In many countries during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, drummers walk through the streets of towns in the early morning hours to wake people up for suhur, a meal meant to help people get through the fast. Here, such a tradition would probably not be popular.
Suhur, typically eaten at home and consumed before sunrise, has been reinvented by Muslim-Americans, who are creating their own tradition between the night hours and before the morning prayers. They’re leaving home at 2 a.m. to eat breakfast, and then heading home or to their mosques to pray. They’re turning this usually quick and efficient meal into a chance to socialize, throw parties, and create a tradition that kids can look forward to. Friends are meeting at 24-hour diners, college students host suhurs in their dorm rooms, and families are told to arrive promptly at 2 a.m. for potluck suhurs. There have even been suhur birthday parties.
“I want to make memories for Eamon,” says Muneeb Khan, 42, sitting at a table at the International House of Pancakes in Brighton with his 8-year-old son and more than 20 other Muslim parents and kids. It’s about 3 a.m. and all these families are affiliated with the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland. Next to their table, a group of six younger Muslims, the men in sweat pants and the women in head scarves, have also come for suhur.
Orders include blueberry pancakes with whipped cream, double-chocolate pancakes with chips, stuffed French toast, frosted Cinn-A-Stack pancakes, vegetarian omelets, and lots of turkey bacon. Amr Ragy is in it mostly for the coffee, asserting that it won’t stop him from going back to sleep. “It doesn’t wake me up. It just has to be in my system,” says Ragy, who is from Egypt. “Especially this coffee.”
By 3:52 a.m., when someone’s cellphone alarm goes off to alert these diners to stop eating — the fast has begun — most of the food and drink is gone.
The Islamic calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and is about 10 days shorter than the Gregorian year. That means that Ramadan, which this year started July 10, begins about 10 days earlier every year. Winter’s early nightfall means shorter fasts. Summer fasts are long and finish late, and the fast-breaking evening meal called iftar is closer to suhur in summer. As Mario Moreira, president of the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland, puts it, “I still have crumbs in my beard.”
Some people find it hard to rise so early for suhur, but the chance to socialize is an incentive. “My mom really had to work hard to get me to wake up,” says Mariam Ismail, 29. By the time she was in her early 20s, it was easier. “I would have suhur because it became a social event.”
On a recent Ramadan weekend, Ismail, of Sharon, and her friends attended traditional nighttime prayers known as taraweeh at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which finished after midnight, and then followed them with an hour or so of Quran study. By the time Ismail and her friends were done, it was time for suhur, so they headed to Victoria’s Diner, a short drive away and one of only a handful of places in the area open 24 hours.
“It’s great to be able to do the spiritual, and then do something social,” Ismail says. “Ramadan is about connecting with God, but it’s also about being with family and friends.”
Some people are expanding the social suhur concept to include potlucks at home. Khan, who lives in Belmont, is hosting a suhur potluck with his wife, Elizabeth, in August, when they plan to serve cinnamon French toast. “She doesn’t like IHOP, but felt guilty about missing [the socializing],”says Khan.
At the Islamic Center in Sharon, youngsters there are adapting another American tradition during suhur: hot dogs and s’mores around a campfire. The mosque sits on a couple acres of land, and when Quran study is over, about 30 young Muslims build a campfire and start cooking their treats.
“They love being with their friends, and they love being up late,” says Fathima Ali, one of the organizers.
Last year, the mosque chef often made curry and other South Asian dishes. This year, kids requested pancakes, waffles, bagels, and cereal.
“Most of the kids come from traditional families and can get curry anytime. They wanted pancakes because this is one of the few times during the year that they can have them,” says Ali.