At 4:50 in the morning earlier this month, Basier Aziz rode his bike across the deserted MIT campus to a grad dorm at the far end. There, pre-dawn, he found his friends flipping pancakes, making omelets, and watching TV.
Aziz had been looking forward to sharing suhur, the pre-dawn meal of Ramadan. During Ramadan, the fasting month in Islam which runs through October 23 this year, Muslims are prohibited from eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn until dusk. During this month, Aziz gets up alone, in order to have “enough fluids and some food to make sure not to be dehydrated or starving during the day.” Then, the 21-year-old computer engineering student prays and quickly catches a few more minutes of sleep before getting ready for class.
Ramadan is a family-oriented month, and Islamic societies at universities around town provide new sets of communities for students. Daily iftars (the evening meal after the day-long fast) are organized, as well as lectures, events, and the occasional suhur, which can involve trips to the all-night IHOP in Harvard Square.
Campuses throughout Boston have made Ramadan arrangements over the past month. At Boston University, the dining halls serve halal meals, food which meets Islamic dietary regulations. At MIT, around 80 Muslims share food that comes from a different restaurant every night. They have Middle Eastern falafel and baba ghanouj from Sepal Restaurant, Pakistani samosas from Madina Market, or lamb skewers from Boston Kabob House.
“We joke about what food we like best,” says Aziz, but he also points out that Ramadan is not all about food. The month has a social meaning, and sharing meals is an important aspect of this, but the true purpose is finding individual spirituality.
“We learn a lot from each other,” says Aziz regarding the varied traditions within the international Islamic Society group. Aziz’s pal Emre Açiksöz says he prefers Ramadan at MIT more than in his native Turkey, where everyone fasts and the streets empty when it’s time to pray. “It’s more of a cultural thing there; here it is more Islamic,” he says.
“Back home, it’s more mundane,” says Alizay Saeed, a freshman at Boston University, about Ramadan with her parents. “But here, coming together, you really feel the essence of Ramadan.”
“Ramadan really builds our sisterhood,” says Mariam Kandil, who gets up every morning with her sister Iman, and other Muslimas who share the same MIT dorm. “We feel much closer together afterwards.” Dalia Al-Hussaini, who moved from Jordan last year and lives in the same dorm as Mariam and Iman, echoes Mariam. “You get together socially, but also spiritually,” she says.
For Rameez Qudsi, 21, a Harvard Medical School student, Ramadan in Boston is completely different from Ramadan in his hometown in New Jersey, where there are “maybe a hundred Muslims,” he says. Here, with so many schools and events where Muslims can meet each other, “you really have a different kind of family,” says Qudsi.
But many students do miss being with family and long for the special Ramadan dishes from home. Rashma Hussam, 19, and her sister Tisneem, 21, miss helping their mother prepare Bangladeshi iftar dishes. “Typically we would have lots of fried food, like pakoras, but also haleem, a kind of stew, and kebabs,” says Rashma.
But people are just as aware not eating. “During Ramadan you are very conscious why you are not eating,” explains Emre Açiksöz.
For Basmah Rahman, 27, fasting “eliminates distractions in daily life.” The Ph.D. candidate at Boston University talks about re-evaluating the path she’s taking, as others might do for New Year’s resolutions.
Harun Spevack, 32, who is pursuing a PhD at Boston University, converted to Islam about eight years ago. At first, fasting was a personal challenge for him, but now it means much more. “The hunger pangs remind you of people who feel the same way. The difference is that they feel that way all day long. Ramadan is a reminder of your own blessings and a challenge to your ego,” he says.
“What I like about Ramadan is that everybody becomes equal. The rich guy or the poor one, no one eats,” says Mohammed Araghchini, an MIT grad student from Iran.
Many students say they get used to fasting after a while, although studying and concentrating can be hard at times. Trying to ignore your growling stomach is the best thing to do.
After thirty days of fasting, Muslims eagerly await the official lunar determination of the end of Ramadan, so they can prepare to celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, a three-day feast of family activities and socializing.
It’s easy to forget about rumbling stomachs or dry mouths, but the memory of the shared experience sticks. That is why going ‘back to normal’ for many students, such as Rameez Qudsi, is a mix of feeling “sad, relieved, and happy.”