The annual period of fasting called Ramadan has begun today for observant Muslims across the world. What does that mean? In a nutshell, no eating or drinking from sunrise until sunset -- and in August, that's no easy task.
In an op-ed from today's New York Times, physician and blogger Hesham Hassaballa writes that fully observing Ramadan has become increasingly difficult over the last 10 years, as the lunar calendar pushes the month-long fast further into the long, hot summers.
Here in Houston, where the Muslim population is more than double the national average, this means that -- today, for example -- you'll have to wake up and have your suhoor (pre-dawn breakfast) before 6:40 a.m. and then wait until at least 8:15 p.m. before you can have anything to eat or drink again. Yes, even water.
The bright side is that Ramadan only lasts for 29 days this year. And those 29 days are followed by 29 nights of iftar dinners.
Iftar is the daily breaking of the fast, which occurs after sunset and after evening prayers. Iftar can be a simple meal at home, or it can be a huge event with friends and family. It can even be a meal with strangers, as it often is for so many Muslims away from home. For example, head to any Pakistani restaurant after sunset during August to see strangers breaking bread with each other over an iftar dinner. The point, after all, is fellowship after a day spent in contemplation of one's spirituality and relationship with God. Or fellowship after a day spent being completely distracted by hunger pangs. Either way.
Iftar dinners can careen into the sublimely bizarre, like this $150 a person iftar at the Hyatt Regency with the Democratic congressional leaders in Houston, which includes Sheila Jackson Lee who is -- and I am not kidding -- apparently the Chair of the Pakistan Caucus. Considering that one of the primary tenets during Ramadan is charity, I sure hope that $150 is going somewhere good.
There are less expensive and more educational iftar dinners available, however, if you're truly interested in learning more about Ramadan or simply eating a good meal with friends. Take, for example, the 2nd Annual Pink Iftar Dinner on August 18, held at Christ Church Cathedral. The $45 cost goes to benefit Brigid's Place and the dinner includes a discussion from Dr. Elora Shehabuddin of Rice University on Islam and feminism. (You knew that was coming when I wrote "Pink Iftar," right?)
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And then there's the big, citywide iftar dinner coming up this weekend on August 6. On Saturday night, over 1,500 Muslims are expected to attend Mayor Annise Parker's annual Ramadan Iftar and Dinner at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The dinner is free, sponsored by more than 30 different restaurants and social organizations in Houston, but reservations are required.
After all this, though, there's a reward to come after a very long month and long days of fasting: Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival of big meals and plenty of sweets, insha'Allah.