Ramadan in Detroit

Ramadan in Detroit

Here in Abu Dhabi Ramadan is essentially a national event, a month of family celebration as well as religious significance, with virtually every Emirati fasting.  In THE NIGHT COUNTER, Fatima doesn’t talk about Ramadan but she is someone who fasts the whole month.  Fatima spent most of her life in Detroit, which is the largest Arab community in the U.S., and Ramadan there is almost like being transported back to Beirut or Amman.  I know this because I spent quite some time there in 2003 working on a cover story for Saveur magazine on Ramadan, focusing in on the charming Rana Abbas and her family.  Much of what appears in THE NIGHT COUNTER about Detroit I learned on that trip.  On the occasion of Ramadan, here is that article again.

FROM SAVEUR MAGAZINE (Cover, December 2003)


For Muslims across the world, all roads lead to Mecca.  For Arab Americans, there’s a short cut that leads to Dearborn, an inner suburb of Detroit strung together by strip malls and fast food chains and anchored by the famed Ford River Rouge Plant, a National Historic Landmark that by the mid-1920s was the largest manufacturing complex in the world.  Arabic calligraphy forms the signs on many of Dearborn’s stores, Middle Eastern pop music booms from the car stereos of teenagers cruising the main drags of Warren Avenue and Schaefer Road, and the local MacDonald’s proudly serves halal Chicken McNuggets, i.e. chicken slaughtered by merciful Islamic law before it is compressed, molded, and shipped here.

Some say Detroit, with Dearborn as its hub, is the largest Arab city outside the Middle East.  Unquestionably, Detroit has loomed large in Arab American lore since the early 1900s, when the first wave of Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, arrived here to work on Henry Ford’s assembly line.  They have come from across the Middle East – from Yemen to Syria and Egypt. Each ensuing Middle East crisis has spurred a new wave, the largest being from Lebanon and the latest from Iraq, a steady stream that began after the 1991 Gulf War. White pages in the greater Detroit metro area are filled with Arabic last names, many of families who have long ago assimilated.

Arab Americans, like other ethnic groups, have remained connected to their heritage primarily through food, which aside from a shared language is the most common link amongst Arabs, no matter their original nationality or religion. Arabic food, give or take a few different spices, is Arabic food, and generations have come to Dearborn to shop at its grocery stores, buy sweets at its bakeries, and dine in its many restaurants. At no time of the year is this more apparent than during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, the month I arrived to this city that as an Arab-American I had heard about since childhood.

While I am someone who questions religion more than practices it, I do know the basic pillars of Islam, and fasting is one of them: so they understand sacrifice and empathize with the poor and hungry, Muslims cannot eat or drink from sunrise to sunset during the entire month of Ramadan.  However, what I didn’t know was how this was observed in an American neighborhood that has more Arabs than most villages in the Middle East.  The person who helped me map that all out was my friend Rana Abbas, a 23-year old Dearborn native I had met through mutual friends and whom you can’t help but describe as bubbly and vivacious.

“Detroit is a big city, you know, but when it comes to the Arabs it’s a small town,” she told me with her distinctly nasal Michigan accent, as she highlighted the key shops of Dearborn on a map. “Everyone knows everyone’s business, even if you don’t want to.”

With the use of Rana’s homemade map, a quick tour of Dearborn in the afternoon, revealed a bustling atmosphere that I quickly recognized from Ramadans spent in the Middle East – with a little slush and sleet thrown in for Midwest ambiance.  Like in the Middle East, fasting shoppers, with surprising energy in their steps, scurried from store to store getting the final ingredients for the dishes they were preparing for iftar, the evening meal that breaks the fast.  Crates of dates, the food traditionally eaten as fasting ends, were present in nearly every store, as was jalab (a raisin and rosewater julep), apricot juice, and tamarind juice, beverages that are often the first liquids sipped at iftar.

When the sun sets during Ramadan, the streets of Dearborn become deserted, with everyone at home with their families eating.  However, every night after iftar, Dearborn takes on a festive mood, come snow or rain, that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.  Rana suggested that I check out Sinbad’s, one of her favorite night spots, in part because her fiance’s brother is a waiter there.  Sinbad’s, and a growing number of similar Dearborn establishments, is a smoky, darkly-lit coffee house of wooden tables and velvet and leather wall benches that provide a clear view of a stage surrounded by Middle Eastern brass kitsch. Iraqi-born owner Akram Allos brings in bands from around the country who provide largely mediocre, tinny cover versions of well-known Arabic pop tunes to an audience that nonetheless claps enthusiastically to the syncopated beat.  Most of the patrons are young men and women, many of whom are on dates or newly engaged.  Aside from each others company, what these burgeoning couples come here for are the 52 flavors of tobacco that Sinbad’s offers for hookah smoking, a bad habit which has seen a renaissance born of nostalgia both here and in the Middle East.

While Sinbad’s and other hookah cafes provide limited menus, Rana advised me that the place for serious post-iftar snacking is New Yasmeen, a spacious, brightly lit bakery with a chocolate-brown and mustard-colored mosaic-tiled floor, tiled Roman-style pillars, and a wall-size mural that depicts the idyllic, sun-bathed Mediterrean landscape of rural Lebanon.  The painting and the heat of the bakery’s ovens are a sharp contrast to the biting cold, ice and dark clouds of Dearborn at night, and it was a relief to step inside and take off the weight of my winter outer gear.

New Yasmeen produces more than 40,000 loaves of pita bread a day and never closes during Ramadan.  “Our busiest time is from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m., after people have gone to the mosque for their nightly prayers,” said Hussein Siblini, 38, a fair-haired, soft-spoken man of few words who owns the bakery with his two brothers.

Families and groups of young men and women in the latest Abercromie and Fitch crowd his brightly lit counter for sahour, the meal eaten late at night before going to bed to face another day of fasting.  They come to line their stomachs from Hussein’s wood burning brick oven with mushtah (a flat bread topped with sesame seeds and eaten with labaneh, a condensed yogurt) manaeesh, (an open-faced pizza topped with an olive oil, thyme, and sesame seed mixture) and ma’ajinates, savory pastries stuffed with either a lemony spinach mixture (fatyir bi sabanikh), a hard white cheese (fatyir bi-jibneh), or a soft beef or lamb and tomato mixture with sweet spices (lahma bi-ajeen).  Older customers shout out orders to the 15 energetic young men manning the counter for items made only during Ramadan, such as sahlab, a sweet and spicy hot milk thickened with powdered orchid root and topped with pistachios and kolaj, a deep fried pastry stuffed with cream and dunked in syrup.  To keep up with the Ramadan rush, some of New Yasmeen’s 40 cooks and bakers – young men in white aprons and older ladies in colorful head scarves, many trained back in Lebanon – work 18 hour shifts.

So prevalent is the profession of engineering amongst Arab Americans that there’s a joke in which a mother tells a new friend that she has a son, and the friend asks what kind of engineer he is. Hussein is no exception. As I enjoyed the tangy tartness of a sumac-laced spinach pie, he told me that he has a Masters in computer engineering from nearby Wayne State, but soon found it more fulfilling to use the education he got working in his father’s bakery in southern Lebanon.

The same is true for 42-year old Palestinian Khader Masri, owner of the popular Masri Sweets.  After arriving here in the early 1980s for his studies, he went back to his hometown of Nablus, on the West Bank, in1987 and realized he wanted to open a sweet shop in America similar to his late father’s famous Nablus shop, as a way of honoring him. A nearly life-size black and white photo of his father making kunafa, a sweet cheese pastry for which Nablus is particularly famous, hangs high over a counter lined with seven different kinds of baklava (assabeh, finger-shaped filo stuffed with cashews, and kolushkor, half moon-shaped filo with nuts, are among the most popular), harisi (a semolina cake drenched in syrup), crescent-shaped anise cookies and French-style cream cakes and sesame encrusted date petit fours.

I only had to tell Khader my mother’s maiden name for us to become instant friends, as there is a long tradition of marriage between her family and the Masris, probably making us cousins of some sort if we had had a couple of days to map out our family trees.  When he took me into the kitchen area, I met his wife, Susan, a petite woman who is the perfect counterbalance to his frenzied energy.  She manages the shipping business and their teenage son and daughter mill about, offering her clerical help if needed.

While Susan takes care of business in the back and Samer, a chatty 20-something Jordanian with the ability to wait on six people at once, manages the front, wiry and fast-moving, Khader overlooks a staff of 21 as he rolls out his homemade filo dough.  Under the fluorescent lights, white walls, endless white sheets of dough, white cheese, white uniforms, and white counters are tempered only by the brown and green hues of fresh nuts, black logs of ground dates, and shiny metal kettles of melting yellow butter.  Two thousand trays of baklava and cookies come out of Khader’s ovens every day of Ramadan. Workers, whom Khader trains on machines imported from Nablus and Damascus, mold cookies, man huge vats of dough, roll up pastry with pistachio nuts (from Turkey, never California, says Khader, because they’re too dry for baking), brush baklava with clarified butter, pour buckets of orange blossom syrup across the trays of sweets as they emerge from the oven, and line up variety trays in pretty patterns.

“See, very organized, very American, it’s like the Ford plant,” joked Khader, as he handed me yet another plate of sweets, insisting that I try everything at least once before leaving. “But I don’t want my employees to go crazy, so every day I change the rotation.  Everyone gets to do everything.  It’s non-stop work from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. from Ramadan to Christmas.”

Ramadan evenings bring in people wanting atayif, the traditional Ramadan dessert. After it comes off the griddle, this airy pancake is filled with a thick cream, cheese, or walnuts, folded, baked and dunked in syrup – and best eaten immediately.  Which is what I did, relishing the strong squirt of buttery, sweet syrup that comes with the first bite. The only problem is that it needs a cardamom-laced cup of Arabic coffee or a mint tea to temper the sweetness, as do all Middle Eastern desserts, but sadly it’s much easier to get a Coke than a hot drink in Dearborn.  Some traditions just don’t survive a new continent.

Nearly everyone at New Yasmeen Bakery and Masri Sweets fasts the whole month.  “When you work in the food business, it’s really hard,” says Hussein.  “Everything smells so much better.  Your senses are really sharp.  But it’s bearable because everyone is always in such a good mood.  There’s a real feeling of good will everywhere.”

Rana also fasts, as does her entire family.  I didn’t have a chance to spend an iftar with them, but the day after Ramadan I headed over to her house, where her mother was preparing dinner for Eid el-Fitr (Holiday of Breaking Fast), the day that marks the end of Ramadan (and fasting) and marks the first day of the tenth month.

Rana may be from the most well-known family in town, in large part because of their religious and civic accomplishments.  She is the public affairs director at American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a national grassroots organization founded by U.S. Senator James Abourezk in 1980.  Her uncle, Haj Adnan Chirri, is the chairman of the board of trustees of the Islamic Center of America, which is spearheading the building of a new $12 million mosque that when completed will be the largest in North America.  The family’s legacy really began in 1949, when Rana’s grandfather, Imam Mohammad Jawad Chirri, was invited from Lebanon by the Muslim community to be its spiritual leader.  He went on to spend years advocating Islamic unity among American Muslims.

“He was invited to the White House three times,” boasted Fatima Abbas, his oldest daughter and Rana’s mother, as she walked across the oriental carpets in her Dearborn home the next day, pointing out the many pictures of her father that adorn the walls.

A dark-eyed woman with a deep, smoky voice that often breaks into robust giggles, Fatima continued to talk while she went into the kitchen to begin preparing the Eid meal for a few of her Dearborn relatives.  She wasn’t sure how many she had invited, maybe 12, maybe 20.  Hovering around her were Hana, Amanda, and Zeinab, her curly-haired nieces, helping her wash parsley and peel garlic.  They often hang out in her kitchen when they don’t have school.  With Arab Americans accounting for an estimated 60% of the Dearborn public school student body, the school board decided several years ago to make Eid an official two-day school holiday.

The girls began fasting half days when they were eight – their choice, they insist, not their parents’ – and all three are proud to say they made it through all of Ramadan this year.  After asking me if I loved hometown hero Eminem as much as they did and if I thought Justin Timberlake was cute, they told me that their aunt’s cooking was so good she should open a restaurant.

“Oh, please,” Fatima blushed, as she poured pan juices over three plump, paprika-brightened stuffed chickens browning in the oven.  “Everyone says that…I was a little worried this morning that I wouldn’t have enough food so I bought a leg of lamb at the butcher on my way back from my Eid prayers.”

The lamb was roasting downstairs, in the family’s equally crowded second kitchen.  In addition to the leg of lamb and the stuffed chickens, Fatima was also in the midst of making two other dishes:  fetee, a layered dish of toasted pita bread, chickpeas, yogurt (she makes her own), meat, and pine nuts and sheikh mashi, eggplants stuffed with spiced ground beef and baked in a tomato and pomegranate sauce until they’re soft enough to melt in your mouth. Meanwhile, the girls began washing dishes and Mohammad, the young man overseeing the prolonged construction of the house’s new addition got chewed out by Fawziah, Fatima’s frail 76-year old mother.

“God, I’m going to die before you finish,”she shouted with the aid of her cane.  He just smiled a beatific smile as Fatima laid out a plate of her homemade preserved olives and raised her eyebrows into a look torn between frustration and amusement.

Fatima wears a hijab, the white head scarf, in public.  Rana lets her long curls hang loose, as do most of the females in the family.  There are exceptions, like Haj Adnan’s 21-year old daughter Vivian, named for Vivian Leigh, who began wearing the hijab last year, a choice many young Muslim women have opted for in recent years.

Relatives kept filing in, each carrying a gift box from Masri Sweets or another sweets shop – the exotically beautiful Randa and Majeda (the nieces’ mothers, both devote Muslims and People magazine junkies), diminutive Rima (Fatima’s daughter in medical school), Rima’s husband, Randa’s husband, Fatima’s brother Ali, his kids, someone’s brother-in-law.  Two card tables were brought out to extend the dining room table.  Plates in a mish mash of china patterns were added as people kept coming in and the nieces were sent off to wash more forks and knives for the table.

Talk shifted seamlessly between Arabic and English and between food and politics, the staples of Arab American conversation. Rana’s eyes teared up when she talked about some of the hate mail and death threats they get at work. Her job at ADC is to deal with discrimination cases, and as the number of unwarranted firings and evictions has risen at such a sharp rate, it has taxed her personally, as well as the organization.

“We have always had an American flag at our office and journalists come in ask if we put that up after September 11.  It’s my boss’s flag.  He got it when he became an American citizen.  No one would ask someone from another ethnic group that,” Rana lamented, tossing a gargantuan bowl of fetoush, a pita bread, tomato, and greens salad traditional at Ramadan and Eid.  “The truth is we’ve done really well here.  There are Arab American engineers at Ford whose fathers or grandfathers worked on the assembly line.”

Rana’s mood perked up when her fiancé Hicham came in.  They met in Lebanon last year through a family set-up, on Rana’s first trip overseas. They both reluctantly agreed to meet the other and fell in love at first sight.  He moved to Dearborn to be with her and quickly become yet another helping hand in Fatima’s kitchen.

In the downstairs kitchen, Fatima got the humus started (her secret to getting the silky smooth texture of Middle Eastern restaurants is to keep the food processor running for 8 minutes) and went upstairs to do one of her five daily prayers.  Meanwhile, Abbas, her husband and a salesman at the nearby Ford dealership, arrived home with some jokes in tow.

But senses of humor were running low, squashed by hunger. After all, for the last month, they had all been eating at sunset, at 5:30 p.m. It was now 7:30 p.m. On the day when they weren’t fasting but rather holding out for Fatima’s cooking, the family was starving. The nieces walked around carrying protest signs demanding to be fed.  Snatching a plate about to be filled with food by one of her sisters, Fatima said she wanted to wait for Haj Adnan, also a salesman at the Ford dealership, as is another one of Rana’s uncles.

Someone said there was no point in waiting  – there wouldn’t be enough room for Haj Adnan’s family of five.  They would have to eat on the second shift, when even more people were likely to show up.  Still, Fatima insisted on waiting.  But when she noticed with horror that her nieces were about to indulge in Hostess Cupcakes to ward off their hunger, she finally gave in to her family. She gathered everyone around the table for a short prayer in her father’s memory.  Silence followed the prayer, but not devout silence. It was a silence tempered only by the quick swish of forks digging in for another mouthful.  Arms reached across other arms as people filled their plates, sampling everything, and sending bowls up and down the dining room table and two card tables.  The phone rang.  Haj Adnan and his family were on their way. The family intensified its eating, knowing that at least some of them would have to soon give up their seats and reset the table for Fatima’s second round of guests.

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