From New York to Curitiba and Shanghai, three Muslim families share how they celebrate Ramadan and connect with their roots outside of the Arab world.
Kenza Fourati, Ayman Mohyeldin, Dora, And Idris
A Tunisian-Egyptian family in New York
Ramadan is considered a Holy Month by more than 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. For most people, Ramadan means family. The 30 days leading up to Eid-Al-Fitr are a marriage of self-awareness, piety, prayer, celebrating the other, and sharing with the ones we love. In New York, former Vogue Arabia cover star and entrepreneur Kenza Fourati celebrates Ramadan by partaking in the traditions and the rituals of the Holy Month.
“We break our fast as a family and enjoy preparing our iftar together,” says the Tunisian model. “We practice our spiritual rituals at home and with the community and we join in the month-long cultural traditions as well, such as catching up on all the moussalsalet [Arabic soap operas],” she shares. Ramadan is a peaceful month when families reconnect and bodies and minds regenerate. “It’s the chance for us to reset our spiritual awareness and refocus on what is important to us as individuals and as a family. We enjoy the ability to slow life down and focus on faith and spirituality,” remarks the co-founder of the ethical, artisan-based lifestyle brand Osay.
Having recently become a US citizen, Fourati says she feels her Arab roots each time she prepares hsou, a hearty Tunisian soup, and maklouba made the Palestinian way, before ordering kanafeh “prepared by this incredible Palestinian mother-daughter duo based in California called Knafeh Queens.” Her home is a “collection of spices” as she is married to Palestinian-Egyptian NBC news anchor Ayman Mohyeldin, who introduced her to Lebanese-style cooking. They comment that Americans are increasingly aware of what Ramadan is and what it signifies. Their friends are celebratory and supportive during this month, even if in New York, and throughout the West generally, the pace of life does not slow down like it does in the Arab world. “When you are operating on your own schedule and timeline for the day irrespective of your professional commitments, the challenge of fasting becomes harder. But at the same time, the sense of devotion and conviction to your faith grows stronger,” comments Mohyeldin. “Our children are still small but we try to establish traditions with them, notably around food. We have a few children’s books explaining the concept of Ramadan as well.” Underscoring the wisdom of elders, he adds, “Their grandparents on both sides also do a good job at explaining traditions and customs.”
Asmae Abid, Nabil El Mhasni, Kenza Sarah, And Selma Sophia
Moroccan-Dutch family in Shanghai
Far from their home and their roots, in Shanghai, China, a Moroccan-Dutch family is preparing to observe Ramadan as if they were in the Netherlands, where they grew up and where the Moroccan Muslim community is committed to its traditions. Asmae Abid, a diplomat at the Consulate general of the Netherlands in Shanghai, and her husband, Nabil El Mhasni, were born in Meknes, an imperial city in Morocco. Abid was seven months old when her parents took her to the Netherlands. “For us, Ramadan is a month of iman [faith], charity, and discipline, but also a month in which unity and togetherness of humanity are central,” she states.
For the mother of a 15- and a nine-year-old, Ramadan is a month she prefers to celebrate with her family. “I miss the preparations of my mother, who is already making chebakia and zamita [Moroccan pastry] a month ahead of time. Those scents enhance the Ramadan atmosphere. That is what we try to create at home here in Shanghai.” El Mhasni is a great Moroccan cook who makes delicious traditional cookies. “A month in advance, you can already whiff the chebakia and zamita. It smells just like home.” For the diplomat, the most difficult part is the distance from and time difference between her and her family in the Netherlands and Morocco. “We prepare the food together with our daughters, we set the table festively, and at Maghrib time we say the special Ramadan prayer before we break the fast with a date and a glass of milk,” she says, always with a special thought for her family back home.
In their almost four years living in Shanghai, the family has built up a large circle of friends. On the weekends, they host iftars at their home and break the fast together. Muslims and non Muslims are welcome. “For the local Chinese it is often new and they ask a lot of questions out of curiosity. We experience that as a compliment,” says Abid. “I have very flexible colleagues, which is great, especially during Ramadan. If it sometimes gets too heavy, I can always take a day or some hours off. During a working day, I keep my mindset positive and try to manage my time. For example, I take some personal time, like a long walk during my lunch break,” she says. “I am very open when colleagues ask me questions about the Holy Month and I explain to them what my motives are. That always leads to a beautiful conversation.” As for their daughters, Abid and El Mhasni explain to them what is good and what is close to them as a person, but also as a Muslim. “We explain to them that fasting is not only about not eating, it also has many other benefits, such as teaching patience, appreciation, and self-reflection. We don’t force them to fast. But they like to participate themselves. They start counting down the days to Ramadan a month in advance.
Kenza Attaourti, Alexandre Fertonani, and Sophia, with Asmaa Wakine
Moroccan-Brazilian family in Curitiba, Brazil
It is believed that the Holy Quran was sent down from heaven and revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel in the 7th century during the month of Ramadan to serve as “a guidance unto men, a declaration of direction, and a means of salvation.” To commemorate this holy event, Muslims around the world fast and pray during this time, taking time to reflect on their faith and traditions.
It’s a time that Moroccan Kenza Attaourti Fertonani loves to share with her daughter, Sophia. “Ramadan has always been a special month for me,” says Attaourti from Curitiba, Brazil. “I find that it’s a mixture of mysticism and spirituality. It’s like God is inviting you on a monthlong trip to discover yourself, get to know your limits, push your boundaries, and be a better version every day.” The businesswoman recalls that, after leaving her hometown of Marrakech when she graduated from college more than 10 years ago, she looked to her happy childhood memories of family gathering around the table, surrounded by the smell of hariras [traditional Moroccan soup].
“It can be hard being away from family and the Ramadan spirit, but I’m used to it now. Some days are harder, of course. Technology has helped a lot to shorten distances; we can video call with the family and share our days,” she remarks. “Besides having my husband and daughter, I’m lucky to have my cousin living in the same city. We usually do iftar together, where we prepare our food and dress the table. We put some Moroccan-Andalusian music on and light incense to get into the mood. We also put the azan on before breaking our fast. That moment is so unique – back in Morocco, the whole city stops and unites for iftar.”
Attaourti is fortunate to work in a setting where her spiritual needs are respected. During the Holy Month, she leaves work early in order to have time to prepare her special table. “I am glad to live in a country that accepts me as I am. Brazilians are welcoming and tolerant, and I feel truly blessed,” she says. “They are usually curious to know more about Ramadan and its rituals and are amazed that we can fast, including not drinking. So we get a lot of, ‘Wow, you guys are so strong.’ Knowing that I am on a spiritual journey with millions of Muslims around the world is heartwarming.”
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Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Vogue Arabia