The Ramadan fast, humbly observed, sweetly broken

At Manakeesh Cafe at 45th and Walnut, owner Wissam Chatila (left), his son Ibrahim, 8, Imad Chehab, and Adam Ali enjoy iftar, Ramadan's post-sundown meal after a day of fasting. Above right are hummus, fatayer (meat turnovers), and fattoush, a bread salad.
At Manakeesh Cafe at 45th and Walnut, owner Wissam Chatila (left), his son Ibrahim, 8, Imad Chehab, and Adam Ali enjoy iftar, Ramadan's post-sundown meal after a day of fasting. Above right are hummus, fatayer (meat turnovers), and fattoush, a bread salad. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 18, 2011

Over the sound of the air conditioner chugging away in the window, Imad Chehab lets out a longing "ahhh" as his friend reminisces about a sweetened drink made with dried apricots.

It is just past 7 p.m., about one hour until sundown and more than 13 hours since the first rays of sunlight began to appear in the morning sky, which was the last time Chehab and his companion ate.

Moments earlier, Chehab, 47, had explained quite forcefully that Ramadan was not about food but about discipline and getting oneself closer to God. But now the thought of childhood treats seemed to get the better of him.

"The drink, they sell it on the streets in Beirut," the software engineer explains. "This is making us very hungry."

Between sunup and sundown, the monthlong Islamic ritual of Ramadan centers on fasting, the act of depriving oneself of the basics of life - food, sex, even water. But once the sun sets and the fast is broken, that rigor shifts to a mood of festive relief, in which friends and families from Riyadh to West Philadelphia rush to the dinner table en masse.

The meal, iftar in Arabic, could be as simple as a bowl of lentil soup or as elaborate as a multicourse banquet. One night earlier this month the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects mosque in West Philadelphia served turkey hoagies for the evening meal, another night Ethiopian food.

"I ate sushi the other night," Omar Dimachkie, president of the AICP mosque, said with a laugh.

As is tradition, the fast is broken with dates and water, something to whet the appetite before the big meal.

Some return to the mosque for another prayer before dinner. But this is not required - Islam, while insistent that Muslims pray six times a day during Ramadan, is somewhat flexible on when.

Before kneeling in his office to pray, Dimachkie explains that the act of fasting is intended to humble Muslims, to remind them of those less fortunate. But it is also a break from everyday life. One woman described the monthlong holiday as not unlike a vacation.

In bygone days, Lebanese households would cook a dish and, once the sun had set, pass it house to house, their neighbors doing the same, creating a movable potluck dinner, explained Adam Ali, a pop singer from Beirut now studying at Drexel University.

"That way you got to eat everything," he said.

Nowadays, a restaurant will suffice.

Manakeesh Cafe in West Philadelphia, a modern Lebanese restaurant started by a doctor and his wife, serves a Ramadan meal each evening. Just don't plan to eat before sunset.

The rules of the house allow takeout on the condition that you agree not to eat it until after the sun is completely below the horizon. And Abd Ghazzawi, 24, general manager of the cafe, says he trusts his customers.

"I think some of them like it," he said. "If anything, they think it's cool to be immersed in the culture."

Ramadan dishes lean toward the simple and soulful - skewers of grilled meat with potatoes, hunks of fried pita doused in yogurt, chickpeas and chicken.

One night last week it was chicken and mallow, a leafy green prevalent in the Middle East that looks like spinach but is closer in taste to collard greens.

In the language of hosts worldwide, who suspect what they're serving might be spat out in a napkin, owner Wissam Chatila warned, "It's an acquired taste."

Fear not.

Around the table, my dinner companions surveyed the remains of the meal, contemplating whether to try and finish off the samosalike pastries filled with spiced meats and feta mixed with parsley.

By this point, eight days into Ramadan, their stomachs had begun to shrink and the temptation to gorge was diminished.

Conversation turned to the realities of Ramadan, the lost hours of sleep, the coworkers who ignored their fast and ate their lunches right in front of them at their desks. But there was the sense of belonging, too, an experience that set them apart from the rest of the world for one month each year.

Earlier, Chehab recounted how on a recent evening he had planned to be at the mosque for sunset, but he ran late, and of course there were no parking spots.

By the time he made it, it was well past the appointed hour for dates and water. But a produce vendor on the street, whom Chehab had never met, spotted him looking forlorn and asked if he'd broken his fast yet.

"He said come over and eat with me," Chehab said. "I mean, where do you see that?"


Contact staff writer James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or jaosborne@phillynews.com.

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