Muslims have just begun the fasting month of Ramadan. While fasting is a difficult, sometimes uncomfortable religious obligation, most Muslims say Ramadan is probably the most enjoyable time of the year. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the American Midwest, thanks to an active Islamic center, members of the Muslim community meet almost every night to break their fast, socialize and worship.
During Ramadan, observant Muslims everywhere refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to sunset. After sunset, there is usually a festive dinner when Muslims break their fast. Othman Atta, President of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, says almost every evening, Muslims of various ethnic backgrounds meet in the city's mosque.
"We have people from the sub continent: Pakistan, India and Kashmir," he says. "We have individuals from many of the Arab countries: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Sudan. Any country that you pick, we have people from there. We have people from other countries: Thailand, Bosnia and Albania."
Ramadan, Atta says, is a time for Milwaukee's Muslim community to draw even closer, and the nightly Iftar dinners showcase its diversity.
"You have individuals from the Pakistani community that are coming in. They are going to make some biryane, some different foods that are native to their culture," he says. "The next day, you might have individuals who are Palestinians. So they might have maqlouba or some dishes that are native there. Next day, you might have kabsa from people who are from the Gulf. You might have some food from North Africa. So it's very varied and it's nice!"
Janan Najeeb, an active member of the congregation, says Ramadan dinner at the mosque gives community members a chance to take care of one another.
"What happens is that families come. They cook or donate to have the food purchased," she says. "Then we have for example all of the students that don't have family members or individuals in the community that are maybe low-income along with the rest of the community coming and sharing a meal together. And this goes on for an entire month."
After Iftar, she explains, Muslims do Ramadan's special prayers.
"We have Taraweeh prayers taking place every evening," she says. "We have men, women and children participating equally in the Taraweeh prayers." Najeeb adds that several times during the month of Ramadan the entire community spends the night praying together.
The evening Ramadan functions at the mosque appeal to Mohamed Abdel Rahman, 24, who says he finds them very interesting social occasions.
"We have gatherings and Iftars during Ramadan," he says. "I invite my friends, my colleagues from work."
Inviting non-Muslims to the evening activities is an on going tradition at the Islamic center, according to Janan Najeeb.
"We designate a special day when we bring in several hundred non-Muslim guests," she says. "We have them participate in our Iftar. Some of them will even fast that day to feel what it is like to fast. They break their fast with dates as we do. They will come and watch our prayers. We give them a talk about Ramadan, and we talk about what Ramadan is for us and what we do during Ramadan. At each table we set it up so that we have Muslims and non-Muslims so that they have an opportunity to interact with us and ask us questions."
It's through such events, Najeeb says, that Muslims not only enjoy their religious celebrations, but also boost understanding of their faith and dispel negative views of Islam in the local community.