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Muslim Mainers welcome Ramadan, a month of prayer, daily fasting, and community

Woman makes a salad while a man pours the contents of a pan into a serving dish. Two younger boys take plates out of a cabinet.
Ari Snider
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Maine Public
Mashan Manahe, left, transfers a meat dish from the stove while his wife, Zainab, makes a salad and their two sons, Omar and Nasir, get plates out of the cabinet. The Manahe family enjoys a variety of specialty food during Ramadan, including dates, sambousas, and sweets.

On a recent evening, Zainab Manahe was frying sambousas over a grill set up in the garage at her home in Gorham. The small, meat-filled pastries sizzling in the pan are a staple at her family’s dinner table during the month of Ramadan.

Speaking in Arabic while her son Nasir interpreted, Zainab explained that after fasting all day, it’s important that the evening meal, called iftar, is filling.

"At the end of the day, [it] has to be something nutritious and you have to get yourself full because your body has suffered throughout the day," she said.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Zainab’s husband Mashan showed off another Ramadan specialty – dates.

"We have many kinds of dates, I will show you," he said, holding up one of the plump brown fruits. "This is the dry one. And this is the soft one."

A glass bowl filled with dried dates.
Ari Snider
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A bowl of dates sits on the Manahe family's kitchen counter. During Ramadan, dates are a staple of the family's evening break the fast meal, called iftar.

Islam follows the lunar calendar, and Ramadan will begin either on April 2nd or 3rd, depending on when the new crescent moon is first seen in the sky. The month commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.

Mashan said he, Zainab, and their two teenage sons, Nasir and Omar, will mark the month in the traditional way, by praying, reading the Quran, and fasting each day from sunrise to sunset.

"We love Ramadan," Mashan said. "Ramadan, it’s a peaceful month."

The Manahe family is from Iraq, where, during Ramadan, Mashan said it felt like the whole country was celebrating. Here in Maine, Mashan said he treasures the time spent praying with his family during the holy month, often late into the night after dinner.

"I was very happy when my sons pray with me and we share my culture and we share my religion," he said.

Zamzam Hussein, a mother of three who lives in Portland, said sharing religion between generations is a central part of her Ramadan as well. Hussein is originally from Somalia, and said she tries to connect her three young children with the traditions that she grew up with.

"And I try make the foods that we used to eat at that time, I try to tell them stories of the things we used to do," Hussein said.

A woman wearing a blue headscarf and blue dress stands in front of a brick wall.
Ari Snider
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Zamzam Hussein, of Portland, says daily fasting during Ramadan helps cultivate gratitude by teaching people to appreciate the goodness in their lives. She says that appreciation in turn often serves as encouragement to give charity to those less fortunate.

While young kids are not expected to fast, Hussein says her eight-year-old daughter wants to do what the adults are doing. So Hussein says she’s offering her daughter a compromise of fasting for just a few hours, just as her mother did when she was a kid.

"I tell her, 'Okay, you're gonna do that, you have to wake up early in the morning, eat, but then noontime, you can start eating,'" Hussein said.

And while fasting is a big part of Ramadan, as a way to cleanse the soul, Hussein said for her, this month is also about spiritual growth and developing personal qualities.

"Like patience, perseverance, paying charity, gaining connection to God and connection with everybody else in the community and your family," she said.

And, after two years of pandemic disruptions, this Ramadan will offer more opportunities for connecting in-person at the mosque, said Ahmed Abdirahman, education and outreach coordinator at the Maine Muslim Community Center in Portland.

"This year, I have been getting calls saying 'Are we coming in together again?'" Abdirahman said. "I was saying, ‘Yes!’"

Abdirahman said there’s a lot of excitement about welcoming people back to the mosque, because connecting in-person is a big part of what makes this month special.

"Ramadan pulls the community together," he said. "There is a sense of togetherness, a sense of, you know, let's pray together."

A woman fries small dough dumplings while her family looks on.
Ari Snider
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Zainab Manahe fries sambousas and other Ramadan specialties in her family's garage in Gorham, while her husband Mashan and two sons, Nasir (left) and Omar look on. Nasir said for him, the smell of sambousas is synonymous with Ramadan.

As the sambousas sizzle in the pan at the Manahe family’s house, 14-year-old Nasir said he's looking forward to the sense of tranquility that this month brings.

"It’s such a peaceful month," he said. "Every time I come home I hear Quran playing, I settle myself."

His 12-year-old brother, Omar, said he’s looking forward to the after dinner prayers, reading Quran and telling stories with his family.

"It's just different," Omar said. "There's something about it that just like makes it happier."

Ramadan will last until the next new crescent moon is sighted in the first days of May.