After the fast comes the feast for Muslims during Ramadan


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It was mid-afternoon -- late for lunch -- as customers lined up at his family's restaurant, Salem's Market and Grill in the Strip District, but Abdul Salem didn't join them. He hadn't eaten for many hours and wouldn't eat for several more.

On Friday, Mr. Salem, 31, of Bethel Park joined Muslims around the world in observing the start of Ramadan, a holy month that calls for prayer and fasting for followers of Islam.

That means -- even for Muslims like Mr. Salem and his 14 employees who make their livelihood preparing meals -- abstaining from both food and water from dawn until dusk each day.

"At some points, it is difficult, but that's our job," Mr. Salem said.

Fasting during the month of Ramadan is not easy, and it's not meant to be, said Kaukab Chughtai, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Trafford and is Muslim.

"That's the whole point, that you feel the hardship for others, and then learn from it," she said.

Yet this month, especially for Muslims who live in warmer parts of the world, the fast may be more difficult than in years past. It is the first time since 1980 that Ramadan has begun in mid-July.

The start of Ramadan is determined by the Muslim lunar calendar, which moves backwards through the seasons, so the religious month starts 11 days earlier each year under the Western calendar.

Fasts in the winter are easier since temperatures are cooler and days are shorter. Summer fasts means forgoing food and water on days that are usually much longer and much hotter.

On the sixth day of Ramadan today, Muslims in Pittsburgh -- although some may be exempt due to their age or their health -- must fast from 4:42 a.m. to 8:42 a.m., a 16-hour period.

"It is worth the challenge, and the sacrifice, because Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said that if a person fasts and disciplines himself during the month of Ramadan, all his or all her sins will be wiped out," said Abdusemih Tadese, the imam at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh in Oakland, who estimated there are about 12,000 Muslims in Greater Pittsburgh.

Ramadan is not just about the fast. Each night, after the fast has ended for the day, comes the feast.

"It's really a community month. It's a month everybody gets together," said Mr. Salem, the supervisor of his family's restaurant and market.

They get together at iftar, the meal served when Muslims break the fast after dusk. It is, said Mr. Tadese, a "jubilant" occasion each night. Not just because of the food, but because Muslims are happy to know they were able to obey the tenets of their religion by fasting.

In Pittsburgh, where Muslims are in the minority, Ms. Chughtai said the month of Ramadan is a different experience from her native Pakistan, where the religious month is observed by the majority of the population.

As social secretary for the Muslim Community Center in Monroeville, she organizes the iftar, a community gathering with prayer and food that gives people a sense of fellowship. Some families come every night, while others just occasionally.

"Fasting is an act of worship, and it's something that brings people closer, not only to break the bread together, but to worship together," she said.

In Pittsburgh area mosques, many of the iftar meals served each night during Ramadan are prepared by Salem's Market and Grill, a business Mr. Salem's father, who came to Pittsburgh from Libya for graduate school, started in 1983.

The meat they sell is halal, or prepared according to Islamic standards, and Ramadan is one of their busiest months of the year. On weekends, Mr. Salem estimated that his business prepares 300 to 400 meals a night for local mosques, and on weekends during Ramadan, it can prepare up to 1,000 meals.

Many of Salem's customers are non-Muslims, and during Ramadan, Mr. Salem said they seem "almost embarrassed" to visit Salem's and order food from people who are fasting.

"I have to tell people, 'Look, just because we are fasting doesn't mean you can't eat. Please come eat your food,'" he said.

Observing Ramadan in Pittsburgh -- especially around others who are eating normal meals during the day -- can be hard. The long days of summer have made it much harder.

Still, he said, "I have never felt that it's too difficult."

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Kaitlynn Riely: kriely@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1707. This story originally appeared in The Pittsburgh Press. To log in or subscribe, go to: http://press.post-gazette.com/


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