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A ‘Utopia in the World’

Ramadan fasting brings Muslim students closer to God wherever they are.

The smell of dinner fills the house as Rayan Abdelgader, a senior at West Potomac High School, vacuums the carpet. The food is ready, and she’s already had to tell her younger sister not to serve it onto plates. But she couldn’t stop her from filling up a pitcher of water and leaving it on the table. Neither girl has had anything to eat or drink in over 10 hours, neither will for two more.

Abdelgader’s father comes home from work exhausted. He also hasn’t eaten since before dawn. But the house is clean, the food is cooked and there is no excuse for him to deny his daughter’s request, so he and his family get in the car for the 25-minute drive to Falls Church, where police are directing traffic as thousands of Muslims converge on the Dar Al Hijrah Mosque. Hungry and thirsty, Abdelgader walks into a bright room packed with people she has never met. And each one of them wants to greet her. “Ramadan Karim,” people say to one another. She translates this as, “You’re here. You’re alive.”

Abdelgader describes the feeling of kneeling besides thousands of other strangers, and later of eating and drinking with them, shoulder to shoulder.

For another West Potomac student, Muna Tulsum, Ramadan’s best associations revolve around intimate time with family. “Most importantly for me,” she said, “I spend a lot more time with my family. I see my mom and dad more often because they come home and break the fast together.”

Parent liaison Raheel Ahmed-Litz also associates Ramadan with home, specifically the light and warmth of the kitchen pushing back the chilly darkness before dawn. One person makes a big pot of tea while other family members set the table with a heaping meal meant to push them as far as possible through the long daylight hours.

“It just tends to be one of the most amazing times in your life,” Ahmed-Litz said. “You get up and it’s quiet. Everyone else around you tends to be hustling and bustling. If you’re lucky enough you get a gi-normous meal at o-dark hundred. It’s just a magical time.”

ALL THREE WOMEN are involved with West Potomac’s Muslim Youth Club, which has more than 35 members. A group of them met during Ramadan to discuss their faith in Islam and their month-long fast, which runs from Sept. 24 to Oct. 23 this year, corresponding to the waxing and waning of the moon. The Ramadan fast is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with the belief in the truth of the one God, Allah, and his prophet Mohamed, the five-times daily prayer, giving a part of one’s wealth to charity and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Most Muslims describe their fast as a vehicle for spiritual experience and empathy for the hungry and poor of the world.

West Potomac High School’s student body president Mohamed Chouat is also a member of the Muslim Club. He explained Ramadan by referencing the Puritans, who tried to build a “city upon a hill” in Massachusetts. In contrast, he said, Muslims seek to bring holiness to earth by coordinating certain moments of the day and year for universal prayer and reflection. “Basically we have a utopia in the world,” he said. “It’s not in a certain place.”

He said the fast exists “to make you appreciate what you have. Those simple things in life that most people take for granted.” And he stressed that the Ramadan fast is one-twelfth of every year. “A twelfth of your life you’re going to be fasting, that changes what you do. It has a bigger meaning. It has a big impact on your soul.”

Ramadan is also a major part of the school year. Ahmed-Litz said that when she was a student in Fairfax County schools years ago, there was little appreciation for her beliefs. She was forced to sit in the cafeteria and watch other students eat when she could not. “When I was a kid, the teachers didn’t know and the teachers didn’t care,” she said.

West Potomac assistant principal Nancy Kreloff recalls working at Lee High School when it had an influx of Muslim immigrants and the school did not know how to accommodate them. “I would see our kids in the hallways and I realized they didn’t have any place to go or to meet or to pray during Ramadan.” She said things began to change in the county in the mid-1990s, and by Sept. 11, 2001 “a lot of our Muslim kids said they felt safest at school, because we had a very multicultural family there.”

This year Ahmed-Litz worked with West Potomac’s administration to ensure that fasting students would be accommodated as thoroughly as possible. A room with prayer rugs has been set up, and fasting students will be able to retreat to the media center instead of having to watch their classmates eat during lunch hour.

Muna Telsem said her gym instructors took her aside to let her know she could abstain from strenuous exercise, a welcome relief since her body was “shutting down” from lack of food or fluids in her system. “Having support from teachers really means a lot,” she added. Teachers also try to let fasting students take tests early in the day, when their bodies and minds are still functioning at their highest levels.

And on Saturday, the club hosted a public breaking of the fast at the school, to educate people in the school community. Dahabo said, the club's sponsor, estimated that about 200 people attended the ceremony, with about 60 non-Muslims who came to observe.

“Every day my respect gets bigger for Fairfax County,” said Abdelgader, who emigrated from Sudan four years ago.

THE TEN OR SO club members who met to speak about Ramadan represented roots in five different countries: Tunisia, Somalia, Eritrea, Pakistan and Sudan. They said they began the club last year to counter stereotyped expectations about Muslims. “People always fear what they don’t understand,” said Mohamed Mohamed. “Islam is from such a far place. They don’t understand it.”

“We want to show West Potomac how good and kind people we are,” said Said. But Chouat added that his classmates accept his faith. “Although our school is diverse, it’s very respectful of religion.”

“I just want to say thank you to the whole West Potomac community for welcoming us,” said Mohamed, the club’s vice-president and also a member of JROTC.

And the Muslim students are also accepting of one another’s faith. “Some of them are strict in practice and some of them aren’t; some of them have a boyfriend [or] girlfriend,” said Said, “but they don’t judge.”

Especially during Ramadan. “I think by Ramadan I learn patience. Patience is the key thing about Islam,” said Muna Tulsum. “Watching what you say is very hard.”

“Someone might have an argument with me. You just let it go, because you’re fasting. Some of my friends realize I’m more calm, more nice during Ramadan.”

Abdelgader concurred, “You bite your tongue before you say anything. I intend to get closer to Allah, my God, by praying all the time and reading the Koran, and not fighting with my sister.”

And Faiza Ahmad said that Ramadan’s one extra beat, the moment she takes to stop and think before she says something unpleasant, carries on even after the celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the end of the holy month. When she finds herself saying something unkind, there is a concrete sense of disappointment. “I promised myself, I promised to God, I wouldn’t do this and now all of a sudden where are those promises?”

But when asked about the difficulty of keeping those promises, Said said that ultimately, Ramadan creates a momentum of its own. “The reward is something you cannot imagine. It’s just a feeling and a happiness. I sleep only four hours a night and I still have energy to go to work, to cook, to go to mosque. And you can’t imagine the happiness and closeness to God that you feel. It’s not even a hardship. I feel like something joy. I feel like I’m lucky to be alive to be here. I’m not sure next year I’ll be alive to have this chance to fast.”