praying, and then getting up in the morning again and going back to work. That is the Ramadan that I’m familiar with from the tradition of the Prophet.”

Imam Johari has heard of the Ramadans around the world where day becomes night. And while he understands the appeal, he prefers the struggle of Ramadan in America. “It’s about being in solidarity with people who are working and living in this environment, who are not giving up food and drink by choice, but by circumstance,” he said.

“They are restraining themselves from food and drink not because of their fear of displeasing their Lord, it’s their fear of breaking the law and being arrested while they live in a land where food and drink is abundant. But they must restrain themselves,” he explained. “I can understand that when I live in Washington D.C., and I have to live around people who are doing an involuntary fast.”

For Imam Johari, Ramadan in America offers something unique. “That connection that Ramadan should give you with the needy, with those who are suffering with difficulties, I get to have that here. If I were living in another country, where I get to sleep most of the day, I don’t know how I would really feel the solidarity with hunger and thirst. So for me, Ramadan in America becomes really special.”

When asked if Ramadan in America felt like a ‘melting pot’, he preferred a different metaphor. “There are two metaphors for the American multiculturalism. One is called ‘the melting pot’, and that’s where all the ingredients get added to the pot and they all get smushed down into one thing. There’s another metaphor for America that they call ‘the mulligan stew’. The mulligan stew is when some of the ingredients are in the broth, but you can still pick out the meat from the potatoes, the carrots from the peas. So for us, Ramadan is a kind of mulligan stew. Where in a mosque in America, you can have people from all over the world. We have 37 different languages in Dar Al-Hijrah. That means these people come, all with their different flavors that they bring to Ramadan, but you can identify where various pieces come from. I, as an American during Ramadan, look forward to having harira and couscous at one venue, and Egyptian lentil soup on another occasion. In America, tonight is Moroccan, tomorrow is Indonesian. And I only get to do that during Ramadan.”

Imam Johari concluded his reflections with a story of one of his fondest Ramadan memories.

It was many years ago, and he had challenged a reverend at an interfaith event to a battle of community service.

“I was like, ‘are we doing anything?’, or just patting each other on the back,” he recalled. “So I said to a reverend who was there, Ramadan is coming. Why don’t we challenge our congregations to see how many homeless people we can feed every night. We’ll feed the hungry every night in Ramadan. The reverend said, ‘Imam, you’re on!’. We started that program, cooking, fasting, and feeding 100 homeless women every night. We served more food every night than any other faith community had ever done in that homeless program.”

He threw his fist in the air triumphantly, and the camera captured his memory of that Ramadan victory.

“The Muslims won,” he said.

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in the United States this Ramadan.

Day 29: Ramadan in Chechnya with Amal

Day 29: Chechnya“Ramadan is very festive there now. It wasn’t always like that, people used to not be able to say they were fasting. Before, it was unheard of for people to pray in congregation. Now, everything is in congregation. It’s very communal.”

Amal is a Chechen living in New Jersey. She has only been back home once, but distance has not prevented her from maintaining strong ties to her culture.

Two things that define Ramadan in Chechnya for Amal may seem simple and universal: the food and the community. Yet the reason they have become so central to the culture is because they were once threatened, once lost.

The 1944 forced migration of Chechens to Siberia weighs heavy on the collective conscience. Once fragmented, they now hold tight to community; once facing starvation, they now honor the blessing of food. Amal’s mother told us the story of a man who had seen so many children starve to death that he fasted for an entire year.

Their resilience is reflected in the communal festivities of Ramadan. In Chechnya, even the pre-dawn meal is an event. “People travel from one village to another for big suhoor gatherings before dawn,” she said. “It’s like iftar happening at suhoor time.”

Some homes decorate with lights and children play outside late into the night. Long ago, there were no mosques, and so people had become accustomed to spreading Ramadan invitations by word of mouth. Today, not much has changed. “People in Chechnya don’t call each other, they go knock on the door,” she said. “Neighbors might come and knock on your door for iftar. It’s all open.”

Ramadan in Chechnya features tasty and nourishing traditional foods. A popular iftar dish is galnash, a sort of Circassian pasta made out of wheat and maize flour. Hospitality is unmatched, and when someone invites you for tea, you can expect a full meal.

When you google “Chechens living in the United States,” the results are a revelation: there simply aren’t many. We were lucky to find Amal, and when we asked her how many Chechens she knew in her area, she counted about 11 families by name.

“Chechens like to be around each other,” she said. “When Chechens in California heard there were Chechens in New Jersey, they moved there to be closer. But we are very few here, there are little pockets.”

When Amal was a child, she used to overhear adults refer to Chechnya with a word that means paradise. “When I was little, I thought when I would die I would go to Chechnya,” she laughed. When she finally had a chance to visit, it was an emotional experience. “I couldn’t grasp the idea that everyone there was Chechen,” she said.

“With time, many people lose culture…but Chechens have held on.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Chechnya this Ramadan.

Day 28: Ramadan in Albania with Adnan

Day 28: Albania“Over there, even before it starts, you feel it. Not only can you see people preparing for Ramadan, you can smell it. The city I lived in was called the Mecca of the Balkans. My country is unbelievable.”

Adnan came to the United States when he was 15, but he goes back often for the chance to experience Ramadan back home. He appreciates the community he has in New York, but back home is special. “Over there, it’s friends I grew up with from childhood, and all my family.”

He remembers waking up for the pre-dawn meal to the sound of a drummer coming through the streets to wake everyone up. “All you hear is boom boom boom, and that’s how you know it’s time to eat. Every Ramadan, someone volunteers to do that to get extra rewards,” he said.

In Albania, iftar turns into a big, communal block party. “My whole neighborhood is blocked off,” he said. “No cars can come down, and the streets are lined with tables.” Different families volunteer to bring dishes, and everyone is invited, even those just passing through.

He remembers breaking fast with dates that somehow taste extra special in the month of Ramadan, and always having something sweet for iftar. “We like to make a special jam made of figs and apple. It’s delicious,” he recalled.

But his fondest memory was from his childhood.

“We used to stay outside until the adhan was called. At the time of iftar, the lights on the minarets would come on. We would wait outside until they lit up, and it was like a game, whoever would see the lights first won. And then we would run home and ring the bells on all the houses letting everyone know it was time. This is something I’ll never forget.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Albania this Ramadan.

Day 27: Ramadan in Zimbabwe with Suheil

Day 27: Zimbabwe“Muslims in Zimbabwe tend to stick together. It’s very close knit.”

Suheil, the Academic Dean of Fawakih Institute, has not been back to Zimbabwe in 20 years, but he recalls growing up in the warmth and comfort of a small, but thriving, community.

The Muslims in Zimbabwe are a minority. Many came from the Indian subcontinent and neighboring Malawi after the turn of the century. An indigenous Zimbabwean tribe, known as the Veremba, have also discovered that their ancestors may have been Muslim, having shared many of the outward signs of Islamic culture. There has been a recent return to Islam within the tribe, and there is a growing awareness in southern Africa, “that Islam is something African, and it does have roots in Africa,” Suheil said.

Ramadan in Zimbabwe is focused on the masjid. “Because Muslims are a relatively small minority, the masjid is important,” he said. “If you want to feel Ramadan, you go to the masjid.”

Iftar would share African and Indian influences, featuring fruit and samosas along with a porridge made of cassava root. “It gives you strength, keeps your stomach full,” he said. Everyone would eat from a large platter, communal style. Many relief organizations also do iftars in the poor areas due to high levels of food insecurity.

When asked what he missed most about Ramadan in Zimbabwe, Suheil paused to reflect.

“There’s definitely the sense of nostalgia. You long for the things of your youth in general. But what I miss is the simplicity. The non-complicatedness, non-commercialness of Ramadan. The smallness of the community, the simplicity.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Zimbabwe this Ramadan.

Day 26: Ramadan in Malawi with Sherifa

We skyped with Sherifa to hear about her experience fasting in Malawi, live.
We skyped with Sherifa to hear about her experience fasting in Malawi, live.

“It’s a time when everyone comes together.”

Sherifa shared her experiences fasting in Malawi…live, from Malawi. It proved somewhat difficult finding someone to represent this small country, nicknamed “The Warm Heart of Africa,” but Ramadan blessings abound. We found Sherifa, skyped with her, and photographed her live on the iPad.

She started with a brief primer on the history of Islam in Malawi, a story of indigenous Malawians becoming Muslim through their interactions with Arab and Swahili traders in the 16th century. The majority of districts along the lakes are now Muslim.

There is a mixture of cultures in Malawi, and Ramadan is the only time you see everyone together. “It’s quite encouraging to see everybody coming together,” she said. “Ramadan time, especially in the city, the mosques get very full because everybody from the smaller mosques comes to the bigger mosques in the city. We have a lot of poverty in Malawi, and a lot of people don’t have enough food. They go to the big mosques to get food.”

The food itself is a mixture of Indian dishes and native Malawian specialties. “In my culture, growing up, our family was very close. We would always have families coming over for iftar. I remember my mom making traditional snacks,” she said. It is tradition to break fast with futali, a dish named after iftar and made of sweet potatoes cooked with a nut powder. Rice porridge made with milk and sugar is also commonly served during Ramadan.

The thing that really stood out in Sherifa’s memory though, was the experience of fasting in her Catholic high school.

“An interesting part of my life was when I went to a Catholic school. Most of the schools here are run either by the government or Catholics. Nowadays we have more private schools, but when I was going to school the good schools were run by Catholics,” she said.

“We were not allowed to practice our religion, but we had to fast. It was a few of us. We would be fasting, and we would have to pretend we’re not fasting. I would go the dining room,” she laughed, remembering, “I would sit with everybody else in the dining room, and when we would see one of the nuns coming by next to our table, we’d quickly pick up a fork and pretend like we’re eating. I spent four years fasting while hiding it.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Malawi this Ramadan.

Day 25: Ramadan in South Africa with Ebrahim

Ebrahim Rasool, former South African Ambassador, tells us about Ramadan in Cape Town.
Ebrahim Rasool, former South African Ambassador, tells us about Ramadan in Cape Town.

“Ramadan in South Africa is a very festive month. The festivities start the day before Ramadan when thousands of people come to the beach and do the moon sighting.”

Ebrahim Rasool, former South African Ambassador to the United States, had a busy schedule for the month of Ramadan. We were able to catch him before he left to spend Ramadan back home, and he described this scene. “The governor of the province, the mayor, and the president send someone down, and everyone prays maghrib together. They look for the moon and there’s a big announcement about whether it’s Ramadan or not. And so that’s how it starts,” he said.

In Cape Town, Ramadan is tied to the community. “It’s a very communal thing as opposed to only an individual experience,” he explained. “And the community aspect of it goes right throughout the month of Ramadan. Half an hour before iftar, before maghrib, you will see children all over Cape Town with little plates of food to bring to their neighbors so that they feed their neighbors before they feed themselves. This is an exchange of cakes and an exchange of savories and an exchange of food that rarely takes place. And because we have fairly good hours, taraweeh is a major experience in South Africa. They have very good reciters of the Qur’an, and they all find the mosques and travel to listen to different qaris.”

But at the heart of it is something intensely spiritual. “People are able to recall how our ancestors used to fast,” he said, “and the conditions of slavery, and the conditions of colonialism, and the conditions when Islam was banned, and the conditions of apartheid. And we have always used Ramadan to pay honor to those who kept Islam alive and kept these traditions for us by honoring them.”

Ramadan is unlike the Arab world and other Muslim majority countries in that life does not stop to accommodate fasting. “We do all that we must do, and we go to work in the daytime,” he said. “So alhamdulillah, I think that Ramadan in Cape Town is something really special. Ramadan in South Africa is a community thing where we reach out to others. It’s a month of enormous charity. We make sure that we always have soup kitchens in the poverty stricken areas.”

He described the end of Ramadan as being similar to its beginning. The night before Eid, again thousands of people descend on the beach looking for the moon. “The president sends messages, everyone comes down, and it is great festivity. It is such a beautiful sight on the beach of Cape Town. Thousands of Muslims pray the maghrib salah and then they go out to prepare for Eid,” he said.

But the greatest takeaway of the month is represented by fulfilling the obligation of charity.

“In Cape Town you must find a poor person and physically give them the money. Because unless you can look the poor in the face, you have not learned the lessons of Ramadan.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in South Africa this Ramadan.

Day 24: Ramadan in India with Daneesh

Daneesh, DC-based South Asia writer, reflects on his experiences fasting in India.
Daneesh, DC-based South Asia writer, reflects on his experiences fasting in India.

“During Ramadan, the mosques are lit up. The hustle and bustle is exponentialized. There’s the stereotypical image of big crowds, sweatiness, destitute conditions…but it signifies life, and the instinct to survive and enjoy what’s around you.”

He remembered a special spirit in poor Muslim enclaves in India, often dismissed as slums or scars on the urban landscape. “Some consider them as ghettos, but they are huge cultural centers for urdu poetry, art, and religion. Those ethnic enclaves just come alive in Ramadan.”

He remembered the Jama masjid in Delhi being lit up, and monuments in Delhi and Hyderabad illuminating the city all month. Bazaars selling bangles and tapestries in the old city would stay open for late night shoppers. “People do night walks because everything is so alive,” he said.

Right before iftar, volunteers at the Jama masjid would prepare plates of food for anyone to come break fast with. “Keeping with the true spirit of Ramadan, they have to do iftar for everybody. They assemble fruits and pakoras and dates on a plate. They have lemonade or some type of laban (a cooling yogurt drink). They are laid out in the courtyard of the masjid on mats surrounding the shallow wells people use for making wudu.”

As iftar approached, they would wait for a siren to sound right before the adhan. “The way it sounds, it’s like what one of these huge buildings in DC sound like if they’re on lockdown,” he laughed. “The first time I ever heard that when I was little in India, I thought something was going on. It’s kind of pavlovian, you’re conditioned to think siren: break the fast.”

Ramadan also means special dishes that even non-Muslims look forward to. “It’s the culinary delights which imbibe the spirit of Ramadan and bring the people together,” he said.

Daneesh’s Ramadan experiences in India are infused with his reflections on the history of the region. In 1947, there was a huge exodus of Muslims to the newly formed nation of Pakistan, causing many areas to lose their majority Muslim population. Still, Indian Muslims have preserved their Ramadan traditions. “It’s a time to make that presence felt,” Daneesh said, “while at the same time showing solidarity with our Hindu and Christian fellow citizens.”                      

The fact that Muslims are a minority has, for Daneesh, given the month a unique flavor. “In India, there are festivals of religions that fall on different days. But this is one month which carries a festive spirit for 30 days consecutively,” he said. “Some people don’t even sleep. A lot of restaurants stay open, especially the hole-in-the wall joints which serve the most authentic haleem and other Muslim delicacies. There’s a festive spirit all the way from iftar until all hours of the night. In Muslim majority countries, that’s already embedded into the landscape of the country. But in India, because we are minorities, that one specific month carries a festive spirit for 30 days.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in India this Ramadan.

Day 23: Ramadan in Chad with Nuorin

Nuorin shares his Ramadan memories from the Embassy of the Republic of Chad
Nuorin shares his Ramadan memories from the Embassy of the Republic of Chad

“Ramadan is very special, it’s a precious gift.”

Nuorin has been here in the United States for eight years. His wish is for Muslims to remember the true spirit of Ramadan. “The original objective of Ramadan is not to keep someone hungry,” he said. “ The objective is to teach us how to collaborate with one another, particularly the rich ones, who don’t understand what hunger means.”

Nuorin has travelled all over the world and has seen Ramadan in many places, but Chad is his home, and he misses the strong presence of Islam there. “The influence of the Muslim community in Chad is great. 50% of the population is Muslim, but when Ramadan comes, everyone knows.”

He remembered many things about the experience of fasting there, but one thing stood out in his memory: Ramadan in Chad is hot. “In Ramadan, you can be sure that all the air conditioners are on,” he chuckled. “That puts a lot of strain on the city. As a result, electricity may be cut for certain hours during the day. One of the worst things in the Ramadan heat is sleeping in a cool room and then pop! It’s gone.”

At his uncle’s home, there were never less than 40 guests for iftar every night. There were no invitations—people would just show up to whichever house usually had a lot of food. “Everyone would sit together and eat from a large plate in the center,” he said. “If you can’t reach it, someone will push it to you.” Traditional foods to break fast with are stews made of okra and other greens, and porridges made of millet and sorghum.

But his favorite thing about Ramadan back home is the way it comes to a close.

“In Ramadan in Chad, the festival of breaking fast at the end of Ramadan is something very important, not only for Muslims, but for Christians too,” he said. “You see different ethnic groups come out and do their traditional dances, no matter what religion they come from. They participate, all together, and show solidarity in the community.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Chad this Ramadan.

Day 22: Ramadan in Bangladesh with Tahsin

Day 22: Bangladesh
Tahsin hasn’t been to Bangladesh since she was 13, but she still misses spending Ramadan there.

“It’s something I miss a lot. My whole family wishes we were back home in Ramadan.”

The last time Tahsin spent Ramadan in Bangladesh, she was just 13. Even though she was so young, it was easier somehow. “I think it was that everyone was on the same schedule,” she said. “Everyone is praying together, fasting together, and breaking the fast together. Here we all have different schedules, it feels more hectic.”

But in Bangladesh, the city settled into a familiar routine. Wake up, have the pre-dawn meal, or sehri, and begin fasting with your family and all of your neighbors. “It was a time to bring people together,” Tahsin said. “That’s one thing I miss, the act of breaking the fast together.”

She remembered it as being a festive time, full of energy. Before iftar, streets would be bustling with fasting people rushing to get a variety of deep fried snacks, like fritters and samosas. “You can smell it from your house,” she said. “And then we would break our fast to the adhan. You hear it outside instead of having to look at your watch.” 

As for Tahsin’s family traditions, they would always break fast with a refreshing limeade, made from fresh limes, sugar, and water. They would also have jalebi, batter deep fried in pretzel or circular shapes and soaked in a sugary syrup. And Ramadan is not complete without the Bengali favorite, haleem. This delicate meat and lentil dish is quite popular. “When Ramadan comes, I know haleem’s on the menu,” she said.

When asked how she would pass the time back then, she laughed. “We slept a lot,” she said. When the kids were not sleeping, they would play tag or study, trying to keep up with rigorous academic requirements.

Even with the unique traditions and special foods, what Ramadan in Bangladesh was about for Tahsin was simple, universal.  

“The main thing I remember about Ramadan is the idea of everyone being there. When I think about Ramadan, I can see the sun set across the large yard in front of my family home in Bangladesh. I can see the sun going down, and everyone is there.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Bangladesh this Ramadan.

Day 21: Ramadan in Iraq with Mohammad

Mohammad hasn't experienced Ramadan in his hometown in Iraq for a long time, but his memories are perfectly preserved.
Mohammad hasn’t experienced Ramadan in his hometown in Iraq for a long time, but his memories are perfectly preserved. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“It’s as if you are going back to live those beautiful memories. Although we share so many traditions and customs, there is something very special for each town, for each city.”

Mohammad and his wife Zainab both lit up when they shared their memories of Ramadan in Iraq.

“You know Ramadan, it’s like a guest when he comes,” Mohammad said. “In our city, they prepare for Ramadan 15 days before it hits. Nusuf of Sha’ban they call it.” He described the pre-Ramadan tradition of gathering at his uncle’s home on the 15th of the month before Ramadan and completing a whole recitation of the Qur’an by dividing it up amongst the large family. “We would start around 8pm and finish by midnight or 1am,” he said. “You can hear us like bees buzzing because everyone is reading at the same time. I’ll never forget that moment.”

The family would stay awake and have suhur and fast the following day. “This is how we get ourselves ready,” he said.

When Ramadan began, Qur’an would fill the streets so that it was audible everywhere. The whole city would echo with the sounds of Ramadan, from the shops to the streets to the living rooms inside homes.

In Iraq, it was tradition to stay home and break fast every night with family. In Mohammad’s home, there was an added tradition one hour before iftar. “My mother would fill a tray with food every day and tell me to bring it to a guard who can’t leave his post to eat.”

Ramadan delicacies included meticulously prepared baklava, 45 layers rolled 72 times, filled with crushed walnuts, sugar and cardamom, and painted with syrup and oil. And kleja, a special pastry filled with date spread. Traditional foods to break fast with were dates, soups and sherbat al-zabib, a dried grape drink. After offering the evening prayer, the family would return for kabobs, salads, and rice eaten with a syrup made of dried apricots cooked in sugar.

Mohammad had fond memories of the night taraweeh prayers. “Every night we go to a different masjid to pray,” he said. “Every mosque has a different flavor. Afterwards, we would stop by a shop to buy something sweet.” After taraweeh, the children would play a game called farr, in which teams would challenge one another to guess where a ring was hiding under a group of bronze cups. Whoever found the ring first, lost.

Ramadan in Iraq is at once deeply spiritual and incredibly festive, a combination of an active, connected community and a warm, cozy family. Before Ramadan ends, they say goodbye to their guest just as they welcomed it. “They announce it on the microphone,” Zainab said. “‘Goodbye Ramadan, we are going to miss you. We hope you come again.’ You can hear the tears of the muadhin when he says it.”

Zainab became especially moved remembering Ramadan in her hometown of Fallujah. “The beautiful memories that we have of our childhood, they’re gone,” she said through tears. “Physically, it’s gone. It’s only in our memories. That’s what keeps it alive. How do we document it? Our grandchildren…how will they know? How can we preserve these memories?”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Iraq this Ramadan.

Day 20: Ramadan in Niger with Ousmane

Ousmane spends these Ramadan days in a lab far away from his home in Niger. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.
Ousmane spends these Ramadan days in a lab far away from his home in Niger. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“I miss it back home. I recently talked to my grandmother and she wishes I was home for Ramadan.”

Ousmane is studying in the United States this Ramadan, but he was born and raised in Niger. It has been a difficult adjustment spending Ramadan days working in a lab far away from family, but he knows the sacrifice will pay off. Still, there is a lot that he misses about the traditions back home.

“Your whole schedule changes during Ramadan. You spend as much time as you can praying, and nights are spent with families coming over to eat. People eat a lot, we make a lot of food at iftar,” he said. “It’s a very happy time.”

Dates are popular in Niger, but it is not Ramadan without a special soup made of millet and sugar. “We make it right after iftar,” he said, “it’s called in my language coco. We love to have it in Niger.”

He described big gatherings of family and friends, and people crowding around a large round table. “The kids hold the plate and people eat from it,” he said, describing the customary etiquette for children to show respect to elders.

The kids also have a lot of fun in Ramadan. “There are some kids that do something like Halloween. They go to the traffic lights and dress like clowns, they paint their whole body and face and wear a tail,” he laughed, “and people come and they must give them money or sugar. That only happens in Ramadan.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Niger this Ramadan.

Day 19: Ramadan in Ethiopia with Mohammed

Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.
“It was a lot of culture and a lot of religion…and a lot of coffee.”Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“My dad took care of 30+ people in Ethiopia. Our house was like a passing point, with travelers stopping on their way. We always had guests in Ramadan.”

Mohammed spent his childhood Ramadans in Ethiopia, and his memories were a rich mixture of nostalgia and humor. “It was a lot of culture and a lot of religion… and there was always coffee,” he said.

He remembered fondly nightly trips to the mosque with his father for prayers. “He more or less made me go to taraweeh,” he laughed. But Mohammed grew up loving the tradition, and now enjoys spending as much time at the masjids in Ramadan as he can.

“We lived right next to the mosque, so we would hear the adhan for every prayer, which was pretty awesome,” he said.

In Ethiopia, the iftars are big, and the hospitality is deeply ingrained in the culture. Meals are communal, and guests are served first. They begin with water, dates, and a hearty porridge made of barley called shorba that soothes the empty stomach. They also enjoy a fried bread called biscoot and a stuffed pastry called sambusa.

“I prefer our sambusa. It’s an unbiased opinion…I also prefer just my mom’s, so I guess that’s a biased opinion,” he laughed.

After breaking fast, everyone prays and comes back for the full meal. They enjoy traditional dishes and, of course, injera, a spongy flatbread served with various stews and curries.

But what Mohammed missed most about Ramadan in Ethiopia was the fullness—of his home, filled with guests, and of the streets, filled with fathers and sons making their way to prayer.

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Ethiopia this Ramadan.

Day 18: Ramadan in Myanmar with Yousuf

When fasting, Yousuf is able to tap into an inner power by focusing the mind.
When fasting, Yousuf is able to tap into an inner power by focusing the mind. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“Ramadan was very nice, we were young in college.”

Yousuf left Myanmar in 1972, and remembers being surrounded by cooking all day and sitting together with family before breaking fast.

“Before the iftar, we always helped out with bringing some food to the neighbors,” he said, “and our neighbors would bring food to us.”

Ramadan in Myanmar was not complete without haleem, a nutritious dish served for iftar. It is made of whole wheat, peas, lentils, barley and chicken or goat meat. “It’s the Ramadan special,” he said. Some masjids would make large batches of haleem and people would come wait with containers to collect it for their families.

He recalled making the trek to a further masjid just to hear the reciter of the Qur’an with the most beautiful voice, and after the night prayer, taking walks to the riverside with his uncle.

“When we would wake up for suhoor,” he remembered, “we would wait for fajr prayer on the porch, and the Rangoon zoo was just three miles away. When everything was very quiet in those early mornings, we could hear the lion from the zoo roaring before the adhan.”

Yousuf is a 6th Degree Aikido Black Belt and a master teacher. His students have noticed that when he is fasting, his moves are more powerful. “I think because the stomach is empty, we can focus better,” he said. “And even though there is physical tiredness, we bring out that inner power. The mind is really focused. And when the mind and body are focused and united together, it gives out much more power.”

He commented on the sectarian tension in Myanmar that has led to violence in the region, saying that it made him sad because it was never like that when he was there. “We had respect for every religion,” he said, remembering always sharing traditional foods on holidays with Buddhist and Christian neighbors. Until this day, he remains close to his multireligious friends from his youth. “They are my brothers,” he said.

“Under the skin, everybody is the same.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Myanmar this Ramadan.

Day 17: Ramadan in Mali with Hamadoun

Hamadoun spends this Ramadan in Maryland, but misses iftar at his home in Mali. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.
Hamadoun spends this Ramadan in Maryland, but misses iftar at his home in Mali. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“It was a really nice time of my life.”

Hamadoun, or as his friends call him, “Tip,” was born and raised in Mali. He’s here studying, and what he misses most about Ramadan back home is the feeling of family.

He spends this Ramadan with friends and enjoys their company, but it always falls a little short. “It’s not the same as being with your family,” he said.

He described the iftar tradition of breaking fast with dates and tea and eating a porridge made from millet, called bouille. The sweet and milky dish is an obligatory Ramadan staple.

Hamadoun also remembered an emphasis in Ramadan on feeding the poor, although his family dinners had an open-door policy throughout the year. There was a special tradition in Ramadan of donating rice, sugar and dates to families in need.

But his fondest memory was of a custom from his childhood in Bamako. “When I was a kid,” he said, “Ramadan was a big thing. The kids didn’t usually go to taraweeh, instead, we would wear masks made of ash from burned coal and go door-to-door to people’s houses, asking for money. It’s sort of like Halloween. There’s a song we sing, and then the people give us money and we all split it.”

Day 16: Ramadan in the Philippines with Nora

Ramadan in the Philippines
Nora wanted her daughter, Sabreen, to pose for the photo. Every day in Ramadan, they spend family time at the local masjid before iftar. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

Nora wanted her daughter, Sabreen, to pose for this photo. She has worked hard to keep her memories from Ramadan in the Philippines alive for her children.

“Whatever we do in the Philippines, I have them do it here,” she said. “ The original teacher is the mother. The real university is the home.”

“People ask me if I converted when I came to America,” Nora said. “But my great grandparents were Muslim!” Islam is actually one of the oldest organized religions in the Philippines, and its roots date all the way back to the 1300s.

The majority of Muslims there are poor, but their spirits are bright and full. “In Philippines, when Ramadan comes, everyone is happy,” she said. “Even though they don’t have much food. Their favorite food is chicken with coconut, but 80% can’t eat like that. We send money for them. It’s too hard to eat good food while your neighbor is suffering.”

Filipino Muslims don’t usually break their fasts with dates. “We don’t have dates there,” she said, “only if someone from Saudi Arabia sends packages. During Ramadan, the special food is fruit salad. They cannot survive without it!” Nora laughed and described the special mix of banana, mango, papaya, milk and young coconut water.

But the strongest memory that Nora has carried from the Philippines, and what she has passed on to Sabreen, is the importance of feeding your neighbor.

“If you are not a giver for 11 months, during Ramadan you have to be a giver. Our grandparents used to say our Ramadan won’t be accepted if you are eating and your neighbor doesn’t have food.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in the Philippines this Ramadan.

Day 15: Ramadan in Kosovo with Linda

Linda holds a necklace dating back to the Ottoman empire, given to her by her great grandmother.
Linda holds a necklace dating back to the Ottoman empire, given to her by her great grandmother. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“We never spent iftar with less than 10 people. It was always full.”

Linda came to the United States as a refugee from Kosovo when she was a child. She went back later in her life and got to experience Ramadan back home. Every night was a full house of warmth and community.

“During Ramadan in Kosovo, all your neighbors, even people you meet on the streets, will invite you for iftar. There would be so many people,” she remembered. “There would be mismatched tables, one shorter, one taller than the other, and mismatched chairs, just so we could make space for everyone, and some people would sit on the floor.”

Linda remembered the hectic but fun time spent preparing food in a crowded kitchen. “In the kitchen, you have 10 women at once cooking, and since all of us are fasting, we can’t taste the food. So we would have kids tasting the food to tell us if it needs more salt,” she laughed.

She recalled fond memories of waiting to break fast in her grandparents home. “It was, alhamdulillah, so nice because where we lived it’s a very old, cobblestone street, and when it was time for iftar, we would hear three adhans calling, echoing on top of each other at the same time. So we didn’t need the apps on our phones to look at the times, we would just hear it.”

Even before iftar, when you’re walking down the streets, you see people closing down their shops, getting ready,” she said, remembering seeing old Ottoman masjids.

“Tradition,” she said, “is to break fast with water and something sweet.” There would be dates, but dates are a luxury in Kosovo, so there would also be figs and luquma, or Turkish Delight. After offering prayer, every dinner would begin with a different type of soup, and end with Turkish coffee or Turkish tea.

“The atmosphere is…you feel it more,” she said. “I miss being so crowded in one room.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Kosovo this Ramadan.

Day 14: Ramadan in Syria with Ghuydar

For Ghuydar, the music was a big part of Ramadan in Aleppo.
For Ghuydar, the music was a big part of Ramadan in Aleppo. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“I have a lot of rich memories from Syria.”

Ghuydar came to the United States from Syria when he was 19, and he frequently returned for visits up until the revolution. He is from the ancient city of Aleppo, or Halab.

“Aleppo is known for two main things: the food and the music,” he said. In Ramadan, the food and the music are a main focus. Ghuydar remembered exchanging dishes in his neighborhood and enjoying a wide variety of treats. “Every family would send a child before maghrib time to the neighborhood shop to get fresh falafel, hummus, and atayef. The most important thing is the atayef,” he said, remembering this special Ramadan pancake stuffed with ricotta cheese or walnuts and fried. “The rich people fill them with pistachios,” he added. Another popular Halabi dessert is mshabek, a fried dough formed into interesting circular shapes and soaked in sweet syrup.

As the iftar time approaches, he remembered seeing the lines outside get longer. “There was a frantic feeling of people rushing home to break their fasts. A lot of the drivers are smokers and we used to say that’s why they were so impatient before iftar,” he laughed.

Ghuydar also recalled the musical traditions of Ramadan in Aleppo. “The music is special in Ramadan,” he said. “They dedicate a certain portion of every night to singing the qaseedahs, long structured poems praising God.”

He brought his love for music to the United States and has become a popular singer of nasheed, or spiritual songs. This year, the beginning of his Ramadan was extra special. He was given the opportunity to perform a public recitation of the Qur’an at the funeral of Muhammad Ali. “I’m still beginning to fathom the honor,” he said.

Most of Ghuydar’s memories of Ramadan back home are as a child trying to pass the time during the long fasting days. “We used to play soccer in the street where there was a dead end, and we would play up until the time we broke our fast. I was famous for ripping my pants. My mom used to get so mad,” he smiled. “I had a special talent for it. I don’t know how we did it, but we would break our fast by gulping down water like there was no tomorrow.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Syria this Ramadan.

Day 13: Ramadan in Lebanon with Souheil

Souheil holds sweets prepared specially for Ramadan and stands on a backdrop of treasures from home.
13/30: Souheil holds sweets prepared specially for Ramadan and stands on a backdrop of treasures from home. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“Ramadan has a great flavor…different from any other time of the year,” Souheil said, remembering Ramadan back home in Lebanon.

He brought some of that flavor—especially the sweet kind—with him when came to the United States and opened a restaurant. At Layalina in Virginia, you will find syrupy balls of dough and other delights that are very Lebanese, and very Ramadan.

Souheil remembered looking forward to Ramadan since he was a child, enjoying the challenge of the fast. That challenge is even greater now that he works in a restaurant. “I remember I was fasting a full day from the second grade,” he said. “I still do it even though I have diabetes. If I feel bad, I can break my fast. Otherwise, I don’t worry about it.”

Ramadan in Lebanon shares similarities with other Arab countries, including a special cannon perched atop a mountain peak that announces the iftar, and the streets filling with children playing as their parents pray in the mosques at night. “You wouldn’t see any street without children,” he said. And of course, there was the wide variety of food. Families had a tradition of sharing whatever food they cooked for the day with their neighbors.

He recalled vivid memories of the masaharaati, a man who would go through the neighborhood with his drum calling, “ya nayim!” (“oh sleeper!”) to wake everyone up for the pre-dawn meal. “He used to stop by carrying a basket and knock on the doors,” Souheil remembered. “And whatever leftovers you have, you give it to him and he puts it in these metal plates. As a kid, I looked at that big guy and I wondered if he would eat all of it. One day I was downtown, and I saw him with tables with all of the small plates, and he was selling the plates for like five cents for the other poor people. Later in life I realized this was how he made his living.”

It was the spirit of helping the poor, though, that Souheil spoke about the most. “During Ramadan,” he said, “you pass by stores and you see the food in the window and think of all the food you want, but you know you can’t have it because you’re fasting. That makes you feel for the poor. I remember I used to save some of my allowance and pass it to some poor people I see in the streets. It really helps bond the community together. If you know someone is out of work or sick, you take care of them.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Lebanon this Ramadan. 

Day 12: Ramadan in Jordan with Nour

Nour and her kids agree: It's not Ramadan without atayef.
12/30: Nour and her kids agree: It’s not Ramadan without atayef. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“The nice thing about Ramadan in Jordan is that everyone is fasting. You’re not alone. Nobody eats in the streets, and the restaurants are closed.”

Nour remembers Ramadans in Jordan, a place where decorations are less common only because the spirit is felt in the air everywhere.

In Amman, there are two adhans for fajr prayer. “You have the official adhan for prayer,” she said, “but maybe five minutes before that, you have another adhan. When you’re having suhoor and you hear that first adhan, it tells you that you need to hurry up and finish eating. Growing up, my dad’s rule was that you have to be finished eating before the first adhan.”

Jordanians often break fast with special Ramadan drinks like qamar al din, a juice prepared from dried apricot paste, or erk-sous, a black, mildly sweet and slightly bitter beverage made from the licorice root.

And of course atayef. “Atayef you only eat in Ramadan,” she said. “That’s why people love it so much. The bakeries set up the griddles outside, and you see the lines of people coming to get their atayef to take it to go home.”

When iftar time approaches, they wait for the cannon. “They say, ‘The cannon is here it’s time for iftar’” she said, recalling a common expression in Jordan.

And the city grows quiet as fasting people wait for the cannon and the adhan for maghrib. This was what Nour remembered most vividly, the sound of the call to prayer piercing that silence and rolling through the mountains. “There’s a few second delay between each masjid’s adhan,” she said, “so you hear it like an echo. And Amman is a city of mountains, so you hear it bounce back to you.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Jordan this Ramadan. 

Day 11: Ramadan in Sudan with Imam Magid

Imam Magid at the Grand Iftar, surrounded by Muslims breaking fast from many different ethnic backgrounds.
11/30: Imam Magid at the Grand Iftar, surrounded by Muslims breaking fast from many different ethnic backgrounds. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“There’s a very nice tradition in Sudan where the people in the neighborhood would bring the food every night outside on the street and break fast in the street, and they would not allow anyone passing by to pass without sitting and eating. There would be some people who would stand in the road and insist for people to get off their buses and stop the cars to join the iftar, and they would insist for you to not be driving after sunset.”

What Imam Magid remembered most about Ramadan in Sudan was the feeling of community. He has been in this country for 30 years now, and talking about Sudan brought back fond memories of breaking fast.

“This is one of the most communal activities in Ramadan,” he said, “breaking bread together.”

“In Ramadan they really make an effort to make authentic food,” he remembered. “They have a traditional Sudanese food made of wheat, and the Sudanese have a special drink they break fast with.”

When Imam Magid came to the United States, Ramadan felt much emptier at first. “I remember that I fasted Ramadan in the 80s while going to university, and I used to break fast by myself,” he said. “Now, in every university, there’s a huge gathering of Muslims, and some universities have iftar together every night. At ADAMS we have iftar for 500 people every night. It’s quite different now.”

“You feel this togetherness. If you look around the room, you see people from every ethnic background. It reminds me that there’s a goodness in every culture, there’s a goodness in every community, and all of us come with value and traditions that enrich this collective experience.”

But whether in Sudan or here in America, the meaning of Ramadan is the same.

“You’re spiritually connected and therefore you have to be more generous and feel the pain of others. That’s what Ramadan is all about. The prophet (pbuh) was very generous always in his life, but even more generous in the month of Ramadan.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Sudan this Ramadan. 

Day 10: Ramadan in Yemen with Alaa

Alaa dons the traditional Yemeni sitara with a pair of chucks, blending her two worlds.
10/30: Alaa dons the traditional Yemeni sitara with a pair of chucks, blending her two worlds. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“Family.”

That is what Alaa said she misses the most about Ramadan in her hometown of Sana’a in Yemen. After a short pause, she quickly added, “and the shows!”

Every year, Yemenis look forward to new shows that premiere in Ramadan. “There is usually a comedy show around iftar time and a drama at night,” she said. But this year, she’s not sure if the shows are airing as usual. She was evacuated from the war, and has spent her last two Ramadans here in the United States. She imagines that Ramadan doesn’t feel quite the same there. “It was really bad,” she said, “there was no electricity, no water. There was shooting and bombing.”  She recalled bombs falling in the nearby mountains, and hearing the sound of gunfire throughout the night. Once the impact from a bomb caused her windows to fly open.

Alaa hopes that things will go back to normal soon and that she can spend her next Ramadan back home.

She misses enjoying Yemini sambusa, a pastry dough filled with meat or potatoes. “We have to do sambusa,” she said. “If you don’t do sambusa, it’s not Ramadan.” And there are other desserts famous only in Ramadan, like rawani, a spongy cake soaked in sweet syrup, or shafoot, a refreshing dish consisting of a pancake and a special blend of yogurt, herbs and spices.

She misses fireworks every night in Ramadan. She misses staying up all night and having her pre-dawn meal in one of the restaurants that stay open all night long, closing to the sound of the adhan for the morning prayer.

But most of all, she misses her family, and that is what she spoke about most.

“I always hope to go back and experience Ramadan in Yemen.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Yemen this Ramadan. 

Day 9: Ramadan in Palestine with Hiyam

"This is what I miss the most," Hiyam said, holding up a picture of her parents.
9/30: “This is what I miss the most,” Hiyam said, holding up a picture of her parents at her childhood home in Gaza. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“In Ramadan, the whole city is different.”

Hiyam was born and raised in Gaza, Palestine. She lived through two wars, but in between the wars it was peaceful and she shared fond memories of Ramadan there. She described the streets as being calm and quiet, not bustling with packed cafes and loud with music as they normally are.

They also decorate the streets with lanterns, like many Muslim countries. But in Gaza, they are part of a special tradition.

“The kids go out in groups with the lanterns. And it was safe, you never worried about bombs. It was so peaceful. We would take the lanterns and knock on doors. We would say wahaweeya wahawee, and they would open the door and give us candy. Every night in Ramadan I looked forward to it.”

For the pre-dawn meal, there is also a special tradition: “We had someone who goes in the roads in the city to wake people up, called a masaharaatee.  He drums and sings to wake everyone up.”

“It was so beautiful to wake up with the family. My mom would come wake us up and she would have the table ready,” she remembered, saying a special prayer for her mother.

As the time to break fast approached in Gaza, the people waited for a familiar sound. “We have a cannon for everybody to hear it’s maghrib time,” she said. “ I remember that sound. It’s a beautiful sound to us.”

The most popular food for Ramadan in Gaza is the atayef, a small pancake that can get filled with things like walnuts, cinnamon and sugar, or cheese, and then deep fried and dipped in syrup. In Gaza, it’s made in the street carts in Ramadan and the lines stretch down the street for it.

Hiyam hasn’t been back home since she left over 30 years ago, but she will always remember the special feeling of Ramadan in Gaza. “The atmosphere is so beautiful,” she said.

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Palestine this Ramadan. 

Day 8: Ramadan in Somalia with Mo Black

8/30: For Ramadan in Somalia, we recreated the famous Lido beach of Mogadishu.
8/30: For Ramadan in Somalia, we recreated the famous Lido beach of Mogadishu. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“It’s very hot, but when the sun starts to set it’s breezy and beautiful.”

Mo Black is from the coastal city of Mogadishu in Somalia, and he remembers spending Ramadans there as a child.  “The village you’re in feels like a family. You can walk into your neighbors’ houses without knocking,” he said, recalling the warm closeness of the community there.

The meals, he said, were very typical: “Pasta, rice, and then of course, bananas.” Somalis eat bananas with every meal, and Ramadan is no exception. It’s a staple that accompanies all dishes, and bites are eaten with the meal, not before or after.

But Mo Black also remembers Ramadan when he didn’t feel that warmth of home. He remembers the time he spent with his family in a refugee camp. In these camps, people fast all day even though they often don’t have enough food to break fast with, let alone celebrate with a sundown feast.

“It was a very rough time,” he remembered. “A lot of the time the food was very limited. My mom was one of those people who would always give up her portion. She would rather us eat until we’re full before she gets one bite.”

Now Mo Black spends his Ramadans here in America, but his experiences have had a profound and lasting effect on his perspective.

“It just makes me appreciate everything,” he said. “Especially being in America with so many opportunities and resources. I can’t waste food. And it’s not just a food thing. Don’t waste anything.”

The biggest thing for him in Ramadan now is patience. “Whether it’s being patient to eat, or for an opportunity to come,” he said. “No matter what situation you’re in, patience teaches you how to wait.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Somalia this Ramadan. 

Day 7: Ramadan in Kenya with Asli

It's not Ramadan in Kenya without coconuts.
7/30: It’s not Ramadan in Kenya without coconuts. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

Ramadan in Kenya is all about the coconut.

“In Mombasa, we use coconut for everything,” Asli reminisced about Ramadan in her hometown of Mombasa.

Mombasa is a coastal city where nearly half of the inhabitants are Muslim. Asli remembered a tight-knit community of friendly, welcoming people. She remembered being steps from the Indian Ocean and frequently taking walks there with friends and family on Ramadan days, which are shorter in Kenya than they are here in the United States.

“It definitely feels more family-like,” she said. “We sit on the floor for iftar, a lot of family and neighbors too. We have a big foyer where my grandmother lived, and she had a tradition of doing a big Friday gathering where she served us popcorn and tea.”

She remembered eating the traditional Ramadan food mohogo, known as cassava root, or yuca.  “We make it with coconut milk and a little cardamom,” she said. She also remembered cooking plantains with coconut milk.

In Kenya, the men go for night prayers while the women stay at home, one thing Asli didn’t like about Ramadan there. “The women never went to the masjid. My grandmother used to do her own taraweeh prayers at home. But I heard that’s starting to change now.”

“Ramadan is so empty here, I feel.” she said. “That’s why I started working at the mosque so I could see everybody. There you just feel it. And Kenya is a Christian country. But on Friday, it feels like jummah because nobody works.”

But Asli has found ways to make Ramadan feel less empty. She spends a lot of time at the mosque volunteering. “Being there, breaking fast with everyone, that’s a big deal to me,” she said. “I love breaking fast together.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Kenya this Ramadan. 

Day 6: Ramadan in Afghanistan with Ghatool

Traditional green tea is a staple for an Afghan Ramadan.
6/30: Traditional green tea is a staple for an Afghan Ramadan. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“Everything.”

That was Ghatool’s answer to what she missed most about Ramadan in Afghanistan. She came to the United States when she was 19 and hasn’t returned since.

“The first day of Ramadan was a holiday. It was a lot of fun. The weather and the people were very warm,” she said. “The people were content. One father would be working for a family of 8 or 9, and they would live a good life. Here everybody is working and after the money.”

She remembered large family gatherings where they would break fast on a cloth spread on the floor. They would eat dates and drink a special mixture of water, basil seeds, lemon, and sugar, followed by soup and traditional dishes like aush and bowlani.

“When I was young, I remember my father would have us sit five or 10 minutes before iftar with the food in front of us. We would look at the food and pray and wait for the adhan (call to prayer). There were 10 mosques close to our house, and each would call the adhan a few seconds apart. To break fast, we would listen for the first Allahu Akbar. But at suhoor time,” she laughed, “we waited for the last adhan to finish.”

For Ghatool, Ramadan has always been about helping those in need. She remembers that being the true spirit of Ramadan back home.

“In Afghanistan, there’s a lot of poor people,” she said. “In the front of our house we had a man who sold vegetables on a tray, and on the other side was an old man who fixed shoes. I remember I always used to send them food every day in Ramadan, and my father would pray for me. But here, people don’t always think of that.”

When she came here in 1986, everything was different.

“When we came here, it didn’t feel like Ramadan,” she said. She remembered gathering in a warehouse for night prayers with small groups who would soon build Dar Al-Hijrah, a mosque that is now always packed and bustling during Ramadan. She remembered driving two hours to buy halal meat, and finding other Muslims by word of mouth.

“From the year I came to United States until now, I invite people who don’t have family so they’re not alone. I remember in the beginning when I came here, we didn’t have any family. I remember those days, and this is why I invite these families.”

Ghatool brought her Ramadan memories from Afghanistan as seeds that she would plant in her new homeland. Like many, she found a way to rebuild tradition and make Ramadan special here in the United States.

“I wanted to teach my kids that this is a special month for us. My kids never asked why we didn’t celebrate Christmas; on the Eid we had a lot of fun. She smiled, “Now my kids are more Muslim than Afghan.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Afghanistan this Ramadan. 

Day 5: Ramadan in Sri Lanka with Aflal

Ramadanin30Faces_SriLanka_LoRes
5/30: Aflal remembers Ramadan in Sri Lanka. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“In Sri Lanka, the mosques collect money from the surrounding neighborhoods, and they make a soup with it called kanji, made from rice and coconut milk. It’s really fun,” Aflal smiled. “The whole neighborhood brings containers from home and they line up to get it.”

Rich and poor, young and old—going to retrieve this traditional comfort soup after the late afternoon prayer was an event that everyone looked forward to in Ramadan. “When you get kanji, you know it’s Ramadan.”

Aflal had many fond memories of his childhood Ramadans in Sri Lanka. Like the city turning into a ghost town during the day, due to the fact that Muslims in Sri Lanka tend to all live close to one another. If you’re trying to go to a shop before sunset, you won’t have much luck.

He recalled the traditions of pre-dawn meals. They would have rice and curry first, which, while it may seem heavy for such an early meal, provides energy for the long, fasting days. Then they follow it up with a special blend of yogurt, honey, and bananas. The yogurt comes in large clay pots, and the special honey comes from the kithul palm tree. It’s similar to maple syrup and made from pure sap for a unique taste and aroma.

But he also had some amusing memories of the mischievous ways young children would try get out of fasting.  “My dad was strict, and so we would take an extra long time making wudu (ablution for prayer).” He laughed and shook his head, “For like 15 minutes we’d be in the bathroom, drinking from the running water.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Sri Lanka this Ramadan. 

 

Day 4: Ramadan in Tunisia with Mariem

4/30: Mariem spoke with us before catching a flight to spent Ramadan in Tunisia.
4/30: Mariem spoke with us before catching a flight to spend Ramadan in Tunisia. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“Ramadan in Tunis becomes really busy. There’s a focus of life around iftar.”

Mariem welcomed us into her home to talk about Ramadan in Tunisia, just before catching a flight to go there for Ramadan.

“I love Ramadan in the US. But here, because we’re a minority population, it can kind of glide by.”

But in Tunisia, you really can’t miss it.

“People clear out the supermarkets weeks before Ramadan. If you go to the markets the day before, there’s absolutely nothing there, and it’s mayhem. There’s a focus of life around iftar. Work gets out early, and cars are speeding around maghrib time … rushing to get home.”

“There’s a process to eating,” she said. “You start off with a soup, and then there’s a pastry called breek, filled with eggs, mashed potatoes, or tuna, and parsley. It’s deep fried, and it’s so good. So bad for you, but so good. It’s very Ramadan.”

Ramadan in Tunisia experiences lingering effects of decades of political control on the influence of religion. As a result, public celebration is muted.

“We had a revolution, but before that for over 20 years, hijab was against the law, and mosques were closed for the vast majority of the day. So there’s still not a lot of mosque life. I felt it. It’s always been a fine line, people tip-toeing around what’s allowed.”

In part because there’s so little mosque life, cafes and restaurants are bustling at night. And families have kept the spirit of Ramadan alive in their homes and more intimate gatherings, breaking fast together with their own special traditions.

Spending time in the mosque is the main thing Mariem misses when she spends Ramadan there. She says that it’s starting to come back, though. “You feel like there’s a thirst for communal iftars, for more spiritual circles. And the Ministry of Religious Affairs just announced a few months ago that they will be opening the mosques for the first time in decades, for the youth. I’m really excited about this particular Ramadan.”

Mariem’s mom chimed in that this year she received approval to organize communal iftars in the poor areas. She misses the Ramadans of her childhood before things changed, and looks forward to watching the shift back to more spiritually charged activity. She wishes for Mariem and other young Muslim Tunisians to experience Ramadan as it once was.

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Tunisia this Ramadan. 

Day 3: Ramadan in Bosnia-Herzegovina with Delila

We asked Delila if she had any photos from her childhood in Bosnia, but she lost them all when they fled. Instead, she poses with a family photo on her phone.
3/30: We asked Delila if she had any photos from her childhood in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but she lost them all when they fled. Instead, she poses with a family photo on her phone. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“It was idyllic. It was childhood.”

Delila’s memories of Ramadan spent at her home in Bosnia-Herzegovina are vivid even though she was forced to flee the country with her family at the young age of 11. “We lost everything. We left with the clothes on our backs.”

“One of my earliest memories of Bosnia was when Ramadan was in the summer, and I remember us fasting throughout the day and then 20 or 30 of us would crowd together in this small space. It was just happiness and joy.”

Her Ramadan memories are wrapped in nostalgia, captured and preserved through the lens of her childhood self. Children rushing before iftar to bring home a piping hot bread that’s only sold during that month. The melodic sound of prayers spilling into streets from masjid courtyards that open to the night sky. Young people gathering in cafes for spiritual discussions extending well into the night. Warmth. Community.

And perhaps the coolest tradition of all: “There’s a fort outside of the city, and there’s an old Ottoman cannon in the hills. And the cannon announces the start of iftar. That’s the iftar tradition, people open their windows to listen for the sound of the cannon.”

It wasn’t just the sights and sounds though- she also remembered a noticeable shift in the people, and a focus on feeding the poor. “Bosnian people love to complain about stuff,” she laughed. “And in Ramadan, it’s almost like all of that stuff gets removed. In the old part of town they do communal iftars for those who can’t afford it, and people bring iftar to families of soldiers who died in the war.”

For Delila, ever since coming to America, Ramadan hasn’t been quite the same. “Ramadan doesn’t really feel like Ramadan until you’re at home.”

This year, she’ll spend the last few days of Ramadan in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and she can’t wait.

“There’s a special spirit to the city, a kind of peace descends on it … Something still pulls me there.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Bosnia-Herzegovina this Ramadan. 

Day 2: Ramadan in Pakistan with Zainab

Ramadan in Pakistan
2/30: Ramadan in Pakistan is not complete without Rooh Afza. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA.

“They go all out. In the streets, outside of our family home in Lahore, people would put up lanterns and string lights. You would think it’s somebody’s wedding. If you go shopping to the bazaar you see decorations. It’s just a really festive time of year. People keep completely different hours, and businesses close during the day.”

Zainab spends her days here on Capitol Hill advocating for the rights of Muslims in America with CAIR. But this Ramadan, she’ll spend her nights breaking her fasts with loved ones and recreating traditions that keep her Pakistani roots alive.

She’ll enjoy the traditional pakora, a popular fried snack, and the obligatory Rooh Afza, a drink made of a sweet aromatic syrup of fruits, herbs, vegetables, flowers, and roots, and mixed with milk or water. If you have ever had iftar at a Pakistani household, you have probably been served this refreshing “pink milk.”

But it’s more than pakora and Rooh Afza. Ever since Zainab spent Ramadan in Pakistan, she has missed the feeling of public celebration. When she came back to the U.S., she tried, like many Muslim American families, to bring part of that spirit home.

Zainab and her husband planned to go to Michaels that weekend to buy decorations, and they would hang lights inside their home.

“We try to recreate it. You don’t get that same kind of ambiance as I experienced in Pakistan, but it’s as close as we can get.”

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Pakistan this Ramadan.

Day 1: Ramadan in Indonesia with Yunus

Ramadan has arrived and Yunus is jumping for joy.
1/30: Ramadan has arrived and Yunus is jumping for joy. Photography by Ridwan Adhami for Islamic Relief USA

The first thing Yunus remembered about Ramadan in Indonesia was the songs that fill the air. “All the popular songs turn into Islamic songs with new lyrics,” he recalled. “You know Ramadan is coming when you start hearing Islamic songs in the streets.”

Listening to Yunus describe Ramadan in Indonesia would make anyone wish for the chance to experience it. He painted a picture of a country that treats Ramadan as the most celebrated and anticipated time of the year. And Indonesians greet the month with an enthusiasm that has a very unique flavor. The streets fill with parades, and different groups welcome it with lively performances.

Even the pre-dawn meal (suhur) is an event. “In the village my parents grew up in, we have these ‘suhur brigades.’ A bunch of young kids will stay up all night, and when suhur time comes, they use something loud like percussion instruments or utensils and frying pans. They walk through the streets and knock on people’s doors to wake them up.”

He described communal suhurs and interfaith iftars with rich mosaics of food showcasing a wide variety of culinary influences. “It feels like one big giant family,” he smiled. He reminisced about other cultural traditions, like a giant gong that’s struck several times before the evening call to prayer (adhan), which announces the time to break fast.

But his favorite memory of all wasn’t the festivities.

“The most striking thing for me is hearing the adhan. Here, you’re looking at the clock, waiting. But there, wherever you are, you hear the adhan. I remember the first time I experienced that I just had to stop to enjoy it. And it goes on for like 10 minutes because different masjids start at different times.”

When time came to pose for the picture, Yunus asked if we minded if he did something fun. It was only fitting—both his spirit and his country were alive this Ramadan, and his jumping air guitar paid perfect homage to his joyful, musical memories of Indonesian Ramadans past.

You can donate today to feed an impoverished family in Indonesia this Ramadan.