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Keeping the faith: Getting ready for Ramadan in Clifton







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 August 1.


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 days.

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 from Iftar -- 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," Dabdoub says.

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 Florence, Kentucky. Ramadan is a chance for Muslims to reintroduce themselves to Cincinnatians.

 

"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 101

 

Ramadan begins Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, and ends with the Eid Al-Fitr celebration on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2011.

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

Amina Darwish

View out the window of the Clifton Mosque

Karen Dabdoub

Friday Prayer

Shoe racks before entering the prayer hall

The facade of the Clifton Mosque

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