Apart from her colorful
hijabs, or head scarves, Ramadan is the most visible expression of Amina
Darwish's Muslim faith. The chemical engineering graduate student
at the University of Cincinnati can't wait for the season of fasting and
feasting, which she calls a sort of "spiritual bootcamp," to begin
When she talks about the holiday, she becomes even more animated and her large
brown eyes widen with enthusiasm. "I am sad when (Ramadan) is ending and I
miss it until the next year when it comes, because it's just so
beautiful," says Darwish, an executive board member at the Clifton Mosque.
She is far from alone. As Cincinnati's population becomes more and more
culturally diverse, a growing Muslim community will be observing the holy month
in Cincinnati right along with her. According to Islamic tradition, Ramadan
marks the month when the Muslim holy book, the Quran, was revealed to the
prophet Muhammad. Muslims are required to fast -- which means to abstain from
food, drink and sexual activity -- between sunrise and sunset for up to 30
But to the community members that attend the Clifton Mosque, the fast is about
far more than merely not eating. Darwish's friend, Karen Dabdoub,
explains that Muslims are also encouraged to "fast" from spiritually harmful
activities like gossiping, lying or being too short tempered.
"It's like Lent -- you're
supposed to give something up," says Dabdoub, a smile quickly spreading
over her ivory cheeks. "And it better be something more than chewing gum!"
Dabdoub is executive director of the local chapter of the Council on
American-Islamic Relations -- CAIR
for short -- an organization dedicated to strengthening understanding between
Muslim Americans and their neighbors.
She says that concern for
the hungry is another component of Ramadan for the Clifton Mosque. During past
Ramadan celebrations, Darwish has had the job of gathering the leftover food
-- the nightly dinners at which Muslims break the fast after sunset -- and
taking the food to the Drop Inn Center to be
distributed to the homeless.
"It just gives you an
appreciation for food and an appreciation for other people and what other
people go through," she says.
Faisal Khatri, a medical student at The Jewish Hospital in Kenwood who also prays at the Clifton Mosque,
sees Ramadan as a "training month" for the entire year. "You are consciously
controlling anger and emotional highs and lows," he says.
Khatri's family was one of
the first Muslim families to worship as part of the community that would become
the Islamic Association of Cincinnati, the group that operates the Clifton
Mosque. His family moved to Cincinnati while Khatri was still in elementary
school in the 1970s.
They began worshipping with
a small group of Muslims in the basement of a house on Fairview Avenue. As
Khatri grew up, got married and had three
children, the Islamic Association of Cincinnati also grew. Leaders
purchased a building on Clifton Avenue and later a larger mosque in West
Chester called the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati.
For his part, Khatri emphasizes how Muslims must also refrain from bickering
and work on their patience during the month of Ramadan. But Ramadan isn't only
about reflection and self-denial.
The Iftar meals that the faithful gather for
after sunset are among the most festive and joyful occasions of the year.
Khatri was born in Karachi, Pakistan, and he remembers how everyone in the
community there participated. The entire neighborhood traveled down decorated
streets to eat together at the mosque. "It's just simpler and on a much smaller
scale [in Cincinnati] verses a large communal scale," Khatri says.
But just because the holiday is less grandiose in Cincinnati doesn't mean that
Ramadan doesn't have a charm of its own here. Dabdoub, a Cincinnati native,
says that, based on the number of people that attend weekly prayers and holiday
festivities, she estimates that there are about 45,000 Muslims in Greater Cincinnati.
Part of what makes
Cincinnati's Muslim community unique is its diversity, she says. In other parts
of the U.S., like Chicago or New York, the Muslim community is large enough to
have separate mosques for each ethnic group -- so they aren't all worshipping
together. But in Cincinnati, a single mosque serves many.
Families from India and
Pakistan, African Americans and Arab Americans, West Africans from Senegal and
Mauritania and even a few from Eastern Europe and Central Asia -- all of them
are represented at the Clifton Mosque.
Iftar meals are one of the
best ways to experience local Muslim communities. A self-described "foodie"
like Darwish loves to sample dishes from all over the world. But she still
gravitates toward an Arab dessert, qatayef, that is
part of her Egyptian family's tradition. "Ramadan's not the same without it!" she
says. Qatayef is a sort of fried pancake stuffed with ricotta cheese, custard
or nuts and dipped in rich, sugary syrup.
Khatri looks forward to his mother's samosas
every year. Both the Khatris and Dabdoubs
often break the fast with dates and water, which is tradition among many
Muslims because the Prophet Muhammad is said to have done the same. "The best
ones are the big fat juicy ones from California, the Medjools,"
In addition to nightly
dinners at the Clifton Mosque -- which are open to the public -- the Clifton
Mosque also partners with CAIR and local charities to present several Ramadan
events for the public. Other mosques in the area, including the Islamic Center of Greater Cincinnati in West Chester, Masjid Ar-Raheem
downtown and Mosque 5
in Norwood, also hold public events through the holy month.
Dabdoub sees the holiday as a chance to counter stereotypes about violent
extremism and sexism she knows many associate with Islam. The need for outreach
became especially clear after the Clifton Mosque was pipe bombed
in 2005 and again following recent controversy over a planned mosque in
Kentucky. Ramadan is a chance for Muslims to reintroduce themselves to
"The vast majority of
Muslims here and around the world simply want to live their lives in peace,
take care of their families, raise their kids, get them through school and get
them married off," Dabdoub says with a laugh and a nonchalant shrug. "You know
-- just normal stuff."
Ramadan begins Monday,
Aug. 1, 2011, and ends with the Eid Al-Fitr celebration on Wednesday, Aug.
During the ninth annual "Ramadan
in Over-the-Rhine," Sunday, Aug. 7, volunteers from the Clifton Mosque and CAIR
will converge on the corner of 13th Street and Vine in
Over-the-Rhine, put up tents and offer free food to any hungry person who
wants some -- which is very much like what is done for the needy in Middle
Eastern cities during Ramadan. The event will also include a canned food drive,
a clothing drive and free health screenings from the Muslim Clinic of Ohio. The
event takes place between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Want to volunteer? Call 513-281-8200.
Clifton Mosque members will also participate in an "Interfaith Iftar," Friday,
Aug. 27, sponsored by CAIR in conjunction with Franciscans Network and Mother
of Mercy High School. Participants bring potluck
dishes that reflect their own culture to eat together. Muslim and Christian
youths will deliver presentations about the meaning of fasting in both
religious traditions. The event takes place at 7:30 p.m. at Mother of Mercy
High School, 3036 Werk Rd. Reservations are required. Call 513-281-8200 or send an email to reserve a seat.
Geoffrey Dobbins is freelance journalist based in Cincinnati. He learned how to
write for magazines, newspapers and blogs while studying journalism at the
University of Cincinnati. Between runs to the comic book shop, he's been a
contributor for Cincinnati Magazine, The Nation.com and WireTap magazine.
Photography by Scott Beseler
View out the window of the Clifton Mosque
Shoe racks before entering the prayer hall
The facade of the Clifton Mosque