By GWEN OREL
The foods were familiar: baked chicken. Mac and cheese (though this mac and cheese was particularly spectacular). Macaroni salad. Kale salad. Banana pudding cheesecake and brownies for dessert.
A Ramadan dinner at the Montclair home of Umar Speed and Kim A. Samad-Speed was a family affair.
Everyone in the family is American born, and the food is American too. Umar Speed is from Newark, as is his wife, Kim A. Samad-Speed. At dinner were the Speeds, their son Nuh, who will attend NJIT next year, and Nadiyah’s two sons Ismael Shabazz, 13, and Ilyas Shabazz, 16.
“Somebody asked me once what kind of traditional food I like,” said Kim Samad-Speed. “I said turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce.” She laughed. “It’s like, we’re American!”
The only Middle Eastern food served in the Speed home in Montclair on Sunday, May 27, were the dates served for Iftar, the actual breaking of the Ramadan fast that takes place from sunup to sundown. It’s traditional to break the fast with dates or water, Umar Speed said.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, takes place from May 15 to June 14 this year. It commemorates the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad.
And it’s not really a holiday, explained Imam Kevin Dawud Amin in a phone call. Amin leads prayers at Montclair’s Masjid Al Wadud.
“It’s like a strengthening. It’s a way for strengthening your faith,” Amin said. “It’s strengthening your faith by increasing the acts of worship that you do. This is not a time to go into hibernation and read.” Because Muslims are not worried about eating, drinking, touching a spouse, they should be reflecting on religion and trying to do good deeds.
And during Ramadan, good deeds are amplified; blessings count for more, he said. The holiday, he said, comes at the end of the month, with Eid, which translates to “celebration.”
The fast is “good for your heart and mind, because there’s a spiritual meaning behind it,” he said.
INSPIRED TO CHANGE
Umar Speed, a tall, bearded man, works as a bus driver for New Jersey Transit.
He grew up in a Christian home, and accepted Islam later in life, about 25 years ago. His tidy living room is full of Arabic books.
He was inspired to change because of his “condition as a human being,” and from being inspired by his wife Kim.
Unlike her husband, Kim grew up in an Islamic home: she qualified it to say it was Nation of Islam, which is more of a political movement than a religion. She accepted the religion of Islam at 14. She married at 15, after graduating early. Umar Speed is her second husband.
After they married, Umar Speed began going to a class, and, he said, “it was answering all my questions.” He had studied Christianity; he was searching, but Islam was where his heart rested. “It took a lot of chains, the chains of racism, it took all that from me, because I was beginning to understand that everybody came from one man and one woman. Allah does not look at your color, but he looks at your heart. I think that was the biggest thing for me to understand, why am I here on this earth.”
Not every change was easy. Umar Speed gave up music, though he had been a fan of Jimi Hendrix and Grace Slick, because of a warning in Islam about music and “what it calls to.”
Kim Samad-Speed explained, “Anything that’s going to preoccupy you, and cause you not to remember your Lord, is discouraged.”
And, Umar Speed added, people can depend on music or meditation to calm them, when “remembering your Lord who created you should be the thing that brings you to that point.”
Umar Speed said that pictures could not be taken to accompany this story, to comply with a Muslim ideal of avoiding graven images.
His stepdaughter Nadiyah A. Samad, Kim’s daughter, said with a laugh that she’s on Facebook. Not all Muslims are strict about photographs, Kim said that they do have family photographs, but do not display them on the walls. Like music, she said, images can take people away from focusing on their Lord.
She and her daughter Nadiyah wore beautiful headscarfs or hijabs at dinner. Kim’s was a beautiful deep blue and Nadiyah’s was green, which matched her outfit.
They kept them on during dinner, but explained that at home they could take them off, and can take them off in front of women.
CLEARING THE BODY, AND MIND
“I gain weight during Ramadan,” Kim Samad-Speed said with a laugh. But while it takes a couple of days for her body to break habits to adjust to the fast, the benefits are clear at once.
“Fasting, you can have a problem and you look at something and think, why didn’t I think of this before?” she said.
Typically people wake up around 3 a.m. to eat again, and drink a lot of water, to keep from being hydrated during the day.
“By the end of Ramadan, you don’t even want to get up in the morning. You’re like, ‘just
give me a glass of water, let me go to sleep,’” Kim Samad-Speed said, laughing.
Some of the food at dinner had been prepared by a friend: feeding others is a good deed during the month. People who medically shouldn’t fast don’t, but then they feed others, Kim Speed said. Children work up to fasting, going part of a day, until around puberty when they do a full fast. You don’t fast when you travel, but you make up the day, she said.
The practice is spiritual, but it is part of life.
At a typical dinner during Ramadan, Kim Samad-Speed said her husband will “talk about his day, the same talk we had 25 years ago, and who he met on the bus.”
“I’ll talk about my job,” Nadiyah said.
If an issue comes up, if something is on the news, they’ll talk about Islam, but they’re as likely to talk about a bus accident, Kim Samad-Speed said.
It’s not very different from an ordinary dinner at any time of the year. But not eating makes them mindful of those who can’t eat, Umar Speed said.
And during Ramadan, “the gates to Hellfire are locked, and the doors to Paradise are open, and the devils are chained. So the Muslim takes advantage of this, because whatever you’re doing now is from you. That whispering you normally have from the devil, tempting you, you don’t have that.