Feast follows fast

After skipping food, water and tobacco each day, Muslims gather at sundown
Wednesday, October 18, 2006


At 7:10 p.m. on Oct. 6 at Danya and Michael Karram's house in Indian Hill, everyone is waiting for 7:16 p.m., the moment when the sun goes down and the day's Ramadan fast can be broken. Dates, guava and mango juice are the first foods the Karrams and their guests will eat when they gather for the sundown meal, called iftar.

The monthlong Ramadan, which commemorates Muhammad's receiving the holy Quran, is a time for contemplation, for prayer and turning thoughts to matters other than daily concerns. The fast from sunup to sundown means refraining from food, drink, and tobacco. Ramadan concludes Monday with a celebration called Eid al-Fitr, a day of rejoicing that marks the end of the daily fasting.

But when the sun goes down, fast turns to feast. On many nights during the month, families gather and friends are invited to end their day of fasting together. Large iftars are held in mosques and Islamic centers.

"It's one event you want to be on time for," says May Bsisu, a friend of the Karrams' and the author of "The Arab Table." "You want to be together when you first eat, and it is important not to wait to break the fast."

The Karrams' guests are Muslims who have made their way from various parts of the Middle East: Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt. The Cincinnati Muslim community, centered at the Islamic Center, also includes many Muslims from South and Central Asia.

Celebrating here - where the Muslim community of 25,000 is scattered throughout the region - is different than in parts of the world where the entire population observes Ramadan. Elsewhere, the pace of life slows down for the month. Egypt especially is known for its Ramadan celebrations.

"Everyone stays up all night, and there are big tents out in the desert. No one goes to work until noon," says Ashraf Nassef, who is from Egypt. Here, where the pace stays the same, it's not so easy to fast. "It's hard to fast when everyone around you is eating. It's especially hard to give up water. If I could drink water, fasting would be no problem," says Aref Bsisu.

When the Bsisus' son went to University of Dayton, a Marianist school where there are few Muslims, "Once his whole dormitory fasted with him one day of Ramadan," says May.

But the order of doing things is much the same everywhere. "It's always dates, soup, fatoush," says Hala Saleh, originally from Lebanon.

Dates are almost always the first food eaten by Muslims everywhere. It is believed that Muhammad broke his fast with the same type of fruit. Water, of course, too, because the fasting includes not drinking. After the fast is broken is a time for prayer, and some of the guests at this iftar go to another room for prayer.

This meal includes food from the Arab tradition. It begins with a Lebanese seafood soup with shrimp and fish in a vegetable-rich broth. Then comes fatoush - a salad of greens and toasted pita that can be found throughout the Middle East especially during Ramadan. Michael Karram made the pickled turnips and green tomatoes and the hummus.

"He has a particular idea of what the texture should be from his travels as a child throughout the Middle East," says his wife. "He uses canned chickpeas but then boils them and removes the skins."

Danya Karram grew up in Toledo, where there was a tight-knit Lebanese Muslim community. "The women all cooked together at the mosque," she remembers. "Everyone knew everyone else, and we all ate together. Here it's more formal in a way, because you have to invite people over."

"Ramadan foods are richer; meals are more elaborate than usual," says May Bsisu - though people sometimes don't have large appetites after fasting.

Danya and May have made a feast. Danya has made her family's Lebanese meat pies. It's only the second time that she's made them without the help of her grandmother, who passed away 2 years ago. She makes the dough, rolls it out, chops the meat and makes each little pie by hand.

"I was very close to my grandmother, and I really miss her. It was important to me to make these pies and to make them as beautifully as she did - even though it took me an entire day."

The centerpiece of the meal is a platter of four chickens, dusted with spices, stuffed with rice and beef, served on more of the rice and lavished with nuts. There is Danya's signature baba ghanouj, moussaka and okra cooked with meat.

"We always say a table without lamb or beef is a poor table," says Eman Al-Khadra, a Palestinian who grew up in Saudi Arabia. "Even when I serve fish or poultry, I have some kind of dish with meat."

"It is the nature of the Arab table to be bountiful, for the hosts to go all out," says Danya. "Potlucks are not a tradition."

The meal ends with sweets: little squares of pistachios barely held together with syrup. Pastries with sugar syrup are a Ramadan custom. So is the dish of dried figs, apricots and raisins, soaked in apricot syrup. The men take a water pipe filled with apple-scented tobacco outside to smoke.

Long after everyone has had their fill, guests sit around the dinner table, sipping thick, rich coffee in tiny cups. The conversation touches on Middle Eastern affairs, family and the many paths that were taken to this day and place: journeys from Baghdad, Beirut, Cairo and Tehran.

The next day, the fast will begin again at sunrise.

E-mail pcampbell@enquirer.com


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