Amira Mohamed-Ameen is 16 and loves acting, hanging out with her friends at the mall, and listening to music. Yes, she sometimes gets annoyed by her 8-year-old brother, but everything about this high-energy girl says "average teenager."
For the past three weeks, though, Amira has been preparing for the biggest role of her life — playing the part of Puck in the Lake Braddock High School production of Shakespeare’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream."
As if that weren't enough of a challenge, Amira has been grinding through rehearsals while observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which involves, among other duties, complete fasting from sunup to sundown daily for 40 days.
"I definitely keep my eye on the watch, [to see] when I can eat," Amira said. "The time flies by during rehearsals, so I don’t really feel like I’m fasting. But there comes a point when my energy is so drained."
Amira is the middle of three children of Mohy El-Din Mohamed-Ameen and Hala Elwan, who live in Burke. Originally from Egypt, Mohamed-Ameen and Elwan have been in this country for over 20 years, and during that time, they have striven to keep the traditions of their homeland and their religion, alive.
"It really is a gift from God," said Mohamed-Ameen of Islam. "Even though I came here [to America], to something completely different, I grew up with this. It’s hard not to do it. And we’re trying to bring our family up the same way we were brought up."
OBSERVING RAMADAN is one of the "five pillars" of Islam. During the month, followers of Islam adhere to dietary restrictions, pray daily at a masjid, or mosque, and seek to focus on their relationship with Allah. It is a special month for followers of the religion, no matter in which corner of the world they find themselves.
"It’s a very special month, of prayer, blessings, seeing people you haven’t seen, being compassionate with people in need, and getting more in touch with the Creator and yourself," said Mohamed-Ameen.
During Ramadan, The Mohamed-Ameen family spends more time together, eating breakfast together before sunrise, and breaking their fast each night after sundown with something sweet, usually fruit. One of the dishes they enjoy is a khoshaf, a Middle Eastern fruit salad that features peaches, apricots, dates and figs in rose and orange blossom water. Each night after breaking their fast, the family spends two hours at the masjid praying, then visits with their friends.
Their time together is one of the reasons why Ramadan is so special to them, said Elwan, who moved to the United States and married Mohamed-Ameen at age 24. She now works as an accountant in the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C.
"Family is a big part of our life," she said, reflecting on how leaving her homeland affected her life.
"All your memories are from back home, that is where you grew up," she said. "It’s weird because we are living here, and we are trying to keep our tradition, what we left. You feel like you’re in the middle."
The Mohamed-Ameen family has returned to Egypt, but only once every two or three years. When they go back, they notice how the culture of home looks more like America each time.
"They want to be Americans," said Amira. "I try to talk to them in Arabic, they talk to me in American."
BOTH AMIRA and Elwan wear a hijab, the traditional head scarf worn by women of Islam. Amira started wearing hers in June 2002, just nine months after the events of Sept. 11.
"One day, I said, ‘I think I’m at that age, I should start wearing the scarf,’ and I did it," she said.
Amira said she got some strange looks at the mall, but overall, her friends and classmates accepted her.
"Now, I don’t notice it, but when I first started, it was annoying. Even if they weren’t looking at me, I would feel like [they were]," she said.
Mohamed-Ameen, however, was concerned.
"I was worried sick when she first put it on," he said. "I’ve been here for such a long time that it doesn’t bother me any, if I go to the masjid and pray, or tell people that I’m fasting. For her, though, especially after the incident of 9/11, people look at people from different backgrounds differently."
Understanding the customs and beliefs of Islam might go a long way toward healing the wounds of that day.
"People do stupid stuff, unfortunately," said Mohamed-Ameen. "I can’t be put in the same basket as everybody else."
Staying true to Islam and observing Ramadan is one way for the Mohamed-Ameen family to remember their country. Mohamed-Ameen said he came to this country in 1979 to study mechanical engineering for an adventure but planned on heading somewhere else after he finished school.
"I never expected to stay here," he said. "The first year I was homesick like crazy, the second year it was a little easier, and the third year, I said, ‘This is it, this is my new home.’"
Mohamed-Ameen works for Goodyear in Herndon and said he has grown comfortable with living out his religion among others who don’t believe the same as he does.
One thing that is still difficult is feeling like an island in the middle of an ocean of Americans who celebrate their own holidays.
"When I was growing up, [celebrating Ramadan] was like how people here celebrate Christmas. … The whole street would be lit up with colored lanterns, and we’d go together around the whole neighborhood singing," said Mohamed-Ameen. "It’s something I miss very much."
For Elwan, her experience here has been one of growth, moving from a place of conformity to one of coming to terms with her religion and her individuality.
"My first big travel ever was from Egypt to the United States. At first, I was amazed with the lifestyle here," she said. "But religion is something that will always be inside you, like a little box, even if you never practice it. I was trying to be like Americans, in a way, and to change. But after a while, your box starts to open and you say, ‘Wait a minute.’
"At some point, something started to click again with me. That is why I teach them from a young age, so it stays with them," she said.