A community in Ramadan, a family for Eid

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Last Sunday, an estimated 15,000-20,000 people piled into Toyota Park, the home of our local MLS soccer team, to celebrate Eid, the holiday marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. In the wake of recent attacks against Muslims in the waning days of the month in the US (8 attacks in 11 days), including 2 mosque attacks and the desecration of a Muslim grave site in the Chicagoland area, Muslim leaders invited Illinois Governor Pat Quinn to attend the Eid prayer.

In stark contrast to Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh (R), who’d recently told his constituents at a town hall meeting that Muslims “are trying to kill Americans every week” and whose district is home to 8 mosques, Gov. Quinn attended the Eid prayer ceremony and signed a religious tolerance bill afterward. I am proud of Gov. Quinn for working with his Muslim constituents and publicly demonstrating that Illinois will not tolerate faith-based discrimination. I’m even more proud of my Chicago Muslim community for their political maturation – two decades ago, many people in that community believed that participating in the American political process was haram and discouraged fellow Muslims from voting in local and national elections. It seems amazing now that the same community would fill Toyota Park and welcome the highest elected official in our state.

However, I didn’t celebrate with the congregants of the mosque I grew up attending; I didn’t offer my Eid prayer in a massive soccer field with the Governor of Illinois – I prayed with a few dozen Muslims, most of whom I’d known only for a few months. We offered our Eid prayers together, in a park near Chicago’s magnificent Lake Michigan and enjoyed a truly international potluck brunch under the shade of the trees. I’d made a conscious decision, as my mother went abroad at the beginning of Ramadan, that I would seek a new community with whom I would experience the holy month.

My friends and I regularly attended lectures together, joined community iftars and stayed up all night to enjoy pancakes and waffles at 24-hour diners for suhoor, forging strong bonds – the bonds that can only be forged with people who don’t blink an eye at the suggestion to drive up to the Loop for Taraweeh (nightly prayers Sunni Muslims offer during Ramadan) at a city mosque after a community iftar at the south side of Chicago highlighting interfaith cooperation in the aftermath of the desecration of a local Muslim gravesite. Friends who would drive back to the south side for an all-night, all-women’s prayer-a-thon and decide to return to the city after dawn, to watch the sun rising along the Lake Shore and offer prayers to the One who allowed us to spend His holy month together. How could I not celebrate Eid with these lovely people – longtime friends and recent, Muslims new and old; blacks, whites, Arabs, South Asians, Latinos and East Asian; converts and lifers?

Throughout Ramadan, my roommate and I deliberately cultivated a community that wasn’t ethnically or geographically based. We hosted an iftar inviting our friends, new and old – many of whom were converts to Islam or recent transplants to Chicago. We appropriated some of our mothers’ dishes, learned that Sudanese hibiscus juice beats out soda among Muslims breaking their fast and started our own Ramadan tradition – creating ever-fancier trifles to present to our friends and neighbors. Though I’m partial to the sea salt caramel/pretzel trifle, the Oreo/halal marshmallow trifle won a lot of accolades at an iftar hosted by our friend, a new convert who was celebrating Ramadan for the first time and kindly allowed the local public radio station to document her experience.

Copyright Ehab Ghoneim

In the last month, there were a series of anti-Muslim incidents at mosques around the country and ugly words were uttered by elected officials in my state. 6 Sikh lives were taken in a horrific massacre by  a white supremacist in a Milwaukee suburb.  A mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground. Racist ads against Palestinians were funded by Pamela Geller’s hate organization in San Francisco. In the face this religious bigotry, the interfaith community has stepped up. A Christian student helped to start a fund to rebuild the Joplin mosque. Jewish synagogues hosted Muslim neighbors for food and prayer. Interfaith movements swelled up to honor the Sikh fallen and to condemn the climate of hate that has been tacitly allowed to fester by some of our nation’s politicians. Other elected officials – including the President of the United States – took the opportunity to host iftars for their constituents and reiterate their support for a pluralistic society. In the last two years, the rise of Islamophobia dominated my Ramadan experience. These types of stories – negative and positive – would have occupied my mind while I was fasting; I would have spent hours compiling articles and videos to share on my blog and through my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I would have wanted to hear firsthand what my Governor has to say about opposing racism and bigotry.

All my life I’ve had a global concept of community. Being the child of immigrants innately widened my consciousness of the different narratives of which I’m a part. Stories of discrimination from around the world hurt me personally. And the grandeur of the Olympics is often the highlight of my quadrennial. In the decade since the attacks of 9/11, I’ve worked with Muslim communities all over the United States, offering interfaith seminars and trainings on civic engagement. But this Ramadan, I made the conscious decision to try to focus on cultivating my relationships with the people around me. It wasn’t a perfect experiment. I still kept up with the news; though I missed most of the Olympics, I still somehow managed to read several articles about the racial politics around Gabrielle Douglas’s hair. And I learned that my temper could be very, very short when I’m deprived of food, caffeine and water for 16 hours a day.

“And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth, ‘You owe me.’ Look what happens with love like that. It lights up the sky.” – Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi

Two days before Eid, my friends and I decided to watch the sun rise at Lake Michigan. We arrived at the lakefront about an hour before the sun rose; the lights of the Adler Planetarium could not decrease the beauty of the night, which was bejeweled by stars and the planet Venus. Our conversation was peppered with exclamations of how beautiful and quiet the sky and sea were, how lucky we were to live in Chicago, how we hoped that Chicago’s Muslims would celebrate Eid on the same day, irrespective of whether they followed moonsighting or calculations. We recognized that our Ramadan friendship, cemented by praying together at sunrise along our lake, had bonded us for life.

This Ramadan, though I distanced myself from the news of the world somewhat, and spent my days and nights with the same group of people throughout the month, I felt my sense of community and family grow larger. The two young South Asian men who waved and mimed “Happy Ramadan” to us outside a diner in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood became my community. The beautiful people – the recent converts and lifelong Muslims, the Chicago transplants and the international visitors – with whom I spent many nights praying, eating, holding intense discussions and laughing became my family. My roommate, a fabulady I’ve known since before she was born, has always been my sister.

As night descended upon us on Eid, my friends and I found ourselves sitting on a large prayer mat at the north side of Lake Michigan. The night sky was clear, the stars were twinkling subtly against Chicago’s bright lights. We’d just finished the night prayer. My friends and I were sharing our narratives of how Islam, and also, our local and national culture, has shaped our lives. I didn’t need to celebrate with 15,000 people that morning. I didn’t need to watch the Governor sign a bill on religious tolerance. I spent the day celebrating with the right people, my people.

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