Ramadan on the Rock: Food, festivity and finding community
A Hindu columnist accepts an invitation to a Muslim celebration
Earlier this month, I received a special invitation from the Muslim Association of Newfoundland and Labrador asking me to join them for iftar, the post-dusk meal during Ramadan.
While I excitedly RSVP'd "oui" to their invitation, and my first iftar in a decade, questions ran through my mind like a hamster on a wheel.
What does Ramadan look like in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean? What does it mean to be a Muslim Newfoundlander?
Looking for answers, I went into the homes and hearts of Muslim Newfoundlanders and Labradorians to explore Ramadan on the Rock.
Burgers for breakfast: Perks of growing up Muslim
It is three in the morning. I traipse into Maruf Dewan's home to chat about suhoor, the pre-dawn meal during Ramadan.
"It's a super-early breakfast while you're fasting," he says.
During Ramadan, a holy and sacred month for Muslims across the world, Muslims immerse themselves in spiritual discipline by fasting from sunrise to sunset. The fast extends beyond food and water to activities like smoking and sex, as well as negative thoughts and deeds of any kind.
Between suhoor and iftar, Muslims recite five prayers (the Fajr, Zuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha) at specific times, each with its own custom.
So, what does Maruf's typical suhoor meal look like? "Something that doesn't involve me cooking," he responds wittily. Nuts, bananas, clementines, cereal, dates and the classic Nutella sandwich are what sustain him until the end of his fast.
Much as Christmas meals vary by the region, so do meals for suhoor and iftar. For Yassir El-Tahan, suhoors stir up special memories.
"I was spoiled rotten.… My dad and mum would literally come and hand us our food in our bed," he says. "I remember [one day] my dad tapped me on my shoulder, I wake up all blurry eyed, I could barely see but I could smell. And I could smell something absolutely delicious.… I open my eyes and there was this quadruple burger."
A burger lover, he was thrilled. It's his happiest Ramadan memory of growing up on the Rock.
"When you have burgers for breakfast, that's the best thing ever, right, when you're 12 years old," Yassir says.
Fasting for health
"You know how you [maintain] your cars and everything? So, it's like the maintenance of your body," says Chaouki Dehane, an astute seventh grade Muslim Newfoundlander I met at the Masjid-Al-Noor mosque for Isha (the night prayer) and Taraweeh (Ramadan prayers). And he's right!
Fasting from dawn to dusk might seem torturous to many. But this custom has been a part of several religions and cultures going as far back as ancient Hinduism and Greeks. Detoxifying and rejuvenating rests the overactive digestive system that is constantly on fire (thanks to hydrochloric acid brewing in our gastric juices).
With fasting, eating healthy is a priority for Muslims. Mindful of the fast, many supplement with vitamins and minerals during suhoor and iftar.
"I tend to get even more rigorous with my diet.… I take all my vitamins. I have to take things and eat things that'll keep me lasting all day long, energy-wise," says Saba El-Tahan, Yassir's wife, and a new immigrant to Newfoundland and Labrador.
Feasting after the fast
If the mornings start with sleepy-eyed suhoors, then the evenings finish with invigorating iftars.
The post-dusk meal after the Maghrib prayer usually involves visiting the homes of friends, family and loved ones. Varying by region, iftars can range from lavish 21-course meals to simple rice and beans.
Regardless of the composition, what remains common is that the fast is broken with dates and a sip of water.
Talat Mian has called St. John's home for over three decades. For those who don't know her by name, I'm sure you'll recognize her business: International Flavours.
Inviting me over for iftar, in addition to showing me some tricks of her trade, Talat Aunty speaks about the importance of passing down her cultural seeds to the next generation.
"It's a time for spiritual healing. It keeps you on path," she says, filling my plate and belly with biryani, pakodas, sabzi, dal, salad and kheer.
Ramadan was a part of my growing years in India and the United Arab Emirates.
Being Hindu didn't stop me from partaking in the festivity and fast. Thrilled to experience it a decade later, on our rock, I could feel the same fervour and thrill I had experienced in my past.
A spiritual bootcamp for the mind, body and soul, Ramadan adds to the beauty, the culture and piousness of the place we all call home, much like the month of Lent leading to Easter does.
Identity on the menu
Saba and Yassir El-Tahan are celebrating their second Ramadan together.
Over dinner, I — an Indian-Canadian — sit across from an Egyptian-Canadian married to an Indian-American in St. John's.
Naturally, identity comes up during our chat.
"I would say I'm Muslim first, Newfie second, probably Canadian third and Egyptian fourth. I am Newfie with Egyptian blood," says Yassir, a Newfoundlander born and raised.
Yassir's love for his home and his province is evident in his eyes, which light up when he speaks about how easy it was to grow up as a Muslim here.
But with events such as 9/11 unfolding in the States, Saba's experience growing up as a Muslim has been starkly different.
"I grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood on Long Island [New York], so it was quite the opposite of what Yassir experienced," she says.
"It's been difficult for me to be Muslim [in America].… It's changed since I moved here. We'll be out bowling and Yassir'll be, like, 'I'm going to the corner and go pray'
Saba's eyes well up as she speaks.
"It's nice to have it," she says. "That's what I wanted."
Towards the end of the meal, Yassir prepares to leave for the night prayers at the mosque his father helped build.
"My dad says I was the very first person to pray in the mosque," he says, "and I've been praying there ever since. To me, I see how important the mosque is and the unity it provides to the Muslim community and I try not to take that for granted."
Talat Mian has called St. John's home for over three decades, passing down traditions in an environment where even simple spices were hard to find.
Coming together, the Muslim community — like other ethnic communities in the city — would order ethnic groceries from as far as Toronto to be able to cook foods like biryani and kheer for their families and children.
I'm sure we'd go to the same distance to be able to share Jiggs dinner and toutons with our little ones, stressing the importance that food plays in passing down heritage and culture. But despite these barriers, Mian — widowed at a young age — chose to not only make this rock her home and raise her daughters here but also to operate a business here.
What made her stay?
"I'm telling you the truth, if this support wasn't there … if it wasn't for this community I wouldn't have stayed," she says.
"The local community, international community, they respected me a lot. And if this respect and this value wouldn't have been here, I would've moved."
However, like all places, St. John's isn't immune to racism and xenophobia, amplified after 9/11, which attracted unsavoury experiences at her downtown restaurant.
"9/11 was a tiny bit harder on me," she says, recalling two customers who confronted her about Muslims being responsible for the terror attacks.
"I said, 'Look, I belong here.… This is my house. My investments are here. My kids study here.'" Though she was shaken and fearful, she says she held her own, telling the customers she wasn't responsible for acts carried out by others.
Her business helped put her children through university, added to the economy and culture of this province and has been a training ground for other restaurants. Proud to call herself a Newfoundlander Pakistani, Aunty says a small dua, or prayer, as we sit down for a meal. Her request is simple — to bestow peace and blessing on our community, the Newfoundland and Labrador community.
Food, festivity and great company aside, for my first Ramadan in a decade I found the sounds of Maghrib and Isha prayers giving me the same peace I felt singing hymns in my Protestant school's chapel and chanting Hindu shlokas at the temple.
But this Ramadan, praying alongside my Muslim friends at the mosque, bowing to the higher power, I couldn't help but remember the terror that gripped Christchurch, New Zealand, just two months ago. Racism and Islamophobia are as real as the air we breathe.
Fuelled by fear and misinformation, the unknown is always intimidating.
Perhaps a step towards reducing racism and promoting harmony would be to recognize different cultural celebrations as part of our public holidays.
In addition to having public holidays for Christmas and Easter, wouldn't it be nice to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, Diwali, Chinese New Year, Indigenous cultures, Rosh Hashanah and Baisakhi?