By GWEN OREL and ANTOINETTE MARTIN
It’s very hot on the third floor of Glenfield Middle School.
That makes the fast of Ramadan just that little bit harder for Frances Aboushi, who teaches there, and students Rafid Khayum, 13, and Amir Carter, 12.
During the monthlong Muslim holiday, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. They take no food or drink, and refrain from intimate relations and violent emotions.
Ramadan, which began on Friday, May 26, is considered the holiest month of the Muslim calendar, and celebrates the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. Fasting is one of the five pillars of the faith.
“Up here on the third floor there is no air conditioning. It can get stuffy and hazy,” Aboushi said. “I learn how to pick my battles. I don’t have the energy to run marathons or run after things. Heat never makes you hungry. It just tires you out.”
Aboushi teaches “Human Rights and Violations,” a course with students in all three grades that “deconstructs major social problems and global issues,” such as Black Lives Matter, the refugee crisis and human trafficking. She also teaches in the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) program.
Throughout Montclair and the region, Muslim children and their parents negotiate with the climate, weather-wise and otherwise, to observe their faith. It isn’t always easy.
Students “never hear about Islam unless it’s about terrorism. They feel muted,” the teacher said. “There aren’t specific classes that teach about religion, unless in the context of world civilization.” Right now, she said, the discourse sees Islam in a negative light, something “out there and foreign.”
In Montclair, at Glenfield, administration, staff and students recognize that Islam is a religion practiced right here.
In fact, there is a reminder in the staff bulletin for teachers to be mindful of fasting students, and not ask for excessive physical activity.
Not eating or drinking is difficult, especially at first — Aboushi joked about how relieved she was the first day of the month fell on a weekend, because “caffeine withdrawal is no joke.”
But the month itself is a spiritual one, she said.
“When food and water are taken away, your necessities, you’re able to feel with those that don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I’m going to eat
by this time.’ Millions are facing starvation.” During the 30 days of the month, she said, Muslims increase their community service. “You have to pump up your community service, in the hope that when it’s over, you continue that model. It’s what we’re supposed to do, eat less because you give more to a group. When you take something away you start to realize what you’ve got. It’s a huge reminder of all the blessings we have.
“Every day it’s like Thanksgiving.”
LEARNING ABOUT RAMADAN
One way non-Muslims learn about the holiday is by joining with those who celebrate it.
This past Friday, June 9, a youth group from First Congregational Church joined the Peace Islands Institute in Hasbrouck Heights for an iftar (evening break fast) celebration. John Rogers, director of the FCC youth group and associate pastor at the church, explained that the group has met with the PII youth group, run by Feyza Teke, for several years. PII is a national nonprofit organization based in Hasbrouck Heights that works to build connections among cultures. Teke explained that while the FCC group doesn’t fast, “We open our doors for them. There is a short presentation, how Ramadan is celebrated. After a call to prayer, everyone eats the break fast.”
“They really do get deep with one another,” said Rogers, a Montclair High School graduate of the Class of 2007. “The kids at PII told our kids what it was like to wear a hijab, and they expressed real frustration around the word ‘terrorist.’ People so often associate that word with Muslim.”
Leyla Yurt, a freshman at Cedar Grove High School, is part of the Peace Island group. Her friend Julie Korgen, a junior at MHS, attends FCC. Both attended Friday’s iftar.
Yurt, a fencer, said she was worried about how the fast would affect her matches, but that the challenging fast soon became routine.
“I’m a thin person, and don’t usually eat a lot. That helps me. At iftar, I eat more than usual — veggies, salad, protein, because I will be making it through until the next iftar.” Also, she said, food tastes better when she does eat it. “As a teen, I think about cookies, pizza, ice cream, and when we finally get to have it, it’s great.”
Korgen said that she likes supporting her Muslim friends: “They are practicing their faith, as we do at Lent.”
Omar Ibn Abdullah, a paraprofessional at Hillside Elementary School who works with students with special needs, said that some students might feel reluctant to talk about fasting, worried that what they are doing might be bothering other people. But every monotheistic religion has fast days, he tells them.
He draws his students out, to help them feel more relaxed about it– and also to take their minds off feeling hungry or thirsty.
Teachers don’t always realize that they need to be more patient with fasting students, he said. “They are trying to get through the day without exerting too much energy.” And it often seems like “during Ramadan there are the most cookouts.” Like Rogers, Ibn Abdullah is a Montclair High graduate. He said he had just changed his name from Otis Wright Jr.
Like Glenfield, Hillside is supportive: Ibn Abdullah is able to attend prayers at the mosque on Friday afternoons.
‘A GREAT TRAINING’
At Saturday’s iftar, about 50 people, women and girls in their best hijabs, attended the Masjid in Montclair to break the fast together. A buffet included spicy chickpeas, sassafras milk, fresh fruit, bottled water, dates and cake. Children pulled on their parents’ hands.
Imam Kevin Dawud Amin said that bigger masjids have break fasts every day. The meals are hosted by different people, though many others bring food: “Everybody wants to serve the dinner because you get the blessing of everybody eating. You are the one who feeds the people who have had the fast all day.”
Riz Haider, who lives in Glen Ridge, was one of the hosts of Saturday’s iftar. He attended with his wife and two children, ages 6 and 8. Haider said that while his school system is supportive, he does send notes to the teachers. Kwanzaa, he said, was just recognized in the school recently. “It’s a learning process.”
Some of the young children at Saturday’s iftar at the masjid had begun fasting in steps: third-grader Nadia, who attends Northeast Elementary, fasts only on weekends. She gets up at 3 or 4 a.m. with her family, and has a meal to start the day.
Sarah, a 9-year-old who attends the Charles H. Bullock School, doesn’t fast on school days, but does full days on weekends.
But some children fast the entire day.
Safiyah, a 9-year old at Hillside School, fasts the entire day and doesn’t find it difficult at all.
“It’s like a normal day, nothing much of a change really,” she said. Then she asked her mother, Reny, “Can I have cake now?”
Reny said that this is the first year Safiyah has done a full-day fast. “She started last year, skipping breakfast in the morning. I tell her, ‘If you feel hungry or thirsty, go ahead and drink.’ I also tell her the same for this year. I don’t want to force anything on her, but want her to know as a Muslim, this is what we do on Ramadan.”
Aboushi said she began fasting in fourth grade, in steps: She’d break her fast at noon. Then work up to 12:15. Eventually, she could last the whole day. “Because a family is fasting, kids naturally want to do what the grownups are doing.
“It really is a great training, a great discipline to learn how to navigate, learn how to control your wants and needs.”
‘SOMETHING TO CELEBRATE’
Rafid Khayum, the Glenfield student, said that he hasn’t told his teachers that he is fasting, and that he does sit in the lunch room because his friends are there.
And while schoolwork in mid-June generally lightens up, he has finals to study for, including an algebra final.
But, he said, there are “religious benefits” to the fast. And it feels good when he breaks his fast.
While Rafid’s voice seemed, late in the afternoon, just a little drained by the stuffiness of the room, Amir Carter spoke with energy to spare. Amir said that he even goes to football practice, “but I don’t play as hard as I normally would.”
He said that he heard there was something in the school bulletin, so he told his teachers he was one of the kids fasting.
Sometimes, he said, “Ms. Aboushi lets me pray in her room.”
Aboushi said that when children begin to fast when they are little, by the time they get to middle school or high school, “it’s grounded.”
When she was growing up in Brooklyn, there was “a lot of ignorance to what we were doing.” Some people thought of it as “a mean holiday, a way to torture kids.”
So, when she was in middle school, she put together a “Ramadan party,” which celebrates the Eid al-Fitr, the four-day end of the fast. This year, it begins on Saturday, June 24.
For the party, she collected money and had the fasting children sign up for what their moms would bring to school.
Some parents brought stuffed grape leaves. Others brought chicken nuggets and fries. Aboushi, whose parents are immigrants from Jerusalem, said she prefers apple pie to baklava. The combination of foreign and all-American food on the same plate is a bit like being a Muslim-American, she said.
“You can be Muslim-American, enjoy the culture, hip-hop, and still do your five prayers. You’re just as American.”