Taste of Freedom: Ramadan - #112

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar and it is during this month that Muslims observe the fast of Ramadan. They fast during the day and at night; they eat small meals and visit with friends and family. It is a month of worship and contemplation. A time to strengthen family and community ties.

The first Muslim to arrive in the Americas that we know about was a Spanish explorer who showed up in 1527. He was part of a commission sent by the King of Spain with instructions to colonize Florida. He traveled throughout the southern part of the United States and was probably the first European to see the territory that is now the state of New Mexico.

Today Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States. There are over twelve hundred mosques in the U.S. and more than half of them were built in the last twenty years. Over five million Americans worship in these mosques.

FAWAZ GERGES ON CAMERA: Islam and Muslims believe in the people of the book in Judaism, as the first, you might say, word of God, and then, Christianity as a follow-up. But to them, Islam is the, although it's really, you might say, an extension, that it's the most correct, the final word of all prophecies.

According to Muslims, Islam is the religion accepted by Allah, God.  And it has five pillars. First, to witness that Allah is one, that is, Islam is a unitary religion, and Muhammad is messenger.  To pray five times a day.  To fast in Ramadan.  To give and to go on el hajj, the pilgrimage.  These are the five pillars of Islam.


BURT WOLF: During Ramadan, the entire Koran is read, one-thirtieth each night. Mosques are designed to produce an environment that is conducive to reading, prayer, introspection and learning. Very often, you will find people sitting in quiet spots and just reading.

JOSEPH LUMBARD ON CAMERA: There are a lot of challenges right now but America is a crucible for Islam. That is to say all Muslims come from around the world and they bring their cultural traditions but here they all come together and they start to realize that their cultural traditions are not Islam. And so they come, when they see an Arab, when an Indonesian sees an Arab or a Chinese sees an Arab or vice versa they start to realize that many of the things that at home they had associated with Islam are actually not part of the faith and so in a sense we burn all of those cultural creations away in the process of getting down to the roots of the religion and also creating a new mode of living Islam which is culturally relevant for people who are born in this country.

SHAMSI ALI ON CAMERA: Islam is a universal religion. Though Islam appreciates the cultural disparities.  Whenever Islam comes to certain places Islam tends not to demolish the culture, but Islam is universal teachings. But Islam at the same time wants the Muslims to understand the realities where they live in.  So that's why when the Muslims, for instance, coming from different parts of the world and they are here in the United States, it is very important that the Muslims understand the realities where they live in. For instance, the Asian people, they have their own dress. The Arab people, they have their own, and even Islamically speaking, it is not really desired when you dress strangely and you consider it to be Islamically.  You know, coming to the, to New York City, for instance, you dress Arabic dresses and then you say that these are Islamic dresses.  That's really undesirable in Islam, because Islam doesn't want you to be distinctive and make the people strange. We are not living in the camel era anymore.  We are in the global world.  We are in the modern world, and I think we need to modernize our minds as Muslims in understanding our religion.

BURT WOLF: At the Islamic Center in Washington D.C., over sixty-five different nationalities come to pray. Dr. Abdullah Khouj is the executive director of the center and its mosque was dedicated in 1957.

DR. ABDULLAH KHOUJ ON CAMERA: It took ten years to complete all this architecture you see, now, you see this around you, are the Turkish tiles, which were handmade in Turkey, and the gentleman who made them, came himself here and installed them.  And then we have this chandelier over here; it weighs a ton and half.  It came from Egypt, and it's actually from the Fatima design.  It's made out of copper. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Was she the daughter of Muhammad?

DR. ABDULLAH KHOUJ ON CAMERA: Fatima is the daughter of Muhammad. And all these calligraphy you see, they are Arabic calligraphy, and they are verses from the Koran. Starting from here, it goes this side, “God is the light of heaven and earth, the example of His light is like a candle in a chandelier, to light over the world”.

A mosque should be plain and that is to concentrate on prayers and your relationship with God. This is why it's prohibited, totally, to have any kind of pictures or animals or human beings, statues, at all, in the mosque.  Even this one, too much decoration should be plain. This is the Mihrab. It is a destination to Mecca. And the verse here it says, we see your face turning to the sky and we’ll forward you to the destination that you accept.


BURT WOLF: The fast of Ramadan is a time of worship and contemplation when Muslims say “no” to the desires of the flesh and “yes” to the word of God. It is a time to learn about self control, not unlike the opportunities offered during the Christian period of lent or the Jewish holiday of Passover.

SHAMSI ALI ON CAMERA: According to Islam, human desires are natural, and they are not supposed to be killed, but they are supposed to be controlled, so we are the masters of our own desires.  We are supposed to have control over them.  So we use our desire in a way that God pleases with.  We have desire to eat, to drink and to have relationship with our opposite sex, with our wives or husbands.  But Islam teaches that you have to have control over these desires, so that's why for one full month, Muslims are training themselves not to eat, not to drink, not to have that relationship during the day time, in order to train themselves.  And also fasting teaches the Muslim to be more kind to others, because by abstaining from food you can feel what the unfortunate people feel, so that's why Prophet Muhammad even called this month as the month of charity.

BURT WOLF: The daily fast is usually broken by eating three dates and taking a sip of water, which is how Muhammad broke his fast during the time he retreated to meditate.

The date may be the world's oldest cultivated fruit.  There are seven-thousand-year-old sculptures that clearly show the date palm.  The date's been a basic part of Middle Eastern agriculture for centuries.  The Arabs brought the date to Spain and the Spanish missionaries brought them to California. As a matter of fact, the first date planted in California, was planted in a town called Mecca.  Dates are often called nature's candy because of their sweet taste and caramel flavor.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During Ramadan breakfast must be eaten before the day begins. The ancient test for that is your ability to distinguish between a white thread and a black thread using only natural light. If you can tell the difference the day has begun and so has your fast.

BURT WOLF: Dedicated Muslims come to prayer five times each day.

SHAMSI ALI: Why Muslim pray five times a day?  Why is not only three times, or two times or let's say once in a week?  We start our day by praying to God, by having connection with God.  Noon prayer is considered to be the busiest kettle of any human beings.  But still you have to find some time to pray to God. Afternoon prayer. You need to end your daily activities with a prayer, by having connection with God.  And sunset prayer, it is considered to be the end of your day, so you need to have a spiritual connection with God, so you pray to him.  And the last one is before bedtime prayer, it is also, as we started our day with a prayer, we end our daily life with a prayer before we go to the bed. There is no space in our life except that we have connection with God, and this what Islam wants us to be. 

SHAMSI ALI ON CAMERA: In other words, I would like to say that Islam wants us to have our feet in the earth, but have our head in the heaven.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The 27th day of Ramadan has a special evening known as “The Night of the Decree”. It marks the night when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran. Tradition says that on that night any prayer or good deed will be rewarded many times over. It’s also used to mark the passage of young girls into adulthood.

BURT WOLF: The passage is also often marked with henna.

STEPHANIE RUDLOE ON CAMERA: Henna is a natural dye, and it comes from the henna plant, which grows in very hot dry climates.  It is believed to originate in India, in Persia and Egypt. It has been used for centuries as a dye for the skin, hair and also for cloth.

STEPHANIE RUDLOE: People paint themselves with henna for adornment and for celebration, and in particular in Morocco it is done because they believe that henna contains this quality called botika, which is having magical healing properties and positive energy.  And this presence of botika is believed to infuse the henna plant and the women in Morocco who are nagotha henna artists, they also bring that energy of the botika, that positive energy and the blessing on to the person that they're painting.  So one of the reasons why they will do henna or is around celebrations or life passages that they believe someone could be susceptible or vulnerable to the evil eye. 

When I paint someone with henna, I begin by cleansing their skin with orange blossom water, which is a traditional thing that is done in Morocco to greet and bless your guests.  And then after that I always look at someone's hand to just kind of get a feeling as to where the henna would be the most beautiful.  I approach the henna as jewelry.  Traditionally in Morocco, henna is always done up to the wrist bone, covering the entire surface of the whole hand.  When I paint people here, I work in a much more minimalistic motif, maybe doing something in the center of the palm or the top of the hand or rings on the finger, or some kind of a diagonal.

And what is interesting about this is in fact, for the Ramadan henna designs, this is very similar to how they paint the young girls in Morocco.  They don't usually do a whole thing on their entire hand, like a bride.  They may simulate the bridal ceremony, but usually it will just be something that is like a diagonal starting from the wrist bone across the fingers, and then maybe a diagonal on the palm or a central design on the palm of the hand, to ward off the evil eye.

STEPHANIE RUDLOE ON CAMERA: There are several very common motifs that you see in Moroccan henna patterns. Most of the marks are repeat geometrical patterns that are all based on pretty much about protection from the evil eye. A very typical Moroccan design is to see a diamond motif with a literal eye in the center of it. Another very typical Moroccan design is to see the diamond motif with a floral design in the center of it. And the floral designs are a traditional design for bringing fertility and abundance to the wearer. And these are all designs that are meant to deflect the evil eye and to protect your love and to protect the wearer from covetedness or jealousy or any kinds of negative energy.


BURT WOLF: What you eat each night to break the fast of Ramadan depends on where you come from. Muslims from the Middle East serve spicy pastries filled with vegetables or meat or a loaf of flat bread sprinkled with black cumin seeds. North African Muslims tend to eat a protein-enriched soup in order to energize their bodies after the long fast.

Hamid Idrissi was born in Morocco. Today he is the co-owner and chef of Tagine, a Moroccan restaurant in New York City. As a middle child, he was assigned the task of helping the family cook. He spent hours watching and learning the delicate and complex techniques of the Moroccan kitchen. Quite often his family would host meals for more than a hundred relatives, friends and neighbors.

HAMID IDRISSI ON CAMERA: My father was sort of Imam, so he has lot of people come to, kind of he was the leader of the town and my mother always constantly cooking and a lot of people come and help her cook and also in the kitchen.  And I found a lot of fun to see how much like activities in the kitchen and how many things they are doing. And when I came to United States, it's too hard for me to adjust to American taste.  So I would just get the ingredients and make Moroccan cuisine for myself.

BURT WOLF: The dish that is most commonly served at Ramadan in Moroccan homes is harrira. Hamid serves his version at Tagine. It’s a soup made from chickpeas, caramelized onions, lentils, and an assortment of vegetables, tomatoes and spices.

HAMID IDRISSI ON CAMERA: There's a lot of different ways to make harrira.  Harrira is every family does it its own special way.  But there is one common way of they all do it the same, is the way when they boil tomato into broth before they mush it up with flour and they mix it with flour, to kind of add the mixture of tomatoes and flour to the broth back and stir it before they serve it. 

BURT WOLF: Along with the soup, Moroccans break the fast with dried fruits, coffee, tea, salads of roasted peppers, spinach, spicy carrots and eggplant, Morocco’s national dish, couscous, and a variety of sweets including a specialty of Hamid’s.

HAMID IDRISSI: Shebekia is made from semolina flour, sesame seeds, and it's rolled and cut into special shape to look like a little nest. 

BURT WOLF: The meal also includes tagine.  The word tagine refers to both a dish and a pot for making it, like the word casserole. The dish is a savory stew native to North Africa. For Ramadan, Hamid makes a lamb tagine with prunes.

HAMID IDRISSI: The way I make the lamb tagine, I get the best part of lamb, baby lamb.  And you put onion in the bottom and you place it like a pyramid way, leaving if you can little air in between.  Then you top it with some prunes and you mix all the spices in little water.  You pour it in about cup of water.  And you start on low heat.  And you keep raising it to less than the medium. 

BURT WOLF: At the pre-dawn meal, Moroccans typically eat soup and a crepe that’s served with butter and honey.

HAMID IDRISSI: In the morning, before the fast began, we eat melwi.  Melwi is a semolina bread, which is pan-fried and it's kneaded for a long time, so it will be served with honey, with butter. And some people like to have like protein.  They eat some leftover from tagines, or so whatever you can eat.  But usually they don't eat fruits, like raw fruit at that time.  They eat something they can go back to sleep.  So most likely is melwi. It will fill up your stomach and give you energy for long time.

BURT WOLF: At Hamid’s restaurant, you can get a taste of true Moroccan food and experience Moroccan culture.


BURT WOLF: One of the fastest growing segments of the Islamic community in the United States is made up of African-Americans. Yusuf Saleem is the Imam at mosque Muhammad in Washington D.C. He believes that African-Americans are attracted to Islam because within Islamic tradition the black community is fully accepted.

YUSUF SALEEM ON CAMERA: I think what happens is, I'm not going to say racism is prevalent, but that we cannot doubt the subtlety and existence of racism.  And I think in coming into Islam, your identity is equal. Equal. In other words, the Koran says that God has honored all the children of Adam.  So that means you're on equal par with everybody.  And the exterior has no meaning, importance, except to identify.  So you look a certain way because if you looked just like me, I wouldn't know you.  So you look a certain way, so I am aware of you.  And I say I look a certain way.  But this is just a shell.  Just a vessel to carry the real spirit and nature of me.  I think that's a tune that is attractive to many African Americans.  We feel a certain sense of equality and we feel a certain amount of being legitimatised. That we're a human being of self worth.  And we can achieve just like any other ethnic group.

BURT WOLF: Every evening at sunset during Ramadan mosques throughout the world serve meals to the hungry. They are following a commandment from god to give to the needy.

WOMAN SERVING FOOD ON CAMERA: I comes early so I can make them a good meal, you know, cause when you comes off a fast. That’s my blessing. I get blessings for coming feeding all the hungry people that have fasted so that’s why I push myself and I’m here everyday, see that they get a good meal. We’re having turkey, string beans, potato fluff, fish and tossed salad and cabbage. And my sisters they all come in and we help. And we fasting too. But we have to cook the food without tasting so we just pray and hope that the food tastes good because we can’t taste it.


BURT WOLF: The Night of the Decree celebrates the moment when Muhammad received the first revelation of the Koran. Joyous festivities begin that night and build for three days until the last night of the month. The next day, which is the first day of the new month, is known as Eid. It is a time to wear new clothes, eat big meals with lots of sweets, and pass the day with your family and friends. It’s also a day when you’re asked to donate a portion of your wealth to the needy.

SHAMSI ALI ON CAMERA: Our nature is to know our God, to be more close to God, to be a more righteous person.  This is natural, this is the human nature, you know, to be kind to God, to be kind to other people, to be kind to our fellow human beings.  So, the Eid Al Fitr actually is the day of victory for the Muslims, because they consider this to be a victorious day over their human desires.

BURT WOLF: Because the Koran has not changed since the time of the prophet, much of Ramadan’s celebration has remained the same. But it is almost impossible to come to the United States and not be influenced by America’s popular culture. The giant fairs that are held to celebrate the end of Ramadan often illustrate that point.

FAWAZ GERGES: Like other people all over the world, I think Muslims immigrate to America to improve, to seek a better life for themselves and their children.  America in the eyes of many Muslims and many people in the world including myself, provides an economic opportunity, you might say, an access to climb the social ladder.  But also, I would argue that unlike other people in the world, Muslims come to America to seek freedom.

FAWAZ GERGES ON CAMERA: There is considerable political oppression in most Muslim countries and contrary to the conventional wisdom, the majority of Muslims are attracted to and fascinated with the American idea.  The American dream.  The notion of freedom.  Of an open society. 

BURT WOLF: Ramadan begins with the sighting of the new moon. In the United States, most Muslim communities follow the dictates of the Islamic Society of North America in Plainfield, Indiana. Four officials confirm the sighting and its scientific base and they must do this within four hours after sunset on the East Coast. One result of this approach is that you are not sure when Ramadan will begin or end until one or two days before the event. If nothing else, the process reminds you that life is controlled by nature, and flexibility and faith are essential. For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.