In the past couple of weeks, perhaps you noticed large insulated tents going up in the parking lots of Middle Eastern restaurants around town. From June 28 to today, July 28, practicing Muslims in the Twin Cities have been celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, a period marked by daytime fasting and a daily feast at sundown known as Iftar. Majdi Wadi, the CEO of Holy Land Grocery and Deli, tells us more about the rituals, principles, and philosophy behind the holiest month of the Muslim calendar and the unique experiences that Minnesota's short and long days create.
The Islamic Calendar, known as the Hijri calendar, is a lunar calendar consisting of 12 months in a year of 354 or 355 days. Given that the year is a different length than the Gregorian calendar, the month of Ramadan rotates relative to the Western months.
The month is best known for the practice of fasting during daylight hours, but the practices run much deeper than merely a change in eating habits.
Hot Dish: How do your meal offerings change during the month of Ramadan?
Majdi Wadi: During the month of Ramadan we come up with special meals to help individuals break their fast. Since the people actually fast starting from the sunrise at 3:30 in the morning until 9:00 p.m. it is very long this year. We try to offer Iftar [the meal that breaks the fast in the evening] as a meal full of protein, vegetables, and vitamins. We carefully select our meat since this is the only meat he will get in his day. We include heavy proteins and a hearty soup. We offer dates, because dates give lots of energy and because that is how the prophet Mohammad used to break his fast.
Around what time is Iftar, the evening meal, in Minnesota?
9:00. Minnesota is actually the third or fourth longest fast in the world for this Ramadan. Number one this year is Helsinki where sunlight lasts for 22 hours. In Alaska or Russia or other countries that have periods of sunlight that last longer than 24 hours individuals will observe the sunrises and sunsets of the nearest country.
Is there a process beyond breaking the fast that Muslims perform when the sun goes down?
Yes. There is a procedure for washing parts of the body known as Wuḍū. Individuals will break the fast with a small amount of food, then we perform Wuḍū, and then we eat. We added a permanent place for this when we did the remodeling. We have dedicated areas for prayers at both of our locations. These locations are used 5 times a day, 12 months a year.
What about the meal that breaks the fast in the morning?
It is called Suhoor. We do not serve for this meal at our restaurant but we send food to the mosques in the area. On the last 10 days of Ramadan people intend to spend lots of time in the mosque. The last 10 days of Ramadan are the holiest days of this holiest of months.
What are the important foods to eat during Suhoor?
Water and fruits. The most difficult part is the hydration during the fast. With not drinking water it can get very tiring. My company catered the Basilica Block Party and I had to break my fast early because I was going to faint. The health must come first.
What country did you grow up in?
Born and raised in Kuwait. Then Jordan. Then the United States. But I am Palestinian.
If a Muslim moved to the Twin Cities from elsewhere what could they expect to experience during Iftar at your restaurant?
Breaking the fast as a group. This is a month of togetherness for all Muslims. You will be welcome here. If you are in the Middle East, or any Islamic country, this is the month of giving. You find food in the street. It is a hassanat, or good deed, if somebody breaks their fast at your expense. We see who can feed more. No one will sleep hungry in that month, I guarantee you. Here at Holy Land we have the same thing. People walk here, you don't have money, you will be fed. We don't charge them. Even if they are not Muslim. If they're hungry we feed them. And all the food that is left over, we donate it to an organization that brings it to shelter homes. Here at Holy Land we do that year-round, but we go heavier in Ramadan.
Are there foods that Muslims from the Twin Cities look forward to during Ramadan?
It depends on nationality. We offer different dishes related to Ramadan from different regions. If they're Indo-Pakistani they like some naan bread and masala. Everybody breaks fast in different ways. I was invited by the Indian executive accountant for my company and they break the fast using the fruit first. Dates, then yogurt, then go pray. For those from the Gulf countries Vimto, a syrup drink, with your dates is a must. For us in Jordan and Syria apricot juice is popular. Egyptians enjoy a dish made with dried dates. The most common theme is the meat. [page]
We used to offer a buffet during all months of the year but we have suspended that. This was based on my travels. When I travel anywhere I ask to be taken to the poorest areas. When I go and see how much one piece of bread means to a family, I cannot stomach the waste I see at my restaurant. It's not about the money, it's about respecting the food. Take little bit by little bit. Every night when you pull the garbage it brings tears to your eyes. One night we had 600 pounds of food in the garbage. How many families could that feed?
If a non-Muslim visits your restaurant during Ramadan, is there anything they should be aware of?
Lots of customers come during Iftar who are non-Muslim. So even if they put the food in front of them before the call to prayer, they don't eat, they stop. We tell them to go ahead but they say, "We'll wait." I admire them for that. Some customers come and pray with us. We teach them how to do Wuḍūʾ and they pray with us.
It is very hard to explain the process of prayers (salat) but we show them what we are doing. I believe it is in the heart. We ask individuals to dress respectfully, no short shorts et cetera. But our customers are respectful year-round. We never have problems with this.
Do you fast during Ramadan?
I fast although medically I am not supposed to. Normally I have to eat every two hours, but I still manage to fast. I enjoy what I am doing. When you have lived through a rough time in your life you want to feel that hunger. I want to live the feeling of people that spend days without food. This is what makes you give most. This is one of the biggest feelings for Ramadan. I live a comfortable life and I want to remember the people that I visited in Jordan. The refugees from Syria. I am a tough guy and I don't cry, but that brought tears to my eyes. To send food to these people, that box of food meant nothing to me, not nothing, but not as much as it means to them.
Is there a time in the Gregorian calendar when Ramadan is hardest to observe in Minnesota? For individuals moving from Houston, et cetera, is fasting in the cold hard?
No! In the cold it is easy! I remember one year we broke fast at 3:45 p.m. People call us from all around the world and say, "You have it easy in Minnesota." When that happens it is good for business.
Do you have staff that work on different schedules during Ramadan?
Yes, we adjust the schedule and although we do not provide a buffet for our customers we do provide a buffet for our staff during Ramadan. Normally our employees get 50 percent off of their meal when they work. During Ramadan, 100 percent off. All of my staff are fasting now, and that is hard. My family is with them, we break our fast with them, and we bring our families around.
Are individuals, Muslim or otherwise, who are not fasting welcome at Iftar?
They are more than welcome. If you cannot fast, that is fine. Bring in someone who is fasting and break it for them financially.
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