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Essay: Our Blended Family and the ‘Togetherness’ of Ramadan

With my remarriage nine years ago, my single-parented family of three gained two appetite additions: the nuanced one of my gourmand husband and, for two to three months of the year, that of my teen stepson, Jochua, solidly rooted in good ol’ southern American fare.

Which, for him, being brought up as a Christian, includes bacon. (Thank Allah for quality halal beef bacon ready to do fill-in duty!)

You could say my son Hamza is also a meat ‘n potatoes kind of guy. Halal meat and turmeric-laced potatoes that is. My mother, an amazing cook, has nurtured his taste for good ol’ southern Indian fare.

And then my daughter, Bilqis, turned vegetarian four years ago. The kind of vegetarian who thrives on the sameness of her favorite foods, like veggie sushi rolls, with drizzled spicy sauce on top (i.e. she’ll eat it every day if she could).

Author S.K. Ali's children, Jochua, Hamza, and Bilqis
Author S.K. Ali's children - Jochua, Hamza, and Bilqis - at Eid, 2016. Courtesy of S.K. Ali

On his turns to cook, my husband has served works of art that were gobbled up in three seconds by the kids. Because of that, he’s now been assigned to be my personal chef for when our date nights are stay-at-home affairs.

I bravely took on the role of primary meal-preparer in the household.

I had to learn to be deft when nourishing the family. I like to pretend that this means I balanced everyone’s needs, but it means I tended to one palate for a while until one of them said: "Remember when you used to make [insert favorite dish]?" At which point, I’d go all out focused on that nostalgic person’s particular culinary desires. Sauté, grill, repeat.

And then, Ramadan arrives — on lunar calendar time.

For the past few years, the month-long focus on fasting and prayer has coincided with my not-Muslim stepson’s stay with us, his fasting Muslim family.

In a hallelujah turn of events, it’s been OK for him to fast with us. (This is hallelujah because joining in for prayers at our house wasn’t something he did, due to his upbringing.)

Fasting — the act of abstaining in the way of God — is a part of many faith traditions and is simple, understandable, and accessible in terms of its spiritual significance. People get it.

But Muslim fasting is arguably the hardest of all fasts: exercising extra care in not giving in to social ills such as backbiting or losing your patience with others, no sexual relations, no food or drink, not even water, from dawn to sunset.

The length of the fasting day varies and depends on where you are in the world. For North Americans, it’s pretty long this year and has been pretty long for the past few years. (We’re talking around 3 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET and around 4 a.m. to 8 p.m. PT.)

So Jochua has been fasting the hardest fasts he could ever do in his life. And every year, he does it with a will and fervor and a big Jochua smile.

He often arrives at the airport talking about how much he’s looking forward to it. I think a lot of it has to do with the "togetherness" reset Ramadan forces on families.

I mean, Ramadan is definitely a spiritual reset — when your body calls your mind to pay attention to its hunger but you refrain from meeting this need, and immediately reflect on why you refrain and your miraculous ability to do so. For the pious, it’s an affirmation of one’s belief in God, in the choosing of faith.

Headshot: S.K. Ali
S.K. Ali, author of "Saints and Misfits" Courtesy of S.K. Ali

But Ramadan also resets the schedule of daily living and forces families to eat together. Mainly, because there are only two times to eat during the day: at sunset and at dawn (when the sleepy gulping of cereal or toast happens in my house).

The sunset meal, called Iftar, brings all together at the appointed time because everyone is hungry and ready to eat. It’s the antithesis of individualized living and individualized eating we’ve gotten used to as a society. No, the kids are not going to choose to go to basketball and miss Iftar.

I don’t have to call more than once for the kids to come and set the table. Everyone’s ready to help out. Everyone’s ready to marvel at the wonder of nourishment.

Everyone is ready to eat whatever is being served because...food, precious food.

This doesn’t mean I ignore their preferences — halal bacon, turmeric potatoes and spicy-sauced sushi do end up on the menu sometimes. It just means I get to simplify and it’s all spiritually good.

We eat and then pray Maghrib, the sunset prayer, together, the four of us bowing our foreheads to the ground while Jochua makes his own prayers. All prayers of awe, of contentment, of gratitude.

In that moment, our blended family is the peace the world needs.

S. K. Ali is an author whose debut YA novel, "Saints and Misfits," comes out June 13.

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