Arab families celebrating iftar in US heartland

With an estimated 3.5 million Muslims living in the US, the contents and traditions of the iftar dinner table are evolving all the time

Hadil Lababidi, her husband Dr Ahmad Anjak and their three children at their home in West Chester, Ohio. Photo: Stephen Starr
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As people across the Middle East are resting or praying in the early hours of the morning, millions of Muslims across the US are settling down for iftar.

For Hadil Lababidi, her husband Dr Ahmad Anjak and their three children, iftar represents a nod to long-standing traditions of their native Syria and new takes they have picked up in Ohio.

When The National arrives at her home in the well-heeled suburb of West Chester, Ms Lababidi is busy preparing from scratch ma’arouk, a sweet bread and Ramadan speciality from Aleppo.

“You can make it with yansoon [anise] and other spices, [with] dates, chocolate or cheese,” she says as she kneads the dough into shape.

Kibbeh in yoghurt, she says, is the go-to iftar meal. “My children mainly prefer this. In Aleppo, we have many kinds of kibbeh but this one is the most popular.

“But the most important foods for iftar are soup and fattoush,” she says. “We can live without anything except for these two dishes.”

A planner for the Warren County Regional Planning Commission, Ms Lababidi says that most of the foods from home are available to buy in local shops that specialise in international foods.

For Dr Anjak, a medical doctor at the University of Cincinnati, however, the kind of fresh fruit and vegetables that were once available during Ramadan in Syria are hard to find in the US.

Like Muslim families everywhere, special effort is put into gathering to eat as a family for Ramadan every night, a tradition that has carried over from their lives in Aleppo.

“I definitely put a special effort into making Syrian food for Ramadan. Sometimes, I’ll prepare food like kibbeh the week before Ramadan to use it for iftar,” she says. “But the kids do like American food. My son likes burgers, fajitas, pizza but it’s not just him — we all like these, as well as Chinese and Pakistani food.”

A more recent take on iftar dishes are less traditional foods such as avocado rolls, a plate of which her Syrian neighbour had just dropped off.

“In Syria, we would cook meals and share a portion of them with family and neighbours. It’s the same here,” says Ms Lababidi.

These days, iftar is often held with Ms Lababidi’s sister and her family, who moved to the US last year and live close by.

With the wider Muslim community growing fast, Ramadan events and group iftars at the local Islamic Centre are now a regular part of community life.

“You can easily find 300, 400 people there on weekend nights,” she says.

She says that in Syria, taraweeh was attended almost exclusively by men. But in the US, they go as a family almost every night during the holy month.

In Ohio, gone are the days of spending hours watching made-for-Ramadan TV shows after iftar. That time is now replaced with visits to the mosque for prayers or to meet fellow worshippers for chai tea gatherings.

That’s in part, says Dr Anjak, because streaming services and YouTube allow those shows to be watched at anywhere, anytime. Their children, though they’ve never lived in Syria, are huge fans of the Syrian comedy Diaa Dayaa, while their third-grade son Farouk plays football with a local team in the hours before iftar. The kids, says Ms Lababidi, now volunteer during Ramadan.

The local school district excuses fasting pupils from the canteen at lunch and break times and allows them to use a specific room in which to gather. Some pupils are allowed to rest on bean bags in school hours.

“Every year we receive emails from the principal asking if the kids need anything done for them during Ramadan,” Ms Lababidi says. “They are aware of that and they provide services for the students.”

And yet, there are some marked differences to Ramadan in Ohio and Syria.

“In Syria, the majority of cafes and restaurants are closed during the day in Ramadan,” she says. “Here, it’s more difficult because the smell of the food is there all day, when we go to a mall at weekends, or during lunchtime at work — the sound of the microwave! So, that’s a little difficult but people are respectful.”

Updated: April 17, 2023, 2:00 PM