In a traditional long, aqua Pakistani tunic and slender trousers, a finely woven tan shawl draped over one shoulder, Farah Abbas doesn’t look like she’s dressed to make fritters in a fat bath that can be messy and splatter oil. She dips baby spinach leaves one by one into a spicy chickpea batter, and as the little leaves float in the fat bath, they puff and turn golden. These are palak pakoras, which translates as “spinach dumplings.” Not a drop of oil touches her. “We’ve cooked this way our whole lives,” she says.
She and her mother, Anjum Abbas, make pakoras for iftar, the nightly meal that breaks the sunrise-to-sunset fast each day of Ramadan, which began on May 27 and goes through June 24. “They’re like onion rings,” says Farah, who was born in Karachi. Every culture has its own specialties for breaking the Ramadan fast, but around the world, wherever Muslims live, iftar begins with plump dates, the food with which Mohammed is said to have broken his own fast.
Ramadan is a time for prayer and reflection. This season, the holiday brings with it new thoughts, new concerns. Earlier this year, when President Trump signed an executive order to ban travel from predominantly Muslim countries, Farah Abbas was touched by the warmth of people who reached out. “So much love, so many cards. People I hardly knew have sent cards,” she says. Now her parents, who live in Pakistan, are visiting for Ramadan. Their daughter didn’t know how things would go at passport control. “I was worried,” she says. But they didn’t have any problems.
Abbas wants non-Muslims to learn about her traditions, and iftar is a particularly good time for that. The meal is shared with family, friends, and the wider community; it is an opportunity to ask others to join in.
“I was always hesitant to invite people to my house,” she says. But this year she’ll entertain friends and co-workers from Oxfam America, where she is the shared services application manager. Also at the table are her husband, Imran Sayeed; sons Farhan, 11, Faizan, 16, and Furqan, 19; and Imran’s mother, Fauzia Sayeed, who lives with them and has taught her daughter-in-law many dishes.
Abbas and her parents moved from Pakistan to Muscat, Oman, when she was a toddler, then to Dubai. She went to Brown, where she met her husband, who had coincidentally lived in Dubai.
Although some of her sons’ teachers haven’t understood their need to pray on Fridays, others have surprised her. Last year, a special ceremony at school for Farhan fell on the first day of Ramadan, which meant no pizza for him while everyone else feasted. The day before, the school principal took him to lunch. Abbas is organizing an invitation-only iftar at a church in Belmont on June 10 for people who want to learn more about Islamic traditions.
Ramadan falls at a different time each year, according to the lunar calendar. Summer is the most challenging time, says Abbas, because of the long days. Mornings she wakes the boys at 2:45 a.m. so they can finish breakfast by 3:30, when the first rays of daybreak appear. They sit down for iftar at 8:30 p.m., with the fast and many prayers between the two meals. The last prayers of the day are at the Islamic Center of Boston in Wayland.
The fast doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. “It’s a joyous time for our family. We look forward to it,” says Abbas. Ramadan, she says, wakes up one’s spiritual side. It’s a time to give to charity, to think about people who have less, to do good deeds, and to bring the community together.
In Watertown, Amira Elamri is part of a group organizing a town iftar on June 8. Elamri moved here from Damascus in 2014 with her husband and two young children, who do not fast but are encouraged to give up snacks during the day. “We try to help them know the traditions,” she says. One new tradition is a phone app that gives the family sunrise and sunset times.
The Syrian-born teacher’s aide breaks the fast with dates, water, and a soup such as red lentil or chicken with noodles. Her husband enjoys a dish from home called fatteh, which combines chickpeas and torn pita covered with a lemony hummus-yogurt sauce, topped with ghee or butter.
“All Muslims look forward to Ramadan,” says Elamri. “Not only do we not mind the fast, it is very rewarding when we fast.” She reads a lot of Koran during Ramadan, and is careful “to do the right thing,” she says. “You give up everything to focus on your spirit and focus on the poor.”
When it’s time to break the fast, Farah Abbas might serve a cooling rooh-afza, milk with a pink blush from a spoonful of rose syrup. Her family also likes badam ka sharbat, in which hot milk turns golden from saffron, ground almonds, tiny dried melon seeds, and sugar. It’s served chilled and has a little crunch of nuts and seeds.
She seasons the chickpea batter for the pakoras from a traditional stainless spice tin with smaller round containers inside holding the spices. “My mom gave this to me when I went to college,” she says. She’s taken it with her everywhere. One container is bent into a teardrop shape because the tin dropped on the road when she was moving at one point. She had insisted on carrying it, and as everything went flying, a car ran over one of the rounds.
While Abbas is at her family table, Jamil Abdullah, an Eversource engineer who lives in Quincy, will be at Masjid Al-Qur’an in Grove Hall, Roxbury, where the fast ends with dates, fruit, juice, and water. Everyone is offered a meal sponsored by individuals, families, businesses, or, on nights when there is no sponsor, the mosque.
For the last few years, Abdullah has helped organize large iftar dinners for the group Boston Muslim Young Professionals. This year the event takes place on June 16 at MassChallenge in the Innovation District in Boston (details are available on Eventbrite). He has also been involved with an all-night prayer event on Revere Beach.
“Every event we have is open to non-Muslims,” says Abdullah. “Our focus is on community.”
To learn about that community, some high schools send students to a mosque for the day, says Abbas. She thinks her own town of Belmont needs to do more. She lives in a unique place, full of understanding residents, she says. Yet, “there are people who don’t personally know any Muslims.” She hopes to change that.