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Foodies, Faithful Flock To Metro Detroit Ramadan Festivals


Shortly before midnight, a buzzing crowd stood patiently in a line that bent around the corner of a community center and stretched far back into the night. After a countdown, the throng streamed into the fairway of food trucks and other vendors, then pressed forward to the cadence of a banging bass drum.

It was suhoor time.

The informal gala — in full swing after midnight, illuminated with string lights and resplendent with the scents of Middle Eastern and other cuisine — has been staged on weekends throughout May in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights. But the Ramadan Suhoor Festival has a specific purpose beyond the carnival atmosphere and bountiful buffet: It's a chance to gather during the Muslim holy month in which worshippers fast daily from dawn through dusk.

Despite its religious underpinnings, and in accordance with Muslim faith, festival organizers also have made one thing clear: Non-Muslims are welcome.

And so they all have come — Muslims and non-Muslims, thousands at a time and collectively in the tens of thousands —  to share suhoor, the early morning meal typically consumed before daily fasting resumes and meant to fuel the many hungry hours after sunrise when neither food nor water may pass a faithful Muslim's lips. The ring of food trucks serve up more than just overflowing plates. For many, it's a welcome departure from the standard pre-dawn Ramadan fare that typically includes spiced or seasoned bread with cheese or yogurt.

Here at the festival, visitors may instead indulge their well-earned appetites with plates of pancakes, halal (permitted under Islamic dietary laws) hot dogs, cheesesteaks, fresh miniature doughnuts and shawarma, which consists of slivers of seasoned, spiced marinated meat.

The event itself reflects the area's growing, diverse Muslim population, which goes back more than a century and whose population is estimated by experts to be approaching 300,000. As the community grows, so too does its willingness to practice and more visibly share traditions — with food as the ultimate unifier.

"People are becoming more educated about it ... and it's a beautiful thing," said Hassan Chami, a pharmacist who started the festival last year. "One of my goals here is to celebrate religious diversity."

Other U.S. communities have large Muslim populations, including those in and around New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. They also have hosted festivals drawing thousands to mark the Eid al-Fitr, or the end of Ramadan. The Detroit-area's recurring events aim to amp-up such efforts: They serve as homecomings for some Muslims who left the state and missed the atmosphere, and even attracted "a foodie from Houston" who had no connection but just wanted to experience it, Chami said.

Chami said he launched the festival after seeing food trucks and tents popping up in gas station and strip mall parking lots in recent years during Ramadan. He was impressed by the entrepreneurial spirit, but thought it would be good to "centralize it."

But it had to be authentic. Signs around the festival grounds offer guidance on fasting, prayers and good deeds, and men sitting in a tent recite verses from the Quran, or Islamic holy book, and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Their amplified recitations waft along with the aromas from Corn on the Corner, Tornado Potato, Smiley's Halal, Rafic's Felafel and other trucks.

The drum Chami used to welcome attendees gets picked up a couple hours later by a food vendor, who Chami says represents "the old villager walking around the town, banging the drum, calling people to wake up and eat the suhoor."

The traditional and contemporary mix mirrors the Islamic community around Detroit, which traces its roots to the earliest auto plants and the burgeoning industry's hunger for workers. In the past 30 years, the area has gone from having about a dozen mosques to more than 90, reflecting immigration of Muslims from across the Mediterranean, Middle East and South Asia.

Sally Howell said Ramadan's observance has changed significantly in the three decades she has been researching Islam in Detroit. In the early days, most people would celebrate in homes and mosques — and restaurateurs would complain how the holiday was bad for business. Mosques expanded their offerings, with post-prayer lectures and large iftars — the formal meal eaten after breaking the daily fast and recitation of prayers — that welcomed non-Muslims. Within the past decade, eateries started hosting buffets.

Even though Ramadan-related events were never closed-off to non-Muslims, the new festivals provide an opportunity to further extend participation in elements of the sacred monthlong rite, Howell said.

"This is the more social, celebratory side of Ramadan," said Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies at University of Michigan-Dearborn. She said the events get a boost because Ramadan, which rotates around the calendar, currently falls in warmer weather months.

Some Muslims have complained on social media about the festival placing a greater emphasis on food over faith. Dana Mohammad, 23, who attended a recent festival, found it "very loud," ''crowded" and "hype" — yet spiritually beneficial.

"I think it actually adds to the essence of Ramadan because it brings people together, it binds communities and it builds bridges, which I think is a principle of the holy month," she said.

Donna Bazzy invited fellow emergency room nurses — assuring them it would be open to non-Muslims. Among those accepting was Rhonda Hines.

"I'm enjoying myself immensely — it's wonderful," said Hines, hungrily eying which truck to tackle first. "I am very Christian but I love my girl Donna so much, I want to celebrate with her."

Howell and Chami see such festivals as an antidote to the hostility Muslims feel in some quarters and the rhetoric and policies of the Trump administration, which has curbed immigration and travel from several Muslim-majority nations. For both, it recalls the increased scrutiny and suspicion directed at Arabs and Muslims after the 9/11 attacks.

The difference now, they said, is Muslims feel more comfortable outwardly celebrating their faith. That was Chami's mission with the Ramadan Suhoor Festival: Create a space where Muslims could celebrate on their terms but with open arms.

"Having that confidence allows us to embrace our culture and allows (other) communities to support us as much as they do," Chami said.

"We went through a point where we were trying to prove ourselves, saying 'Hey, I'm just like you,'" he added. "I'm over that. ... We're great people. We have an unbelievable culture. We do great here."

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