Where breaking the fast in Ramadan involves caribou

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Last week, Maleika Jones was still waiting for a package of Ramadan decorations. In her preparations for the month-long holiday, which begins Saturday in the United States, she ordered festive lights and decorations to put up for her family’s celebrations as they break the fast each night.

“Even though it’s an Amazon order, obviously it takes several weeks to get here,” she said.

Ms. Jones lives in Anchorage, home of Alaska’s only mosque — about 6,700 miles west of Mecca, in a business district of the city, next to a sports bar and an insulation company office, with views of the Chugach Mountains.

The mosque – the country’s northernmost – is also the heart of a growing Muslim community preparing to gather for Ramadan for the first time since the pandemic began. The approximately 2,500 Muslims in the Anchorage area come from all over the world; They are immigrants, refugees, locals, veterans, students and others who all share their faith and love of food.

The Muslim community “is a fairly diverse population, but then we’re all able to come together on the common basis of our faith and traditions, the core traditions,” said Ms Jones’ husband, Gregory Shuaib Jones, an electrician. “Different ethnic groups may have slight differences in cooking styles or dressing styles, but the gist is there.”

The Joneses moved to Anchorage from South Carolina in 2009 to teach people about Islam. Both are members of the Anchorage Interfaith Council and Ms. Jones is the co-chair.

Anchorage is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, with more than 100 languages ​​represented in its public school system. People often move to the area as part of the military, as new immigrants or as refugees – many from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Cuba, Iraq and Bhutan. Most recently, 100 refugees from Afghanistan have settled in the area.

Heather Barbour, an attorney and a leader in local Muslim circles, said the mosque — formally the Islamic Community Center of Anchorage, Alaska — has members from 40 to 50 countries.

“I love the fact that there are so many different cultures and people from all over the world, and I think that makes Anchorage a very rich city,” she said. “The Muslim community is a kind of microcosm of that. You take that diversity and you kind of scale it down, and that’s the mosque.”

This diversity can cause some conflict and disagreement, but Ms Barbour said it was one of the greatest strengths of the community.

“If you go to Chicago or New York, you will find different mosques,” she said. “You will find a Pakistani mosque or an Arabic mosque or an Albanian mosque. It’s a mosque, but it’s steeped in the culture of the place. We don’t have that ability. It really forces us to try to stay true to religion and not let different cultures influence how we do things.”

Anchorage’s location may complicate Ramadan. During the holiday, Muslims around the world abstain from eating from dawn to dusk every day of the month – they break the fast with a festival called Iftar. Ramadan dates vary from year to year and follow the Islamic lunar calendar. This year, Ramadan falls in spring in the northern hemisphere, and in Alaska that means fasting from 5 a.m. to about 6:30 p.m

But if the holiday falls in the summer or winter months, the world’s northern cities must observe different fasting periods. Anchorage experiences approximately 22 hours of daylight during the summer solstice; The winter solstice brings very little light – only about five hours. To avoid such extremes, Muslims in far northern lands are given special permission to adopt the Mecca timetable. (Some Alaskan Muslims choose to follow local sunrise and sunset.)

“This is a unique challenge here in Alaska,” said Mr. Jones. “When we got here, it was 11:30 p.m. at night and the sun wasn’t setting, and I was like, ‘What’s going on here?'”

Mr. Jones said that when he moved to Anchorage he spoke to local Muslims to find out about timing adjustments in the summer, as it is difficult to complete three of the five prayers that fall between sunrise and sunset. “You’ll get all your prayers between 11am and 2am and that’s just not a normal lifestyle,” Mr Jones said.

The Anchorage Mosque has been in the works for more than a decade.

For about 35 years, members rented retail space in a mall. In 2008, following a fundraiser, the group bought a piece of land on one of the city’s main thoroughfares. And because it is forbidden in Islam to pay interest on a loan, the mosque had to be built piece by piece as the group had raised enough money.

The community moved into the building in 2011. Youssef Barbour, a doctor and spokesman for the center, said the mosque is almost complete, with only the minaret and an elevator still to be added.

Despite the larger area, the building can get crowded on Fridays and holidays when 700 to 800 people gather for special Ramadan services.

This growth in the Muslim community is reflected in the increasing availability of halal food in the city.

When Sajid Raza moved to Anchorage in 2016 to do research at the University of Alaska Anchorage, he said finding halal food, especially meat, was difficult.

“There were only a few restaurants back then, including an Indian restaurant and a pizza place,” said Mr. Raza, who now lives in Bozeman, Mont. “There was a grocery store, and it brought mostly frozen meat from Seattle, but it was pretty expensive because of the cost of transportation and stuff.”

Today, Anchorage is home to three Halal specialty shops and several restaurants with Halal dishes on the menu. Local stores like Walmart, Safeway, and Costco also carry halal-certified options.

“This is a remarkable development for the Muslim community because it means Halal is becoming more mainstream across America,” said Mr. Jones. “Alaska is so remote that we’re probably one of the last communities to get it.”

Still, certain ingredients remain difficult to find. Alaska imports 95 percent of its food, and pandemic-related supply chain disruptions continue to impede regular shipments of goods to the state.

“Most people from different parts of the world, whether it’s from Senegal or Pakistan, bring these spices with them,” said Ms. Jones, who does the same when visiting family in South Carolina. “A lot of people who go back and visit their hometowns bring the spices and things here.”

Stocking up on spices and other ingredients about a month in advance is an important part of preparing for Ramadan in Alaska. Finding enough frozen halal meat is also important. A neighbor of the Jones family hunts and kills each animal according to Islamic law and ritual that makes the meat halal. Recently, the neighbor shared halal caribou meat with Mrs Jones.

Families buy rice, lentils, flour, vegetables for soup dishes and dates – an ingredient that, despite the cultural background, is likely to be found in every Muslim household in Anchorage. Medjool dates — the “big, sticky ones, the really good ones” — are becoming increasingly easier to find at Costco during Ramadan, Ms Barbour said. Eating dates is a traditional way of breaking the fast.

“This is a time when we start to prepare ourselves mentally, spiritually and financially – to buy certain types of foods that we might not eat year-round,” Ms Jones said.

Ms Jones is also working with other women from the mosque to practice cooking dishes ahead of the holiday. Last week Ms. Jones made lamb biryani and curried chickpeas and chicken with a friend from Pakistan.

Ms Jones has also been watching online videos to learn how to make foods like samosas, which she can freeze ahead of time.

“When you break the fast, it’s so nice and refreshing to have different types of appetizers and finger foods and things like that already on the table,” she said. “It would be too hard to sit here and roll out 20 slices of bread when I break my fast, you know, instead of already piecing it together in the freezer.”

Although Ramadan is a month of prayer and reflection, it is also a joyful time for Muslim families, and iftar gatherings are a highlight of the holiday. Before the pandemic, Anchorage’s Muslim community met nightly to break the fast on large potlucks.

“People think about food during the day of fasting,” Mr Barbour said. “So food becomes like – you think about what you’re going to eat today. People actually gain weight sometimes because they care so much about food, but it’s a nice time of year to enjoy a good meal.”

During these potlucks, people fill their plates at the buffet table. “Most people have no idea who brought what or what it is,” Ms Barbour said. “Everybody eats everything and it’s just a real mishmash, which is really great.”

Women in the community have also held smaller gatherings in their homes once or twice a week. This year, Ms Jones and her daughter Shumailah plan to prepare kebabs, roti, fruit with yoghurt and a large batch of samosas filled with potatoes and meat for their iftar gatherings.

“During Ramadan, that’s the time when people really try to roll up their sleeves and bring out the best dishes,” Ms Jones said.

With few Covid-19 restrictions, the community looks forward to evening potlucks on Fridays and Saturdays.

“Everyone misses it and everyone is really looking forward to seeing each other again,” Ms Barbour said. “Sharing food is a thing that runs through pretty much every culture that brings people together. This is the common language to connect with your friends and community members. It’s a very relaxed, very happy time. And we really missed it.”

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.

https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/dining/ramadan-alaska.html Where breaking the fast in Ramadan involves caribou

Luke Plunkett

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