Ramadan Kareem – Observing Ramadan and Feeding Refugees


Beirut’s Pigeon Rocks. Image by Roatana Hotels, which are hosting nightly iftars.

On Monday, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. Ramadan’s timing Is according to the Islamic calendar, which is based on lunar months that don’t correspond to the Gregorian calendar. This means that the start date of Ramadan moves back by about 11 days every year, and that although my family recently began our fifth year in Lebanon, this is the first time we’ve been in town for very much of it (since the kids and I travel every summer).

Last week, my daughter asked me why Muslims fast during Ramadan. My off the cuff answer was that fasting gives Muslims a constant physical reminder that they should be thinking about God during this month. Kind of like how Christians fast during Lent. (Fasting is common among Maronite and Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, who give up meat and dairy for the 40 days of Lent.)

Thankfully, the New York Times and Vox have published a couple of good pieces on the basics of Ramadan, so that I could get my story straight.

Fasting is one of the five pillars, or duties, of Islam. According to Jennifer Williams, Muslim convert and author of the Vox article, “The practice of fasting serves several spiritual and social purposes: to remind you of your human frailty and your dependence on God for sustenance, to show you what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty so you feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy, and to reduce the distractions in life so you can more clearly focus on your relationship with God.”

Love this video of the Muslim in Paris who is fasting all day and handing out sandwiches to the homeless and hungry at night.

Ramadan lasts 29 to 30 days, depending on the moon. It’s the month during which Muslims believe the word of God was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and “the gates of heaven are open wider than ever.” Practicing Muslims are urged to abstain from food, drink, smoking or sexual activity from dawn to dusk. Exceptions are made for anyone who should not fast for health reasons, whether it’s diabetes, pregnancy, or old age. Children aren’t expected to fast until they reach the age of “religious observance” – the exact age varies between Shia and Sunni and according to each family, but around age 12. Younger children are encouraged to fast as much as they are able.

Now that my daughter is in Grade 6, many more of her Muslim classmates are fasting – roughly half, she estimates. Some of the non-Muslims were curious about fasting – wanted to try it out, to show solidarity. They aren’t the only ones curious about it – this post by Alex Teplitzky on Medium.com about observing Ramadan as a non-Muslim came into my inbox this week too. I told my daughter she could try it, as long as it wasn’t on an exam day – because final exams started today.

My daughter skipped breakfast Wednesday, but was feeling dizzy by midday. Her Muslim science teacher insisted that if she was becoming ill, she needed to break the fast, so my daughter headed to the cafeteria and bought some lunch. It was clear to her that abstaining from even a sip of water is no easy feat, particularly in the 85-degree (30C) weather.

In many other Middle Eastern countries, the rhythm of life slows way down during Ramadan. Not so in multi-religious Lebanon. I feel for the students who have to take their final exams on hollow stomachs. The same teacher handed out exam preparation tips that included a note for fasting students: suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, should include foods rich in fiber that can help sustain energy levels and the feeling of fullness – fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, brown rice and wholegrain bread, and low-fat protein sources including skinless chicken, fish and low-fat dairy. Dawn in Lebanon was 5:27 am today, but calling it a “pre-dawn” meal is a bit misleading. Suhoor is supposed to be eaten before the first prayer time of the day – which today in Beirut was 3:43 am. Apparently some Muslims skip this meal, as getting up in the middle of the night to eat is even tougher than skipping the meal…

The other, better known Ramadan meal is iftar. This is the meal that occurs just after sundown, to break the fast. Today in Lebanon, sunset is at 7:48 pm. According to Hossein Kamaly, professor of Islamic Studies at Barnard College and interviewee of the New York Times article, “an important development, especially in the United States, is to welcome non-Muslims to ifṭars.”

Personally, I love this development. I was privileged to have been invited to two iftars in my last four years in Lebanon, but this year, I have been invited to two iftars just in the first week of Ramadan. Iftars remind me of Thanksgiving or Christmas in the US, where families and friends gather for an abundant meal. My friend who invited me to an iftar at her home today admonished me, “but this time, you have to fast!”

I was all for that until I received an invitation to a farewell cocktail party that I need to stop by in the hour before arriving to the iftar. Breaking the fast with a cocktail seems like a recipe for trouble. I guess my friend would tell me I should just not eat or drink anything at the cocktail party…

However, I’ve also read that if Muslims break their fast, they are expected to either make up with a day of fasting at another time of year OR provide a meal to a needy person. Phew. With all the Syrian refugee families in need here in Beirut, I can easily do the latter.

And if you’d like, you can help feed a Syrian refugee too.

If you are Muslim and have broken your fast, I have just the app for you. Last November, the World Food Programme launched an app called Share The Meal. One tap donates US$0.50, feeding a child for a day. The current campaign is raising funds to feed 1,400 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon for a full year. So Muslim, Christian or other, fasting or not, here is an easy way to help provide a child with an iftar (or a few) in one easy tap.

I’ve made my first donation, and am off to have that drink now… Can you spare a meal or two too?

Ramadan Kareem is one of the traditional greetings for this month, and it means “Generous Ramadan”. May Ramadan be generous to you, and may we all be generous to one another.

Heroes of Lebanon: Meet 4

So many of the news stories reported out of Lebanon are dispiriting: the ongoing garbage crisis, the lack of a president, the tensions and strife. And like any place in the world, those aren’t all the stories to be told, not even the majority. Most people in Lebanon are decent folks going around their everyday business, trying to create, provide, love.

And then there are those folks that go above and beyond. People who seek to create and provide for the greater community, for the environment, for the most marginalized. People who are doing something special to share their love for life, for the earth, for peace, for one another.

I recently had the chance to talk with 4 people like that, interviewing them for the website Matador Network. Barbara Abdeni Masssad, Michael Haddad, Sarah Beydoun, and the activist group Fighters for Peace. (Okay, so that’s really 3 people plus one group, but as you will see, that group makes a difference precisely because they work together, not alone.)

You can read their stories here:

4 Heroes Creating Positive Change in Lebanon

I hope you find them as inspiring as I did.





This is Aleppo: In A World Where Doctors Have Become Martyrs & Hospitals Battlegrounds

A post by a Lebanese blogger about the bombing of a hospital in Aleppo. A heartbreaking but important read…

A Separate State of Mind | A Blog by Elie Fares

Tucked in the lower floor of a building was Al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, Syria, a small 34 bed facility in the Sukkari neighborhood. Its windows and entrance were fortified with mostly sandbags for extra protection despite the many buildings around it that, in theory, protected it from being attacked.

The hospital was not a rebel-run hospital, despite it existing in a rebel-controlled neighborhood. It was a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and International Red Cross affiliated institution with an emergency room and an 8 bed pediatrics ward. It was as fully equipped as a hospital in times of war could be.

In the rules of warfare, horrifying as such a notion’s existence is, and as dictated by multiple conventions, notably the Geneva ones, attacks on medical institutions by any side of a conflict is considered a severe violation.

A few hours ago, a fighter jet, flying at low altitude, charged…

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Meet Amanda Saab, The Lebanese on US’ Masterchef: Changing Stereotypes & Shining With Lebanese Food

The Lebanese are proud of their compatriot Amanda Saab on MasterChef. She is also a Seattleite, and as a fellow Seattleite, I am also proud!

A Separate State of Mind | A Blog by Elie Fares

Amanda Saab Masterchef USA

Meet the awesome Amanda Saab.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine was gushing about how excited he was that there was a Lebanese candidate on this season’s Masterchef, which airs on FOX every Wednesday in the US.

On that episode, Amanda Saab had done a fusion cuisine dish, based on our very own Lebanese pride and joy: it was kefta with sumac aioli and jalapeño-dusted potatoes. Her favorite comfort food? Kebbeh nayye.

From that moment on, it’s only been looking up for her. She’s now considered by many to be one of the show’s front-runners. Amanda and I have spoken a couple of times on Twitter, and I’ve noticed how many people are rooting for her whenever a new episode airs. She keeps getting attention the more she progresses. But this is not only what’s impressive about Mrs. Saab.

Originally Lebanese and born in Michigan, when Amanda Saab does not cook…

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Welcome Ramadan

Ramadan Kareem! A time for coming together….

Beyond Beirut

Ramadan is once again upon us. It seems like only yesterday that we were fasting and yet it is here and we just completed the first day for this year. It is a month of reflection and prayer and being thankful for all the blessings we have- and I couldn’t be more grateful that my loved ones are all in good health and happy.

This month is also heavily intertwined with its traditions and customs and family gatherings, and of course, the food!

To mark the first day, my mother-in-law invited us over for iftar and it was a feast. She is an amazing cook and goes all out when she is hosting people over. Today was no exception as she made her signature dish of waraa enab (dolma to those more familiar with the term) as the whole family, or at least those of us who are here in…

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Lebanon, A House Divided (Talking Sports This Time, not Politics)

Flags hanging from balconies. Flags attached to car windows and flapping in the wind. The grocery store sells tissue boxes with your favorite team. And plastic plates and cups in team colors. Even potato chips flavored with your favorite country (Eww. And South African potato chips? I kid you not. Did the supermarket just pull them out of storage after four years?)

Who are you rooting for? My kids’ school organized a recess World Cup mini-tournament. My son played for Spain, but they were knocked out in the second round. Germany was the winner, trouncing Brazil in a stunning 8-0 game. EA Sports, the maker of the FIFA 2014 video game, ran a simulation on their game. Germany again, edging out Brazil in a 2-1 final.

Judging from the number of German flags blowing around town these days, many Lebanese would be happy with a German win.

Given that Lebanese are huge soccer fans, it’s surprising that you never hear anything about Lebanon’s team. I started to wonder if there even was one. There is a 48,000-seat multi-purpose stadium along the airport highway in Beirut, but I’ve never heard of any game of any sport being played there. Good old Wikipedia filled me in: “The Cedars” as the Lebanese team is affectionately known, does indeed exist.

And the last time I could find an online record of them playing a game in the stadium was June 2012, which was just days after I moved here. It was a World Cup qualifying game against Qatar. The stadium sold out, but to no avail – Lebanon lost 0-1 (ending up last in their group, under Iran, South Korea, Uzbekistan and Qatar).

The Cedars are currently ranked 114 in the world, up from a dreary 154 in 2010, near the end of its 5-year ban on fans in the stadiums.

If Lebanon’s national team has a lackluster history, its national league is worse. During the extended ban on attendance at the stadium, ticket sales evaporated (unsurprisingly), advertising revenue subsequently plummeted, and the teams were going broke. Politics (and by extension, religion) stepped up to fill the vacuum, and now each team in the national league is affiliated with a political party, which in turn are affiliated with religious sects.

So given the weakness of the national team and league, everyone gets behind someone else.

We saw it when we arrived and the European Championship League finals took place. Young Lebanese men more excited for an Italy win than my soccer-loving Italian husband. Maybe it’s no surprise, given how sectarian the country is, that there’s no single team that enjoys support from the majority of Lebanese soccer fans.

Or maybe the spreading of the love is because the Lebanese are some of the world’s top globetrotters. There are an estimated 6 to 7 million Brazilians of Lebanese descent. Between Brazil hosting, Brazil being one of the best teams in the world, and Brazil having more Lebanese than Lebanon itself, you can imagine that Brazil is another favorite for Lebanese soccer fans (as well as for The Economist, bookies in London, statisticians at Deutsche Bank, and many other forecasters).

Our family could be a microcosm of the Lebanese society. Support split amongst parties, loyalties challenged and ever-shifting. My husband and I are nationalistic in our support, respectively rooting for Italy (who is said to have a 1.7% chance of winning) and USA (who had such a small chance of winning that it didn’t even make the charts). Our daughter is rooting for Ecuador (where she was born) our son for Brazil (admittedly predictable, but it was his favorite team in 2010 also). We all cheer for Honduras as well, simply because that’s where we lived last (we’re dreading the Honduras-Ecuador game though… who to support?).

From the cars around town, it’s clear we’re not the only house divided.

And yet the flags hang in peace next to each other. And for now, peace reigns in our house as well.

Let’s see how long it lasts….