The Holy Month
By Joshua Brustein
Residents along Steinway Street in Astoria are preparing for a
shift in their daily routine next month, as the Islamic month of
Ramadan approaches. Clustered around the Al-Iman mosque on Steinway
and Astoria Boulevard, Middle Eastern groceries, bookstores, clothing
shops, restaurants and cafes give this area its distinctive style.
When the Ramadan begins in early November, say local residents,
the Muslim and Middle Eastern character of the neighborhood will
become even more pronounced.
"As it is in the Middle East, people try to bring the same
flavor to the neighborhood," says Sharif El-Fouly, a regular
customer of the Egyptian café on Steinway, who lives and
owns a handbag factory in the area. Evenings are especially busy
on the streets, he says, as people walk to the mosque for evening
prayers or visit with neighbors. The events significance to
neighborhood residents affects the rhythm of life "dramatically."
The month of Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar,
marks Gods delivery of the holy Koran to the prophet Muhammad.
Adult Muslims observe this event by fasting during daylight hours
for the entirety of the month. Besides food, adherents abstain from
drinking liquids, smoking, having sexual relations, losing their
tempers, and lying. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, its exact
position on the solar calendar is only known the night before the
month begins. This year it will begin sometime around November 5th.
It is seen as a time of unity, both to local areas and to the larger
According to a 2000 survey of religious participation in America
by the Glenmary Research Center, there are 331,045 Muslims in in
the New York metro area. Africans, Pakistanis, Bagladeshis, Indians,
Bosnians, and Indonesians worship alongside people from the Middle
East, native New Yorkers, and Hispanic converts to Islam. The members
of 96th Street Islamic Center, the largest mosque in the city, represent
this diversity. The mosque looks to celebrate this diversity during
Ramadan by providing a place where people from disparate places
around the globe can celebrate their common bond. The mosque has
contracted several restaurants, serving Egyptian, Pakistani, and
African food, to cater the nightly iftar meal, and worshipers
from around the world will participate in nightly prayer sessions,
lectures, and songs.
But even though they do the best they can, theres no place
like home, says Omar Abu-namous, the mosques imam. Abu-namous,
a Palestinian, doesnt think that an American Ramadan can ever
quite compare to the feeling that one gets from being in a Muslim
country during the holiday.
"You dont find Ramadan outside the mosque [here], only
inside the mosque. In our countries in the Middle East you will
find Ramadan being celebrated
everywhere," he says. "When
you are in a Muslim country everybody is celebrating Ramadan and
all of the mosques are resounding with the call to prayer
celebrations are in every corner of the city."
But to Khadijah Muhammad, a life long resident of the New York
area who attends Al Iman mosque, the major theme of Ramadan
is consistent no matter where one fasts. Making a personal sacrifice
to God is the bread and butter of the observance, according to Muhammad.
She looks forward to Ramadan as a time of personal contemplation,
and finds the fast more cleansing than difficult.
"For the first few days your body is getting used to it,"
she says. "So maybe youre a little itchy or irritable.
Youre not used to it yet, and you might get tired a little.
Then when you get used to it, you dont want it to end. For
me, I have a hard time going back to normal."
The end of the fast, which this year will fall a few days after
Thanksgiving, is called the Eid Al-Fitr. This celebration is marked
by public prayer, which sometimes goes on for several days. During
this time, Muslims thank God for giving them the strength to fast
through the month.
But during this Ramadan, many Muslims have more on their mind than
their faith. The current political situation is proving to be a
strain on Muslim-Americans. For their part, many are trying to push
politics to the back burner and focus on the holiday
"We are not as joyous as we are in other years, of course,
because of concerns in the Middle East, and the expected war on
Iraq" says Abu-namous. "But this feeling will not keep
us from doing our duty to God."
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