by Sara Elhassan (@BSonblast)
"So yeah, the first group of guests will come this Friday"
"Sounds good. You should make a list of the things you want to make for fatoor [iftar]"
"Yeah, I did, I'll send you the spreadsheet"
Every weekend this Ramadan, my brother has hosted a group of friends and/or neighbors to partake in iftar. For Mohamed, the goal was two-fold; on the one hand, he wanted to introduce the people around him to his religion and culture. But more importantly, he wanted to give his 3 year old daughter a positive introduction to Ramadan, creating an atmosphere of celebration that would set the tone for her future interaction with this time of the year (and ultimately, this pillar of her faith).
And because my brother is a nerd, Microsoft Excel had to be involved. (I love you)
As impressed as I was by Mohamed's endeavor, my little-sister-instinct was to be skeptical (although, thankfully, I had the foresight to keep it to myself...until now). How was this going to be presented to the guests as a true iftar, rather than just a regular-degular dinner? Also, while I had met some of my brother's friends, I didn't know many of the people who had been scheduled to come over (on the spreadsheet), and I was concerned. How much did they really know about Islam? Would they eat gurrasa [a flatbread of sorts] and mula7 [the sauce that goes with it]? What do we do about prayer?
More importantly, how was this experiment (see, skeptical) going to teach my toddler of a niece about Ramadan, particularly when her bedtime is a full half hour before sunset?
Nonetheless, I was down for the ride, and called the experts (read: my mother) for advice. "Into musta'jileen malkum? [why are you in a hurry] Wait for me to come so I can help you." Help. I saw right through her wording - my mother obviously had very little faith in my brother and I's cooking skills. I won't lie, I was insulted. "Ummi, this isn't a Sudani impromptu invitation, these people have scheduled. We'll be fine."
Mohamed's longtime friend Larry was in town, and he was the first guest I experienced - a great way to ease an introvert like me to this (wildly social) experience. Dubbed "waladi" [my son] by my mother, Larry was part of the family - and he proved it by showing up in full Sudani garb (minus the turban), much to my brother's delight, who immediately took off to change into his own jallabiya and tageeya [pictured below].
Excited to be twinning in their matching outfits, Larry and Mohamed insisted on accompanying me to the supermarket, proudly showing off their Sudani swag (while they joked about getting arrested for being dressed the way they were). As I walked down the aisles flanked by two boisterous (read: goofy) dudes in jalaleeb hell-bent on embarrassing me, I couldn't help but feel a sense of pride to be in the presence of such a loud and clear representation of my culture and heritage, particularly at a time when America is not at its most tolerant or accepting.
"What's that? What's it for?"
As I mentioned, my niece is 3 years old, which means that she asks a lot of questions. This month has been very educational for her, broadening the horizons of both her mind and tastebuds. By the end of the second weekend of iftars, she had taken to making her parents promise to save her some of the meals. "Tell Baba not to eat all the food."
Being a toddler also means that she forgets a lot of the information she's given. Before the start of the month, Mohamed and Jen (his wife) took time to explain - in terms that a toddler can digest - the concept of Ramadan and the great celebration ahead. This, of course, took some time to sink in. "Baba, do you want some?" was a common question, followed by the common answer, "Baba saayim habiba, ma bigdar yakul ma'aki, 'ashan Ramadan" [Daddy is fasting, dear, he can't eat with you because it's Ramadan].
Repetition is key.
Repetition was a theme on the adult front as well. As group after group entered Mohamed's home, he told them the 'story of Ramadan', and walked them through the meal they were about to enjoy. Like I said, I wasn't sure how much my brother's friends knew about Islam, and assumed it wasn't much. But I was surprised at how little exposure people had to a religion that has been such a hot topic for politicians, news anchors and society at large for years now.
If my brother's friends - liberal, open minded, educated people - had these gaps in their knowledge of Islam, then is it fair to be surprised that others also do? Is it fair to be surprised that Islam has been so easily wielded as a tool to strike fear and distrust in people's hearts?
I had been internally struggling with some aspects of these iftars, most notably praying in front of people. A part of me felt it a little exhibitionist, a little performative. I knew that my feelings were coming from a place of paranoia, sparked by the culture of islamophobia in which we're living that makes Muslims fearful of demonstrating any aspect of their religion, as well as the counter-movement of "Look, Muslims are just like you!" that, while well-intentioned, seems like pandering and feels demeaning.
But then, what was there to perform? I'm in my brother's home, breaking my fast and doing all the activities that go along with it, including praying. I am living my life, as I have lived it, with or without guests. To interrupt that, to change that routine to accommodate for "outsiders" would have been to give in to the exact forces I was resisting.
And I was right, I was being paranoid. None of our guests cared, and continued to have their conversations (albeit in hushed tones) while we prayed.
So what's the end result? We still have a few more to go, but I'd like to think that through these iftars, Mohamed has succeeded in bringing people together, and giving them a non-sensational, normalized look at Sudanese and Muslim life. At the very least, he exposed them to some great food (because as Sudanese, we throw down in the kitchen and you can fight me on that).
But then again, this also happened:
On Saturday, about half an hour or so before iftar, one of my brother's guests sweetly and absentmindedly offered my father a glass of water, which he had just gotten for himself. My 3 year old niece, who was up past her bedtime, jumped up and in a bold (read: accusatory) tone, said, "Why did you do that to my grandpa! It's Ramadan!"
So, if I may say so: mission, accomplished.