Shadia: A time of faith and festivity too

Do you know how Christmas is supposed to be about faith?

That's what Ramadan is supposed to be about too — God.

But like Christmastime, Ramadan, for some, becomes a time for lavish dinner parties and uncontrollable spending.

For producers and television stations, it's time to make money from special soap operas (which come right out of Egypt, the Hollywood of the Middle East).

Ramadan is supposed to be the month of feeding — feeding those in need, feeding your soul. But for some people and cultures, it's the month of gorging after sunset and seeking entertainment.

It's restaurants and food retailers' chance to make the most money.

And like with Christmastime, certain foods and drinks are associated with Ramadan (definitely not honey-baked ham).

In Egypt, pastries are a big thing. At least, they were in my childhood, and they continue to be in my home here. (It's all my mom's fault. I'm not the one making it — I'm just eating it.)

It makes sense because fasting results in sugar cravings, but that's probably why the Prophet Muhammad used to break his fast with dates.

Breaking the day's fast with dates was recommended by the prophet. They were also a staple food during his time for their ability to be preserved, and withstand the harsh weather and travel conditions.

Most Muslims break their fast with dates, sometimes with a glass of milk.

For Arabs, one of the popular pastries associated with Ramadan is "attaief," a pancake-like dough stuffed with nuts or cheese, deep-fried then submerged in honey (yep, very fattening). There's also "kunafa," which is shredded dough that's also filled with nuts or cheese, baked and then covered with honey (not as fattening, just pretty fattening).

And instead of eggnog during Christmastime, Ramadan drinks include apricot juice mixed with dried fruits, such as figs and apricots.

There are also those who stay up all night during Ramadan and sleep for most of the day, which totally defeats the point of fasting.

You might not notice these cultural aspects of Ramadan in the United States as much as you would in, say, Egypt.

But if you are familiar with the area in Anaheim known as Little Arabia, you'll see some of these practices. Little Arabia is filled with restaurants that prepare buffets for iftar — the fast-breaking meal at sunset — with a variety of foods, and some provide entertainment afterward.

When I told a friend who is familiar with the scene in Anaheim that I was going to write about this, he used the term, "Ramadanian tents."

I hadn't heard that term before, but basically, because restaurants are busier than usual, the owners set up tents to provide extra seating. This practice is very popular during Ramadan in the Middle East. After sunset, the tents house guests who are there for entertainment that includes hookah, tea and music.

In a way, even if you're a devout Muslim who frowns upon all the cultural practices and special foods, it's difficult to dissociate yourself from them all. I'm sure there are many Christians who celebrate Christmas for all the right reasons, but still probably take advantage of the sales, deals and festivities that come with the holiday.

I haven't been doing much since Ramadan started, other than working, fasting, praying, eating at sunset and going to the mosque for taraweh — the extra daily prayers — as often as I can.

So this past weekend, I decided to experience Ramadan from both the spiritual and cultural perspectives.

I attended Jumaa, Muslims' weekly Friday sermon, at my mosque. I hadn't attended Jumaa during Ramadan before. The sermon was about Islam's third pillar: Zakat, or alms in English. I also attended a community iftar at the mosque with my mom and aunt, staying to pray taraweh afterward.

Saturday, however, I took a different route and attended a concert and had suhoor, which is eating before dawn, at a restaurant.

Saturday happens to have been the day when Niyaz, a Persian mystic music group my friend Meesh and I love, was playing at Grand Performances in Los Angeles.

We attended, and to my surprise, the group had a Sufi whirling performer. Sufi whirling is a form of meditation originated by some Sufi Muslims and practiced during their religious ceremonies. The idea is that while one is whirling, he or she discards all worldly desires and focuses on a relationship with God.

I had never seen this dance live before, and it was interesting to watch it unfold so majestically.

I had planned on coming back to Orange County for suhoor with friends at 2:30 a.m. at a restaurant in Little Arabia, but instead we went to an Arabic restaurant for a late dinner, then met up with a couple other friends at another Arabic cafe.

And what did I learn from all of this?

It's that I'm getting old and should not be staying up and out too late, especially during Ramadan.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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