Ramadan: A Month About Much More Than Fasting
Vanessa Handy: Are you celebrating Ramadan?
Speaker 2: I am.
Vanessa Handy: What is significant about Ramadan for you?
Speaker 2: Ramadan is a month that we celebrate mostly self-discipline. When you don't eat or drink for a long time and seek of obedience of God, it's a test. You go through a willpower, struggle, but the practices comes with its own reward.
Speaker 3: It's just getting closer to God and forgiveness and just reflection and being a better person.
Speaker 4: That's what the whole month is about. It's about coming back to your core, coming back to the religion, and reaffirming everything.
Speaker 2: That means for us a lot. That teach us how to be very disciplined. That reflects on our work life and everything.
Speaker 3: You say Alhamdulillah you thank God for everything.
Kai Wright: It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright and Ramadan Mubarak. It's the first week of Ramadan. That means as many as 2 billion people all over the world are abstaining from food and water when the sun is out. When the sunsets, they'll take their first bite of food together which is such a powerful idea to me. The month is, of course, about much more than fasting, it's about being generous with yourself and with others. Given the fact that the Muslim community is just wildly diverse, the traditions and rituals that emphasize this idea of generosity are often formed by local realities.
As people move around and grow with their families, they often start their own traditions that make the holiday personal to themselves. This week, I'm excited to learn about as many of those new traditions as possible. We're going to spin the show celebrating and trying to deepen our understanding of this holy month. Listeners, we want to hear a ton from you in this show if you celebrate Ramadan, how are you making the month special for yourself and for your loved ones? What intentions are you trying to set? How have your traditions changed over the years?
For instance, maybe you moved and you can't find the same ingredients for a food you usually eat, or maybe there's something you did when you were younger and you stopped doing it as you're an adult, or you moved away from your family and have started whole new traditions with new communities. Tell us what they are. Importantly, tell us why. Maybe someone who's listening will deepen their understanding of their own celebrations by hearing about yours. We will be guided through our Ramadan celebration by journalist, Ahmed Ali Akbar.
He's a James Beard award-winning writer and the host of Radiolingo podcast from Crooked Media. He's also the creator and host of See Something Say Something, a podcast focused on the Muslim American experience. Ahmed, welcome to Notes from America.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Thank you so much for having me. Ramadan Mubarak.
Kai: Ramadan Mubarak. I'm going to get my Arabic together by the end of the show. Your handle on both Twitter and Instagram is Rad Brown Dads.
Ahmed: That's right.
Kai: Maybe that's the best way for us to start to learn your story. What's the story behind that name?
Ahmed: You have me fresh off of thinking about this concept of Rad Brown Dads. I'm still glad you asked me that. It was a blog that I started when I was not a Red Brown Dad. It was in 2014. I just posted these photos of dads before they became fathers, immigrant dads who are wearing wide lapel suits. They have the baggy trousers, all the fashionable stuff before they became dads. It followed me along as a journalist. I honor my roots as a blogger by keeping that my tag on Twitter and everywhere else. Now, I actually am a father.
Kai: You were you were only red and brown before. Now, you were a red brown and a dad.
Ahmed: That's right. Last night, I had my first experience of an iftar at a mosque with my one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Aziza and I was sweating, chasing her through the food lines, through the prayer lines. She just was having the time of her life. Some things never change because that used to be me when I was a kid as well.
Kai: Wow. Wow. I think it's important to know, you started that blog while you were at Harvard Divinity School.
Ahmed: That's tight.
Kai: Just briefly, what were you studying at Harvard Divinity School? What did you hope to do with that?
Ahmed: Well, I was studying American Muslims, I found our history to be something that, at that point, was not given justice to the full complexity of a story. I grew up with a lot of converts who had come to Sunni Islam through the Nation of Islam. They had brought the Civil Rights tradition to my understanding of Islam and that was hugely influential to me. I was troubled in some ways, by the way in which we told stories about American Muslims that there was a respectability politics happening.
I had went to grad school to study but I found that blogging was actually getting more of the impact and more of the conversations that I had wanted to engage in at that time. Eventually, that turned into more work as a reporter. I didn't actually have much experience as a journalist before that but I took my academic experience and brought it to journalism where, for many years at BuzzFeed, initially, I was a reporter on American Muslims to that show you mentioned See Something Say Something. Yes, I did a lot of studying of both the Islamic tradition, but also the history of America and how that impacted American Muslims.
Kai: Certainly, this trade is a faith-based exercise. I'm glad you got some grounding before you got into it. You wrote an essay in Catapult magazine a while back about your relationship to Ramadan, and how it changed after your mother's death. It's a beautiful essay-
Ahmed: Thank you.
Kai: -about processing grief and spinning finding space for joy. I want to dig into it for a little bit. You were in college when your mother passed, right?
Ahmed: That's right, yes. I was probably 21, I think, when she passed away. She had had a recurrence of cancer that ended up taking her life over the course of two years. It brought our family together, in many ways. It was a religiously very difficult time for me, as you can imagine. As a young adult, you're already angry at the world, and then you're losing your mother to something very uncontrollable. That was a very emotional and difficult time but it shaped who I am. It shaped my relationship to my religion. She shaped my relationship to my religion.
I should also give her a lot of credit that she herself was a writer. As a passion, more than as a career, it was something she did on the side. She was an activist.
Kai: Can I pause on that? Was did she do because you say on the essay that you learned the spiritual mysticism of your faith and of Ramadan from her? What did she teach you?
Ahmed: She taught me pretty much everything, both there's legal aspects of Islam but there's also, like you said, the mystical aspects. She was somebody who both believed it was important to know the tradition that were passed down. Sometimes people know this as the idea of the Sunnah, and the fiqh which is the traditions of the Prophet and the legal jurisprudence but she also was very much into the love that comes with things like Sufism, that Islam as a religion of mercy and joy as well. I should say, Kai, that if I'm stumbling, it's because it's towards the end of my fast. [crosstalk]
Kai: It's okay. No, you sound great.
Ahmed: I'm not always at my best. My mother was a huge influence and she also taught me that it was important to share our ideas of our religion. That there was a diversity of experiences, and ours was one, and all those voices deserve a platform to have a conversation. I learned a lot about what the democratic process looks like, what multiculturalism looks like by growing up in American Muslim where there was lots of people with many different intellectual traditions, many different religious traditions, ethnic traditions, cultural traditions, trying to come together at the masjid and figure out what this Muslim American experience means.
Kai: She was a guide through that which is a lovely thing to have. Essays is really about your father. You write that you find comfort in his consistency. Describe that consistency in what it means for you.
Ahmed: My mother's love of the mystical elements of Islam, there's also the parts of Islam that are ritualistic. There's this element of the five daily prayers. There's the 30 days of fasting, there's the obligation to go to Friday prayers, all these things. My father was not a big talker about his relationship to his religion, but he did those things. He was always doing those things and bringing me along and encouraging me to do them. I feel that I still am reaching after the images of my parents that I had from childhood that he was generous with.
I didn't always succeed but I made the intention which I think is something that you mentioned at the top of the show that the niyyah the intention to do better is the most important thing. I followed him in his consistency that he was always very good at building those habits. That's something that I hope to emulate. I'm still on that path. I'm still making the intention to do better. I hope that one day I can be as much of an example as he is to me and others. Honestly, other people have also said that they admire that about him if he's listening. Sound like I'm about Ramadan Mubarak. Thank you for everything.
Kai: When he had a heart attack, he had to give up fasting. How did you react to that change? Why was it so important to you?
Ahmed: He had a heart surgery. It wasn't quite a heart attack, thankfully.
Ahmed: That's okay. That was very interesting. There's this idea in Islam, that it's not supposed to be hard for you, the religion is not made to be hard for you. When you are ill, when you are traveling, when you are breastfeeding, pregnant, you are not obligated to fast during those moments. There's this idea when he's ill in a way that might be permanent, that he might not ever be able to fast again. That was an interesting moment of-- and tough moment of grappling again with another parent's mortality.
I'm happy to report since that essay, that he has gotten another surgery, which has helped him be able to fast. There were complications that he had from fasting, that caused him to stop fasting, and now he actually is able to fast. I called him today, and I actually had that question. I was like, "You are able to fast now, right?" He said, "Yes. Alhamdulillah. Thanks to God that I'm able to fast." He's still very healthy and doing well.
Kai: That's a blessing. There was something in the interruption in the change there that you seem to be getting at in the essay that disquieted you in the time. Can you try to articulate what that was? Why it upset you?
Ahmed: Yes. I will say that I'm in a very different headspace than then because I'm a new father. I'm thinking about my own mortality. When you have a child, you think, "Wow, I am not going to see, most likely Inshallah, everything goes okay, I will not be around for their entire life. They will have things that they'll take from beyond my own time on this earth with her." At that point, I suppose the idea for me was that I have to build something internally. You have these icons and people that you admire that you want to follow in their footsteps.
Initially, you also have to set up those expectations for yourself, like, what am I going to do that I'm going to take and pass on to the next generation? That's really what I'm thinking about now is what is the consistency that I can provide for my daughter, so she also has that connection to Islam and to Ramadan that I have.
Kai: We will talk about that after a quick break. I'm talking with James Beard award-winning journalist, Ahmed Ali Akbar. We could take your calls to tell us how you're celebrating Ramadan, and how maybe it's been changing for you. We'll take your calls after a break, stay with us.
Rahima Nasa: Ramadan Mubarak, it's Rahima. If you liked the show, you should really follow us on Instagram. Our handle is @noteswithkai, just so you don't miss out on what I'm calling Rahimadan. Basically, it's a series of posts that I'm doing, where I'll be sharing what I'm cooking and learning throughout Ramadan. I'll be sharing recipes from Somalia, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, which is where my family's from. We really want to see what's on your iftar table, too. Tag our show's handle @noteswithkai to share your Instagram posts with us.
We also want to hear about the different ways that you're making Ramadan your own. Send us a voicemail, and we may play it on the show. Here's how. Go to notesfromamerica.org and click on the green button that says Start Recording. That's it. All right. Thank you.
Vanessa Handy: I'm at the Balady Halal Food market in Brooklyn. We're going to walk around and ask people about Ramadan.
Speaker 5: I'm from Egypt so I feel like I came by today to buy a few things just to get some of the food and some of the things we need back home.
Speaker 6: Growing up in Egypt, it's kind of a Muslim country, majority Muslim country. Ramadan is much celebrated there in a way like work less hours work, and even the school some days off. Here, it's kind of a regular day. Yes, it takes more effort for us.
Speaker 7: Growing up as a child, my Ramadan experiences were at home with my brothers and sisters and my parents and we'd get together at sunset. I'll eat and feast on the dinner that was made by my mom and she would cook all day while she's fasting.
Speaker 8: The first dinner is at my house. It used to be at my parent's house, but my mom has gotten a lot older so she can't really cook for the whole family anymore. It's my four brothers and my sister and all the kids. It's a nice little tradition that we have going. As a kid, it was a lot easier. [chuckles] I just enjoy presents and gifts, great food. I didn't have to worry about nothing. Now, it's getting meals prepared, making sure the kids have a good time, and they feel like it's a festive time for us.
Speaker 9: Our kids were born here so we want to give them some decent tradition so we gather for iftar meal every weekend.
Speaker 10: Another thing is we really vamp up the tradition of Friday family night, just to use the month as an excuse to get together a lot more than we usually do.
Kai: It's Notes from America, I'm Kai Wright. That was our intern Vanessa Handy talking with shoppers at a popular food market in Brooklyn on the first day of Ramadan last week. We are celebrating Ramadan this week with James Beard award-winning journalist, Ahmed Ali Akbar. He's the host of Radiolingo podcast from Crooked Media, and also the creator and host of See Something Say Something, a podcast focused on the Muslim American experience. We want to hear from you if you celebrate Ramadan, how are you making the month special for yourself and for your loved ones?
Right now, in this part of the hour, I'm particularly interested in hearing what intentions you are setting for the month. Ahmed, as the calls come in, before your parents helped changed the month for your family, how did you celebrate Ramadan as a kid?
Ahmed: With so much joy. [chuckles] It was so much fun in our house. You don't start fasting until you hit puberty. Prior to that, we would basically all-- I would still join them at the morning table at Suhoor or Sahrī as it's called in Urdu, the language my parents speak. We would all wake up and my mom would make a fried omelet toast. We'd all be in this surreal moment of, "Are we really up at three in the morning? Are we really up at four in the morning? Is this the right time to eat an omelet?" I just remember these moments where my mom would just lose it from laughing.
When you've been up on an all-nighter, for instance, and to start to get the giggles. I just remember I have this memory of all me, my two sisters, and my father. My father would just drink chai. He wouldn't eat anything, which still blows my mind. He doesn't have a breakfast during Ramadan besides chai. We will just all be sitting there with the giggles and my dad would be pacing. He would be like, "Why are you all laughing about?" We would be like, "We don't know. We don't know because it's four in the morning and we're eating spicy omelets."
Then, of course, fast-breaking, we would go to the mosque every single night for the Taraweeh or Tarawih prayer, and in the evening prayer and Maghrib and Isha, they're called the two prayers. On Saturdays, we would have this amazing tradition I want to share which was the rotating iftar, and basically each week, a different group of community members would host, and to me, as a food writer, those are my earliest memories of being exposed to all the amazing different food traditions of the Muslim world, of Muslim peoples.
For instance, of course, there was the biryani and samosas, Rooh Afza, Khajla like Pakistanis like myself would bring. Then when the Lebanese community members would host, I got introduced to things like Tabbouleh, Kibbeh, Falafel. Those are things that I didn't really have very much growing up in Mid Michigan, but they made a special effort to I don't know if they cooked it or they catered it, but they brought it in. Then the last thing that I really got a huge love for was the Black Muslim tradition of southern foods, soul food.
I was exposed to bean pie, which is a lifelong love. I'll always eat a bean pie anytime I see it. I'll always purchase it.
Kai: A bean pie is a good thing.
Ahmed: It's good. Cajun fried turkey, there's a brother Bilal who had this smoker. He would do brother's Bilal famous Cajun fried turkey. I've only ever had it at the mosque. I just grew a real love for all the different ways that halal food can look through those Saturday stars.
Kai: That's great. Let's get to Constance from Chicago. Constance, welcome to show.
Constance: Thank you very much. Ramadan Mubarak to both of you all and the listening audience.
Kai: How are you celebrating or how is your traditions changed?
Constance: Well, first of all, I want to say that my intentions have expanded and I find myself well-reflected on my purpose in life. What dovetails into that three years ago, around the time of Ramadan, we were in the midst of COVID. I ended up responding to it by starting a health center in Chicago because there were so many people whose healthcare needs were underserved. I find that Ramadan really helped me to not only practice acts of charity during that month but to learn that actually, that's just a starting point to continue those charitable acts such as the health center that we started throughout the year.
Kai: Interesting. What is the dynamic relationship between these things for you, Constance? It sounds like, has your faith and Ramadan and tradition helped you think more about that kind of service, or is it that because that service is part of your life, it's made you think about that within the context of your Ramadan intentions?
Constance: I think it's both ways, you know what I'm saying? Because as we are in the process of providing the services, we're always thinking about, "Well, how is this rooted in what we're supposed to be doing as Muslims all the time?" To me, Ramadan really energizes, continued to energize us, and to motivate us to understand that we're not just doing this once a year, this is all part of our everyday life. That's how it's been. I think it's both ways.
Kai: Thank you for that, Constance. Ahmed, I said earlier that Ramadan was about generosity, being generous with yourself and with others, and Constance certainly brings that to mind. How does that idea show up in the celebration and ritual of Ramadan?
Ahmed: One of the five major pillars of Islam is Zakat. Approximately, 2.5% of your yearly income, or rather your savings, you're supposed to donate it to charity to a certain number of eligible donation sites. There's different categories. I'm not a legal scholar, so I don't want to misspeak completely, but essentially, it's a yearly obligation of donation. People consider the month of Ramadan to be a time in which blessings are multiplied for everybody. There are people who also are not eligible to give Zakat because they don't make enough income.
For everybody, it's a time in which many people pay, there's Zakat during this time because it supports the community members who need support during a difficult time. What Constance described, this institution building I think is very common amongst American Muslims, I'll say that there are times where the projects that start during Ramadan become year-long endeavors. I saw that also, speaking of COVID, I wrote a piece on food and wine about some of the food drives that happened during the first COVID Ramadan, and how those people have continued to do that over the years.
I can think of Saffron De Twah, which is a restaurant in Detroit, which has shut down entirely during COVID, and was doing first responder meal kits and different kinds of food drives and continues to do some of that work today.
Kai: Feeding others is part of this as well, right?
Kai: I may mispronounce it, but what is Fidyah?
Ahmed: Fidyah. I think of Fidyah maybe?
Kai: Fidyah, yes.
Ahmed: Yes, that's right. It's this idea of feeding other people. If you go to any Muslim person's home, it's a constant practice. This idea of feeding other people, but also, the other element that I want to mention is when I earlier that if you aren't able to fast, I did say that there are eligible reasons not to fast if you're sick, it's not that it's just marked off, you still are obligated to feed somebody or to make it up. Those are the two ways that you can make up a fast, is by doing that for that Fidyah and feeding somebody else or you can make it up at a later date.
You can see how they're tied hand in hand, that fasting shows an individual thing, but it's related to the community. There's this idea that we're all supporting each other in spiritual nourishment and in physical nourishment during this time.
Kai: Let's go to Adna in Chicago as well. Adna, welcome to the show.
Adna: Hi, thank you. Ramadan Mubarak to everyone on the call.
Ahmed: Ramadan Mubarak.
Kai: Back to you. Do you have an intention you're setting or a way that your rituals have changed?
Adna: Yes, actually. Funnily enough, I'm just on my way to my brother's house. We're having a little cousins' iftar. I have five nieces and nephews who are one, four, six, seven, and nine years old, so especially those couple of older ones, they're quite going to get more involved in observing the month. We're trying to figure out what that looks like for them. I remember as a kid, it must have been second grade and my teacher asked me to share with the class what Ramadan was about and I remember saying, "Oh, on Eid, my dad goes and prays, and then afterward all the men give the kids so much money--"
[laughter] [unintelligible 00:24:49] for education. A lot of my grades decided to fix the iftar. That's expand on that for the younger kids. Now, they have little crafts, like making a mosque out of a paper bag, and inside, whatever they do something kind, or good to write it down, and we can reflect on Eid to pick out those pieces of paper and read what they have done and how-- It doesn't have to be limited to this month like everyone has been saying, "Assigned all-or-nothing type of deal, it's an opportunity to set the foundation to create those new habits, and of course, not be hard on yourself in the process."
Kai: Not be hard on yourself. Thank you so much for that, Adna.
Ahmed: I struggle with that a lot, by the way. I'm very hard on myself in this month.
Kai: No, no, how so? How are you hard on yourself in this month?
Ahmed: I suppose I really admire both of these last few callers for their energy, for their enthusiasm. I think those people are inspiration, so straight this month. I will say on my own, personally for me, it's very challenging to get things done. It's very challenging to do my daily work. I love that these people are going above and beyond. I always set an intention to do better, to bring more, and bring more onto my plate. I think by doing it together, the way the last two callers have done it in community, that's really the best way to do it.
I think essentially, Kai, when I was in New York, I was a little bit more isolated, I guess, from my family. That was also like a huge factor. Making this time a challenging time, but a time in which I really still invest in myself to make myself better. I actually have a piece that's coming out about this with America's Test Kitchen, Proof podcast, which will come out in April. That's about setting new intentions as a dad so that the challenges that I've had with Ramadan, I don't pass them on to my daughter. That she has that same joy that the last caller and my own parents are doing for their kids.
For instance, that Eid day that she mentioned, at our mosque, we had this plastic bag that was worth its weight in gold of Kit Kats, Doritos, Doritos that were given out to the kids. Kids were bartering them back and forth, and it was just such a joyful time that I think was such good memories. Somebody set that tradition, that's not like an Islamic tradition, it was just a local thing. These ways in which you're investing in like, "All right, let's feed kids, let's make it fun for the kids. Let's invest in charitable works. Let's work and invest in institutions."
These are all what Ramadan is about, what the remainder of Ramadan is about.
Kai: What do you mean as a new Red Brown Dad? What are your intentions then, now, and how are they different? I hear you're saying you don't want to pass on whatever frustrations you had in the past or the ways you struggled with Ramadan, but in a proactive way, what are your intentions now for this year as Red Brown Dad?
Ahmed: I think I'm intending to really settle roots in a community. When I was in New York, I had a couple of different communities that I would move around, like Islamic Center at NYU, and then some local places in Harlem, where I used to live. Now, in Chicago, I have something that is really in my neighborhood and is investing in the local neighborhood and is a place where I can take her regularly, she can meet other kids. That's really important to me, and to volunteer as well at those institutions because it is very close to me, thankfully.
I suppose also some of the health aspects. I think the other element that I want to say is this is one of the things that you'll see on the Muslim internet, is how do you keep your physical fitness going during this time, and a lot of people or some people workout before the fast start, some people work right before or right after. For me, none of that has worked. I'm committing this year to just doing an uncle walk, putting my hands behind my back, and pacing my partner like my dad did, that's like keeping being easy on myself.
Like doing 15 or 20 minutes of walking during the fast in my house or more is an investment in my physical health as well, and keeping the rest of the year, all the effort I've done and keeping healthy going.
Kai: We've got a couple of minutes before we have to take a break, but one of the things I want to ask you about is that a lot of your work as a journalist has been about celebrating and exploring the plurality of Muslim culture, which we're hearing even here in this show. I do think that diversity may be something that many non-Muslims feel to see. Can you just talk briefly about the breadth of it here in the United States?
Ahmed: Sure. I think the rotating stars that I mentioned earlier is a great example of that. Everyone has a completely different tradition. There's family traditions, there's cultural traditions, there's regional traditions as well. This thing that I mentioned that there was one of our community members did a Cajun fried turkey. That Bilal's famous halal Cajun fried turkey. This was local to us. This was a local tradition in Saginaw, Michigan where I grew up, and it became part of our Ramadan ritual.
Sadly, brother Bilal has passed away, so I no longer have access to that, but there's a ways in which these become part of our experience. Also, I haven't reported on this for many years, there's the long history of Black American cuisine and mustards around the United States. We'll see. Like last night, I had some great mac and cheese and collard greens. That was delicious, but also, there's also all the immigrants bringing the wide diversity of experiences.
I learned a little bit today about the East African Indian Muslim community from a source I talk to that they have this thing called kuku paka, which is a smoky chicken coconut-based curry, which it's smoky coals and that's delicious. Never heard of that before. I can't wait to try it one day during Ramadan.
Kai: It sounds delicious. We need to take a break. I'm talking with James Beard Award-winning food journalist, Ahmed Ali Akbar, about Ramadan, and the ever-evolving traditions of this holy month in a wildly diverse Muslim American community. Coming up, we'll take more of your calls and talk more about the food. What are you eating and why? How has that changed over the years? Stay with us.
It's Notes from America, I am Kai Wright. We're celebrating Ramadan this week. It's day four of the holy month for Muslims all around the world. We are talking with Ahmed Ali Akbar, food journalist and host of the Radiolingo podcast, and we're taking your calls. We want to hear from you about your intentions, we want to hear from you, if you celebrate Ramadan, about how your traditions have changed over the years.
We're about to start talking about what you are eating, but before we get to more calls, I do want to also bring in somebody else, Ahmed, one of our producers, Rahima Nasa, who you have met, and is going to check in on a project she's working on. Hey, Rahima.
Rahima: Hey, how's it going?
Kai: Very good. Rahima is doing this cool thing where she's taken over our show's Instagram account for the month to share her own Ramadan with all of you dear listeners. Rahima, why are you doing this?
Rahima: Well, as a kid, I remember my parents really going all out. Just making lots of different foods and all these people would be in our house and they would sit on the floor of our living room. It was just a really memorable time, but since I've gotten older, I've gotten further away from all of that, and my Ramadans have just always creeped up on me. I thought if I documented this journey on Instagram, it'll help keep myself accountable and also just find that joy again, I felt as a kid.
Kai: Why do you think it crept away from you as you put it?
Rahima: As you get older, there's work, there's jobs, there's all this stress that comes into your life, and you're just like not thinking about it. It's like not as front of mind as opposed to when you're a kid and there's someone else like your parents doing the making of the food for you and making an effort to make it special.
Kai: Okay, so then what are you exactly going to be doing with our shares Instagram account then?
Rahima: All right, so every Monday, I am going to be making a post or a video, and some of the posts are going to be about me cooking a Ramadan dish from a different culture. Others will be about what I'm thinking and doing throughout the month. The first one is going to come out tomorrow and it's actually about me going to the grocery store in Bay Ridge Balady, which is the one we heard on the show earlier, and about what foods I'm drawn to and what that whole experience is like.
Then, the following week I'm planning on cooking two dishes from Somalia by Ifrah Ahmed, one is this honeycomb cheese bread called rooti farmaajo and another is like fava bean stew, and I really want our listeners on the show to share what's on their iftar table and I hope they do that.
Kai: Okay. Listeners, follow along and chime in. Our handle is @noteswithkai. That's K-A-I, if you don't know how to spell my name. You can follow Rahima's journey, and when you post your own meals, tag the show's handle so Rahima can see it. Again, that's @noteswithkai on Instagram. Thank you for, Rahima.
Rahima: Thank you.
Kai: Let's go to Minneapolis. Let's go to Tofik in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Welcome to the show.
Tofik: Yes. Thank you very much. Ramadan Mubarak, everyone.
Kai: Back to you. Am I pronouncing your name correctly, first off?
Tofik: Yes, correct. [crosstalk]
Kai: Thank you. Go right ahead.
Tofik: I agree with the idea of there is polarity of traditions within the Muslims from a regional and country perspective, but the core principle, it's the same for all Muslims, that besides different foods, it is to devote your time and your spiritual exercise to one of the five pillars of Islam, which is fasting from all day. That somehow builds the habit of becoming a better worshipper and helping the people in need.
For me, I grew up as a Muslim, within a largely Muslim society, one of the guiding principles that I know it's a set of discipline, which something that Ramadan requires to have that discipline, to fast, to always be closer to God, and also, give charity to those who need the most.
Kai: Well, thank you for that reflection, Tofik. Ahmed, what I hear the point here is that we're talking about the diversity of the experience, but there is a common through line here.
Ahmed: Right. I think that's an incredible thing that I learned about Islam in my time at Harvard Divinity School, and through mosques, is this idea that for my Islamic education through the mosque system is, essentially that there are many schools of thought in Islam. For instance, I'll speak from my own practice, I'm a Sunni Muslim, there's four legal schools of thought that are widely recognized, and they have different interpretations of things. Yet, despite the fact that they may disagree on for instance, what things may invalidate your fast, they still come together and agree that the different interpretations are correct.
The caller made a very good point in the sense that there's a core element that unites us all, but we also accept that there can be some differences in opinion, and still come together and do this practice. At its core, it's still shared. There's some very basic things like the core pillars of Islam that are shared and agreed upon, for instance, as a Sunni Muslim in those four schools of thought.
Kai: Well, okay, let's dive into the food though. I'm sorry if that sounded flipped, but I've been promising--
Ahmed: No, I'm almost about to break my fast, Kai, I'm barely holding on here.
Kai: We have an award-winning food writer with us. You're Pakistani-American, you grew up in the Midwest, how did these two parts of your identity shape what was on your table during Ramadan?
Ahmed: Right. Well, I'll start with, perhaps a slightly unusual thing, which is not what we would have when we break the fast but after the night at the mosque, we would always go to my parents' Dairy Queen. They ran a Dairy Queen. The kids, of course, I think we said many times out, they tried to make it a time of joy for kids. There wasn't much in the way of South Asian food, you couldn't really go out for Pakistani food or Lebanese food, or really much halal food at all, in my childhood. This Dairy Queen was actually halal and some items.
That was the one place where we could go because my parents ran it, and you could get like, for instance, a halal beef bacon burger. Ice cream run after prayers has become a lifelong tradition for me. [chuckles] When I'm out with my friends after we break our fast, I always just go, "Anybody who wants ice cream?" Everybody is like, "After that breaking fast, you would have ice cream?" I'm like, "Yes, I'm just so used to it now." That's a major part of it.
I think we also went to Taco Bell for several hours because there was nothing open at 4:00 AM in the morning. It was the only place that you could go to Taco Bell and IHOP.
Kai: Rahima has said that IHOP is a very important place to be at 4:00 AM during Ramadan, I couldn't understand why because it's open.
Ahmed: It's open. Because it's open. It's not that it's the most delicious place, but I will say that things have changed, that there are spots that are opening up in different locales. One very infamous and famous place that has great coffee is Qahwah House, which is a Yemeni coffee shop. I think it's in Detroit, it's in New York, it's in Chicago. Anytime I talk to sources about what their Suhoor ritual is, they say, "Qahwah House is the most packed and popular place on a night for young Muslims." Things have changed.
Despite the fact that there wasn't much access for me, besides the Taco Bell and IHOP, there are places run by mostly Muslims who are catering to that need of young Muslims to have a place to go because that's really what happens is like, for instance, in my parent's home country of Pakistan, you could really stay up from your fast-breaking to your day of Suhoor beginning of your fast and the restaurants will all be open and you could either eat there, you could go out, you could go to the mosque. You can really choose what your Ramadan will look like.
If you want to stay home and also pray, that's also a hugely important part. I want to emphasize that. A lot of people have a very strong social spiritual practice that they engage in where they stay at home they read Quran. These are all the different ways that people engage in Ramadan.
Kai: Let's go to Faisal in Queens. Faisal, welcome to the show.
Faisal: As-salamu alaykum?
Faisal: Yes, I have decided to send a lot of money to Bangladesh for people who are starving. They're having difficulties because of the high inflation all over the world. Usually, every year, I do throughout the year, but this year in the Ramadan, I have increased my donation. I send money to my friends over there. They're feeding people every day. I want to stay committed to that.
Kai: Faisal, are you Bangladeshi?
Faisal: Yes, I'm from Bangladesh.
Kai: Got you. At what point did you look up and say, "Oh, wow, this year is particularly tough." At one point, did you say, "This is a particularly tough year for people I want to really be giving"?
Faisal: Yes, I had been preparing for this for the last two or three months saving some extra money because I knew this would be very difficult this year, because of the inflation. Even shopping here for us is very expensive, it's three, four times. Over there, their income has not increased, and the vast number of people are very poor. I would say about 80 to 90 million people are really destitute. I see it in my village, around the town, everywhere. People are struggling. I know them. Personally, I know them. [crosstalk]
Kai: Thank you for that. Go ahead. Go ahead, Ahmed.
Ahmed: Well, I know their staple is rice, flour, lentils, which are very nutritional, but affordable things have gotten to the point where families across South Asia I've seen it in other places from my own family members have mentioned that the price of these staples has really gone up. Even feeding a family is just extremely challenging with the inflation so I'd like to echo his point, for sure.
Kai: Well, let's dig into that just for a little bit, too. You mentioned COVID and the way that people rallied in the moment of COVID. It's been a challenging few years for the globe.
Ahmed: Yes, for all of us.
Kai: For all of us. I wonder how that in general has changed. Has that changed? Have you seen broader changes to this celebration that maybe focus more on the kinds of things that Faisal is doing?
Ahmed: I feel that it's a mix because I've certainly, I saw a lot of people focus on educational stuff, using Zoom that I think, has maybe somewhat fallen by the wayside, but maybe those lessons have fallen through where people are more intentional about inclusion about trying to broaden their reach beyond their local communities, but to the internet. It's a little hard to say. I will say that I feel like masking practices and stars are not the greatest, sadly to say, but it's hard to stop people from wanting to congregate and share their joy.
I also wanted to mention one other thing that I think would be a good indicator of the times, which is like I said, there's a lot of charity during this time as the last caller mentioned. There's websites like LaunchGood, which hosts a lot of different individual fundraisers. It's a Muslim Kickstarter. You'll see that there's a lot of 30 days of Ramadan, you'll see what people are specifically working on supporting during this time. I think if you go there, you'll really see the answer to some of your questions.
Kai, I don't have a great answer to you right now, but I would say that would be the place I would see, what are the kinds of things that people are looking to support? What are the institutions that people are looking to build?
Kai: In your essay and catapult that we talked about earlier about your parents and their health food comes up there too, but also something that feels related to what we're talking about here. You'd write about your father's distaste for waste, and how you struggle with the push and pull of consumption alongside his distaste for waste. Just talk to me about that a little bit and what he is trying to teach you.
Ahmed: Well, it's interesting to come from two different kinds of societies, one in which a waste is, for Pakistanis, waste is a huge, huge taboo. I was, I would say, roasted for the fact that there was chicken left on my bone, that there was rice left on my plate, like a single grain of rice. My parents were very quite nice about it, but they gave me this is an American kid that he hasn't finished every grain of rice on his plate. On the other hand, we live in a society in America, where overconsumption is a huge part of life.
The sizes that we get are much beyond what we really need, and it causes a lot of wasted food. I've also reported on food waste for the solvable podcasts, which like 50% of our food before it even reaches us is gone to waste. That is just a system that I think Muslims in general, and everyone should find abhorrent that people are hungry when so much is going to waste.
Despite that, you feel guilty when you get some ridiculous-sized portion in your DoorDash order or your takeout order, and you don't finish it, but it's a little bit of both. There's a contradiction, I think of living in America where we have so much and yet there's still so much inequality.
Kai: It comes together, it sounded like for you at least for a period in Ramadan that you paint this picture of you and your siblings carrying out these mounds and mounds of food and your dad being like, "What is all this?"
Ahmed: Yes, that's right. Yes, that's right. We always grew up feeding people. The thing that happens, I learned now that I'm an adult, and I'm somebody who has fed many people is, when you do a party, you have to be very good at-- you don't want to have not enough food because you want to be able to feed people, but you don't want to have so much food that it all goes to waste. It's a very mundane thing, but it takes on a religious quality for our spiritual quality for a lot of Muslims that we have to have a place to give this food.
If we're going to host for people, it should be in the spirit of feeding and not the spirit of waste or extravagance and there is a tension there I think during Ramadan that we are caught up in all the joy that communities really struggle with is what do we do with the extra food? What do we do if--? Then there's also the other aspect, I will say, which is that sometimes many people show up to mosques because it's the only place they can get a iftar meal that is nutritious and they have a community that can support them.
There's a lot of complicated tensions around food and waste here that I'm still grappling with. I think many people grapple with.
Kai: Ahmed Ali Akbar is a James Beard award-winning journalist. He's host of the Radiolingo podcast from Crooked Media and the founder and host of See Something Say Something podcast about the Muslim American experience. Thanks so much for this time and Ramadan Mubarak.
Ahmed: Thank you so much, Kai. I'm such a big fan. I'm so happy to be here.
Kai: Oh, we are happy to have you. Thanks to everyone who called in. As always, you can still talk to us at notesfromamerica.org. Just look for the little green record button on the homepage and leave a voice message right there. Please do join our producer, Rahima Nasa for her ongoing Ramadan takeover of our Instagram. Our show's handle is @noteswithkai, that's noteswithK-A-I. Rahima is exploring the meaty foods of the Muslim diaspora as she breaks fast throughout the month. You can join her by tagging us with your pics of whatever you are cooking.
That's @noteswithkai on Instagram. Notes from America is a production of WNYC studios. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts. Our theme music and sound design is by Jared Paul. Milton Ruiz was our live engineer this week. Recording, editing, and producing by Karen Frillman, Vanessa Handy, Regina de Heer, Rahima Nasa, Kousha Navidar, and Lindsay Foster Thomas. André Robert Lee is our executive producer. I'm Kai Wright. Thanks so much for spending this time with us. Ramadan Mubarak.
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