Ramadan in Gainesville has international flavor

Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 10:38 p.m.
Ramadan, the ninth and holiest month on the Islamic lunar calendar, begins next week, and for Muslims living in Gainesville, it brings many opportunities and a few special challenges.
Ramadan begins with the first sighting of the new moon on Tuesday. It was during Ramadan that Muslims believe that Allah first began to reveal the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. For the 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide, the observance of Ramadan includes sunup to sunset fasting, abstaining from all food and drink. Along with faith, prayer, charitable giving and a pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting at Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
In countries where Muslims make up the majority, observance of Ramadan permeates the culture and social activities. But that's not the case in Gainesville. Danette Zaghari-Mask, a board member with the Council on American-Islamic Relations Florida Chapter, says Muslims may get invitations for lunch or offers of snacks during the day from coworkers, friends and classmates who don't know of Ramadan and its special requirements.
Zaghari-Mask says it requires walking that line of being polite and remaining observant.
"Ultimately you choose to observe your religious fast," she said. "People are usually very sweet about it once they know."
She also understands how keeping track of when Ramadan falls can be a challenge for non-Muslims, since it is tied to the Islamic lunar calendar, not the solar-based Gregorian calendars most people have hanging on the wall.
"It's roughly 13 days earlier every year; this could be a source of confusion for people who want to know precisely when Ramadan begins," she said.
While the observance is often a time where families come together to break the daily fast at sundown, in Gainesville, with its heavy student population, families can be across the country or half-way around the world. Ahmad Shelbaya, who lists his home as Palestine, has lived in Gainesville for two years studying civil engineering at the University of Florida. He does observe Ramadan, but says it is different being away from home.
"It gives a special twist for Ramadan also," he said. "It's a special month."
Part of that special seasoning has to do with the multi-cultural makeup of the local Muslim community. Aqueela Khuddus is originally from India and has lived in the United States for 38 years. She and her husband, Shaik A. Khuddus, raised their three children in Fort Pierce, where the Muslim community is much smaller. There, when her children were younger, she would volunteer as a homeroom mother and would explain about Ramadan and special festival to the students.
Now her three children are grown with families of their own and are all working as physicians at Shands at the University of Florida. Khuddus and her husband moved to Gainesville seven years ago to be close to the children and their seven grandchildren.
"We have people from all over the world that come to the two mosques," she said.
And, she said, those cultural difference are most evident as families whose roots may go back to Sudan, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, India or Saudia Arabia sign up for the honor of bringing the food to break the fast in the community evening meal.
"You go each day, you don't know what you are going to eat, as each day is an international affair," Khuddus says.
And it's sharing of more than food.
"It's like a family away from home," she said. "It's a very bonding time."
Omar Ishaq, a member of Islam on Campus, is a third-year microbiology student at UF who grew up in Panama City. He says when he first arrived in Gainesville three years ago, and Ramadan arrived, he found himself missing the special meals that he shared with his family. But mosques in Gainesville reached out to students.
"They go out of their way to provide us with a nice dinner each night," he says. "You get to meet a lot of students you didn't even know were on campus."
And friendships that may start at the mosques are nurtured during this time.
"During Ramadan they're strengthened because all of the students are going through the same things," Ishaq said.
Zaghari-Mask is an attorney in Gainesville. She recalled that one year when she was in law school, Ramadan arrived just about the time of final exams, so there was fasting and daily trips to the mosque to balance with school.
"It's a whole month long, it's not like you're going to delay your exams," she said.
Ramadan's spiritual side brings more time of reading and studying the Quran, committing acts of kindness, prayer and reflection, what Zaghari-Mask calls "quieting the anxiety of the soul."
"In a way it helped me focus on school," she said.
A year ago Khuddus opened Chutnees, an Indian restaurant. It's open six evenings a week and serves a lunch buffet on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, even during Ramadan.
"We'll be serving lunch, even though we're fasting ourselves," she said.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.

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