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A Ramadan tradition in Torrance

by Omar Shamout | Off-Ramp®

Keya stops the wagon in front of a neighbor’s house. Omar Shamout

The Muslim holy month of Ramadan ends August 18. During the month, believers fast during daylight hours, but that doesn’t mean food gets ignored. Recently, Omar Shamout traveled to Torrance to spend the day with The Hossain family, who illustrate just how crucial a role food can play during Ramadan.

Keya Hossain, 11, is used to introducing herself to strangers. She and her younger sister Linna, who’s nine, are veteran salesmen. Only they aren’t selling anything.

Along with some close friends and their parents, the girls travel around their neighborhood with a wagon to collect a canned food that the family donates to a local food bank. While it’s common for mosques to do food drives during Ramadan, the Hossains take things a step further. Keya and her sister say they look forward to the fasting and charity work, even if it means setting aside sibling rivalries.

“I was helping my sister more and she was like, ‘you’re being nice today,’ and I said, ‘it’s Ramadan,’ that’s why I’m being nice,” Keya said.

Their mom Amy said that’s all part of the plan. “The reason we do the canned food drive during Ramadan is because the kids are fasting. And while they’re fasting they will understand more why we’re doing what we’re doing,” Amy said. “The interesting thing is that the nourishment you get from food and drink is an earthly nourishment. And ... what kind of nourishing you’re gaining during Ramadan is the spiritual nourishment.”

Linna said canned beans and vegetables are what neighbors offer up the most, in addition to a certain pink lunch meat – Spam.

“Do you like Spam?” a neighbor asked the younger Hossain sister, handing over the iconic blue can. “We don’t eat pork or ham,” Keya politely informed him.

Afterwards, Keya mentioned that one member of the family has tried Spam in the past. “My cat ate it, and she liked it—a lot,” she laughed.

About half an hour later, the wagon was really starting to fill up as Keya gripped the handle to pull it down the sidewalk after another successful visit. “It was heavier than when it started, so that’s a good sign,” Keya said.

But soon, the kids grew tired – and hungry – so the group headed for home.

After sorting through the day’s haul with her three-year-old nephew Leif, Amy took me into the bedroom to show off their grand total so far. “It’s … maybe 150 items? So, it’s not much, but hopefully—it’ll help.”

Raised in a Christian household, Amy didn’t convert to Islam until almost a decade after she married her husband, Iqbal, who came to U.S. 20 years ago from Bangladesh. Now married 15 years, they both said the choice to convert was all hers.

“It has to come from within. I didn’t ... want to push her to do something, Iqbal said. “Sometimes I like to say I didn’t come to this faith by being a conformist,” Amy added. “I came to this faith by thinking for myself — and that’s actually what the Quran asks us to do, what God asks us to do, is to think for our self—not just simply follow what other people are doing,” she continued.

With about two hours to go before sundown, the kids started looking for ways to pass the time before dinner. Soon, they were punching away on their iPhones playing a popular new game called Temple Run. “I don’t play video games that much, but sometimes at night time … like an hour before … you get really hungry, so I usually play video games or something,” Linna said.

At 7:30 p.m., the time for dinner, known as “Iftar,” has finally arrived. The Hossains headed to their mosque at the nearby South Bay Islamic Center, where Amy also works. The center, no more than a converted house, serves free dinners every night of Ramadan. They have to set up a tent next door to accommodate the 200-or-so guests.

“[It will] probably almost always be Pakistani food here. Sometimes they have Iranian food,” Amy said, looking at a light meal of pakora, fruit salad and dates. Later, she explained why the family likes to eat at the temple during Ramadan on occasion.

“When you’re at home and you’re having Suhur and Iftar, you know that there’s houses all around you ... doing the same thing, but to see it in front of you is something else —it’s nice.”

But before they dug in to the main course, it was time for some more of the spiritual nourishment Amy described earlier. Pre-dinner prayers inside the mosque last approximately half an hour, and there are more to come later.

It’s midnight by the time services are over. The Hossains went home to sleep, but they’ll be up before sunrise to begin another long day.

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