During her evening lectures at Oregon State University, during the month of Ramadan, Mehra Shirazi will make her way to the lectern, pick up a bottle of water and join in a ritual with thousands of other Muslims in Oregon. Shirazi opens the bottle and drinks a bit of water and with that breaks her daily fast. She then keeps lecturing to a room of students who probably don’t know they just watched an iftar.
Hers may be the smallest iftar. Usually this meal, which breaks each day’s fast from food and water (cigarettes, too, for the smokers), brings family and friends together. That’s how the potluck iftars go at Shahriar Ahmed’s home in Cedar Mill, across the Sunset Highway from Beaverton. Several families from Bilal Masjid, the mosque Ahmed helped start in 1994, along with a couple non-Muslim friends gather for the meal. On the counter in the kitchen there’s a Thanksgiving-sized array of Indian and Bangladeshi samosas, fried dal and small curried dishes. A main course of chicken and beef is hidden away in the oven, warming.
As the sun’s light slants and warms and then fades to blue, a minor argument breaks out among three of the men about whose watch runs fast or slow and whether it’s too soon to break out the dates, the traditional first course for iftar. One of the teenagers undercuts the dads’ analog argument and declares with the authority of a smartphone app that today iftar starts in two minutes.
As he eats, Ahmed says, once again, that when he moved from Bangladesh to the United States in the early eighties he never thought he would be hosting a Ramadan meal with Muslim and non-Muslim friends. Not only is the multi-ethnic collection of guests a change, much of the rest of his day is different than it would be if he still lived in Bangladesh.
In countries with predominant Muslim populations, the rhythm of life shifts hard when Ramadan begins. Shops and offices run short hours, restaurants close during daylight, people nap for hours and, most importantly, a fasting person has solidarity with most everyone else around. Here in Oregon, few coworkers or classmates know about the holiday or its daily trial, and an observant Muslim here doesn’t get a month-long slowdown in work to help get her through. Instead, it’s a month spent declining offers for lunch and coffee and explaining over and over a prime tenant of Islam.
For Ahmed, continuing a normal pace of life and talking about his faith refines the spiritual focus he senses as he fasts. He works normal hours with normal duties; he even hits the gym. “I think it’s much easier to be a more ideal Muslim here than in other parts of the world,” he says.
The rites of Ramadan don’t end with iftar. There’s a nightly prayer, called tarawih, only done during Ramadan, and while it’s not required most Muslims try to attend mosque for the prayer. Tarawih lasts nearly an hour, sending people home at midnight. The Islamic calendar is lunar, so the time of Ramadan shifts forward about two weeks every year, meaning the month isn’t restricted to a particular season. This Ramadan, with the sun coming up early and setting late, the fast begins at 4 a.m. and won’t finish until 9 p.m. People will wake to eat and drink water before the first prayer at dawn. They’ll get a bit more sleep before beginning the fast in earnest, one more day of thirty.
Are you Muslim? What is Ramadan in Oregon like for you?
- Muhammad Najieb: Imam, Muslim Community Center of Portland
- Mehra Shirazi: Professor, Oregon State University
- Maysa Shakibnia-Shirazi: incoming freshman at Oregon State University