This week, Muslim American poet Najeeba Syeed-Miller took the holy month of Ramadan to a new and unfamiliar audience: low-income and mostly Latino children who live in the Maravilla Housing Development in East Los Angeles.
Syeed-Miller said she asked the students to draw pictures of their own conflicts, and to share the stories about their fights. Then, she explained how Muslims tried to fast from both food and anger during Ramadan.
"I was trying to make connections between Ramadan and their own lives," she said, "and explain that you could break your fast on a spiritual level as well as a physical one."
The foray into East Los Angeles represents one of many new ways that Muslims are sharing Ramadan with the broader non-Muslim community. Such efforts multiplied after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks sparked widespread public curiosity -- and some hostility -- toward Islam, and seem to be reaching new levels today.
Around the world this week, more than 1 billion Muslims began observing Ramadan, a season of spiritual rejuvenation marked by fasting from dawn to dusk, charitable acts and special prayers. The fasting by healthy adults is aimed at developing self-control, better health, greater consciousness of God and compassion for the poor and hungry. The month of Ramadan also marks the time that the Koran was first revealed by God through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad.
But in the United States, where ethnic and religious traditions are so often shared and intermingled, Ramadan is becoming a season of spiritual reflection for many non-Muslims as well.
Some people are trying the fast or joining interfaith and intercultural fast-breakings known as iftars. The Muslim student associations at USC and UCLA, for instance, are recruiting non-Muslims to join a "Ramadan fast-a-thon" to raise money for health care and hot meals for the homeless.
At UCLA, Muslims have lined up several local businesses to pledge $1 for each person who fasts for a day, and recruited members from such campus organizations as the Progressive Jewish Students Assn. and the Indian Students Union to participate, said Mariam Jukaku, president of the Islamic group.
The fast-a-thon "will help share the ideals of Ramadan with non-Muslims -- the self-renewal and sacrificing of material things in order to remember God," Jukaku said.
Sam Soleimany of the Jewish group said he was planning to participate both to raise money for the hungry and to build better relations with Muslims on campus. Although he grew up hearing stories about life in a Muslim country from his Iranian immigrant parents, Soleimany said that this year would mark the first time he has ever participated in any Ramadan events.
At Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles on Nov. 15, Muslims will share an iftar with a diverse group of other Southern Californians who plan to present a program of poetry and music on issues of peace, justice and civil rights.
The program will feature a choral poem that explores parallels among the deportations of Muslim noncitizens since Sept. 11, the relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II and the repatriation of Mexicans in the 1930s. In addition, poems written by the East L.A. children will be read by them around a peace altar, candles will be lighted in remembrance of those displaced and a Native American friendship dance will close the ceremony.
The program is the brainchild of Nobuko Miyamoto, a Senshin member and artistic director of Great Leap Inc. whose own outreach toward Muslims began at home when her son embraced Islam. Her collaborators include Syeed-Miller and Ruben Guevara, a Mexican American writer and performer who had never met a Muslim before this project and knew little about Islam.
All 12 performers are fasting on Tuesdays before their rehearsals. Miyamoto plans to fast for the entire month as a way to "show solidarity" with her Muslim neighbors, understand their experiences and gain spiritual benefits.
"It pulls you into yourself and makes you more thoughtful," Miyamoto said of her fasting so far. "It also makes you feel more peaceful."
As Ramadan gains wider public recognition, some businesses are also capitalizing on the tradition. For the first time ever, Hallmark Cards Inc. is offering a line of greeting cards pegged to the Islamic holy season. The Kansas City-based firm this year launched a small product line of greeting cards for Eid-ul-Fitr, the joyful occasion marking the end of the monthlong fasting season, after what a spokeswoman said was a "big increase" in requests for them over the past few years.
Hallmark spokeswoman Deidre Parkes said the cards have been a hit and have already sold out at most of the 500 retail stores offering them.
The cards "seemed to be a natural," Parkes said. "We were honestly surprised it was picked up as quickly as it was."
Other businesses have also recognized the growing clout of Muslim consumers. Staples, for instance, began including Ramadan on its desk calendars about five years ago, and Microsoft offers an automatic feature to list Islamic religious holidays on its Outlook calendar. Some Muslims say they have seen Ramadan and Eid greeting banners in banks and other offices.
The growing mainstream recognition startles people like Omar Ricci, co-owner of a software company and a board member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.
Fifteen years ago, he said, he began trying to get office supply companies to list Ramadan on desk calendars and was most often greeted with blank stares.
" 'Who are you guys again? Who are Muslims?' " Ricci said he was typically asked.
Such unfamiliarity still exists in some quarters. At Party City in Pasadena, for instance, a store clerk said the firm carried products for Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Asked about Ramadan products, he responded: "Never heard of that one."
Still, Ricci said Ramadan and Eid have grown tremendously in recognition both inside and outside the Muslim community. Nowadays, he said, he and other family friends make it "a big, big day" with presents and a trip to Disneyland for their children, along with the holiday prayer service.
Outside the community, Ricci said, his non-Muslim business partner and friends are now familiar with Ramadan and take a personal interest in it -- asking him how his fasting is going, for instance.
"People know about it, and they're fascinated by it," he said.