Where Strangers Converse Like Old Friends

At the Center for Muslim Life, sharing the sacred language of Ramadan.
September 17, 2013

Ibrahim Saber carefully chooses a piece of wrinkled fruit from the paper plate being passed around the room. He hasn’t eaten all day, but he waits a few moments longer. Holding it between thumb and forefinger like a sticky jewel, he closes his eyes. Silently, he blesses the fruit in the name of Allah. Then he bites in, chewing slowly, breaking his fast with the sweet taste of a medjool date.

For the past three weeks, Saber has attended a nightly celebration of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar, at Duke’s Center for Muslim Life. Surrounded by an unruly thicket of trees on Swift Avenue, the unassuming slate-gray house became the first official space dedicated to Muslim life at Duke in 2009. The center serves as a site for student groups, interfaith talks, and weekly Qur’an studies during the academic year.

Muslim chaplain Antepli (standing) passes out dates. Les Todd

On this muggy midsummer evening, more than a dozen members of the Duke community are gathering for iftar, the traditional post-fast meal. Most in attendance are past and present members of Duke’s Muslim Student Association (MSA), along with a handful of non-Muslim friends and guests. Arrivals greet each other tiredly but warmly with “Assalamu alaikum”—“peace be with you”—and take seats in chairs that border a main common area, where the middle of the floor has been left open for prayer. The aroma of spices and meat drifts in from the kitchen. A description of the Prophet Muhammad in Arabic calligraphy hangs on the wall; editions of the Qur’an in ten-set volumes line a bookcase in the corner.

“All these unsmiling faces will now turn into lit Christmas trees,” predicts Imam Abdullah Antepli, Duke’s first Muslim chaplain, in English accented with his native Turkish. “It has so much sugar and carbs. After fasting for eighteen hours, it affects you,” he says, gesturing toward the dates. He explains that the Prophet broke fast with a few dates in ancient Arabia. “It’s going to give you the buzz. It’s the Red Bull of Arabs,” he laughs. 

“You would think that I would be happy to break fast, but every year at the end of the month, I feel like I want to cry. I don’t want to leave this month anymore, because it’s taught me so much.” 

The buzz seems to cheer Saber, a Duke medical researcher from Mansoura, a city northeast of Cairo. His face brightens as heintroduces himself to David Schanzer, a faculty member who specializes in terrorism and national security at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

“I’m sorry for everything that’s happening in Egypt,” says Schanzer. He and his wife, along with a retired Protestant clergyman, were invited by the Imam to observe the Ramadan rituals.

“Thank you,” replies Sabir knowingly. In 2001, he participated in one of the first uprisings that sparked the so-called Arab Spring, now seemingly fracturing. “All my family is there." 

Members of the Muslim Students Association decorate the center. Les Todd.

As they converse about Egypt’s struggles to create a democracy, a student uses her MacBook in place of a minaret to sound a warbling prayer call, but it’s muffled by a lively cross chatter of English, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Hindi, Panjabi, and Hausa. It’s not easy to distinguish the newcomers from the regulars, as strangers converse like old friends. “I have met more people duringthese iftars than I have met throughout the year,” notes Safa al-Saeedi ’15, her cherubic face framed by an ivory cashmere headscarf, which she wears in the spirit of hijab: modesty in both dress and manner. She and Saber joke that they have known each other for years, when in fact they only met this month at the beginning of Ramadan. “I meet people from everywhere—different colors, different languages. The only common language we speak is our sense of this beautiful month,” continues al-Saeedi, who is from Yemen. “We struggle together, we celebrate together, we break fast together.”

After everyone has restored his or her energy with several dates, the tone of the room shifts rather abruptly. It’s time for the Maghrib salat, the fourth of five daily prayers in Islam. Fourteen pairs of shoes are removed and a dozen prayer rugs are arranged in a vibrant mosaic of the floor. “This is my portable airport,” says the Imam, pointing to one of the rugs. “I takeit off to the divine and then come back to the world.”

They settle into rows, men separate from women, in keeping with the tradition of the mosque. Heads bow; hands clasp in front of chests. Some lower their eyes. The Imam incants Qur’anic verse in a poignant tune while the others reply in call-and-response style:

Allahu Akbar

God is the greatest

Bismillahir rahmanir rahim

In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.

In a unified choreography, all sink to their knees, touching foreheads to the ground in a sign of submission to Allah. They rise and descend twice more. Between verses recited aloud, they murmur softly to themselves, bowing toward a far-away Mecca in the East.

As the prayer draws to a close, individuals turn their heads to each shoulder, blessing the angels of good and bad deeds. Gradually, feet shuffle back into shoes; prayer rugs are folded and stacked. “Please,” says Imam Abdullah, pointing an open palm toward the kitchen. “Now it is time to feast.”

Islam moves with each new lunar calendar, and fasting is especially difficult for the faithful this year, as Ramadan falls in thesummer when the days are long. Still, the men wait patiently as the women fill their plates with rice, grilled chicken, pita, hummus and fattoush, a traditional Arab salad of bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, and herbs.

Before eating, Saber says another silent prayer, the Bismallah. “The name of God should be in everything,” he says afterward, finally eating a forkful of fattoush.

Praying towards Mecca. Les Todd.

During the feast, the fast lingers in the minds of the students. “When I’m fasting, I tend to reflect on my behavior, reflect on what I say, reflect on what I hear,” says al-Saeedi. “Not everything I want I can always get. Especially at Duke, I used to go to get coffee every morning.... Now, when I start my day, I’m not going to von der Heyden [Pavilion in the library] anymore, and then I value it.”

“Some people fast and all they get are empty stomachs,” says Ahmad Jitan ’13, reciting an Arab proverb. “It’s definitely a practice in discipline. I find myself cognizant of some of the bad habits I have,” says the former MSA president, whose family is from Palestine. Last year during Ramadan he quit smoking, and he has kept it up so far. “It’s also a time to take time to slow down, evaluate where you are in life.”

Throughout the common room, students discuss the decline of coffee production in Yemen, conflict between Sikhs and Muslims in Burma, and the merits ofFenerbahçe, a Turkish soccer team. In another room, a few gossip about Facebook and a recent Beyoncé concert. English is often punctuated by Arabic exclamations of “Mashallah!” and “Inshallah” (“Wow” and “God willing,” respectively).

Dinner winds down and a few women boil black tea, Turkish style, on the stove. Plastic wrap is removed from plates of flaky baklava, flavored with honey and rose water, and qatayef, a spongy pancake stuffed with walnuts and coconut. A few students discuss plans for next week’s Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. A group of them are planning to visit the large mosque in Raleigh and reconvene at Duke for brunch.

At the mention of Eid al-Fitr, al-Saeedi laments, “You would think that I would be happy to break fast, but every year at the end of the month, I feel like I want to cry. I don’t want to leave this month anymore, because it’s taught me so much.”

About two hours after eating the dates, everyone appears in high spirits. Most go on their way while Saber, al-Saeedi, Jitan, and a handful of others stay with the Imam for taraweeh, the special optional prayer, which will carry them late into the night. Outside, a waning crescent moon holds vigil high above the center. A stray orange tabby, Baba Ghanouj, mews at the front door, hoping for a few blessed scraps.

  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.