As the sun sets over the San Fernando Valley, food is on everyone’s mind. When the smell of food wafts through the door, filling the room, it entices the senses and an informal countdown goes into effect. When the time comes, a group of about 20 thirsty and hungry members of the CSUN Muslim Student Association quickly gather with a characteristic calm around the makeshift food table to break their fast with Italian spaghetti with meatballs in marinara sauce.
“These forks are elastic,” remarks one student, accompanied by a collective laughter, as he attempts to lift the heavy pasta with a black plastic fork. When the high-spirited students finally get to eat and drink, no one seems to care that the food is already cold.
Nora Mohtadi, 19, chemistry major and Sunday school teacher, started fasting when she was eight because, even early in life, she wanted to express her religious beliefs.
“I always explain to my American friends that (fasting during Ramadan is like) eating breakfast, skipping lunch and having dinner,” said Mohtadi, the MSA’s secretary. “It’s just a very early breakfast.”
Ramadan is the most important time of the year for Muslims because it marks the time of the year when the words of God, known as the Qu’ran, the main religious scripture of Islam, was revealed to the prophet Mohammed some 1,400 years ago. During Ramadan, which falls on the ninth month of the lunar calendar, all Muslims fast, with the exception of children, pregnant women and people who for health reasons are unable to do so.
“I get so excited when Ramadan comes, I can’t wait,” Mohtadi said. “Even though I know there’s going to be a hardship.”
For Mohtadi, the oldest of seven children of an Iraqi mother and a Lebanese father, a typical day during Ramadan starts at 4:30 a.m. as she wakes up to drink water and eat a small snack. She does not have much of an appetite that early in the morning and goes back to bed for 20 minutes before she gets up to pray just before sunrise. After the Fajr, the first of five daily prayers, Nora goes back to sleep once more before taking a bus to CSUN.
“The most challenging part is to find a balance between Ramadan and regular life,” said Mohtadi, who recently spent an entire night praying at a local mosque before teaching her Sunday school class the next morning, with only one hour of sleep.
“If you (fast during Ramadan) without a sense of why you are fasting, you have just starved yourself for 30 days,” explains Miran Mavlan, 21, treasurer for MSA. “As strange as it sounds, Ramadan has nothing to do with food.”
The physical aspect of Ramadan – fasting – is a way for Muslims to learn patience by exercising self-control.
“(Patience) is when there’s food in front of me but I have to wait until 7 o’clock,” said Mavlan, who was raised in a Muslim family but discovered the religion five years ago. “How powerful are you if you cannot control your body?”
Mavlan is a biochemistry and bio-medical physics major, who dreams of getting into medical school at Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the president and currently the only member of the Uyghur Rights Association. He came to the United States with his family 14 years ago from Uyghur, a semi-autonomous region in western China, also known as Eastern Turkistan or “the other Tibet.”
The indigenous people of Uyghur, a pre-dominantly Muslim population, have long been fighting for their independence. Since the 9/11 attacks and the pretext of the War on Terror, the Chinese government has labeled them as terrorists. According to Mavlan, his family moved to Northridge to escape oppression and gruesome torture by the Chinese government, which included methods such as boiling people or forcing them to smell human urine.
Mavlan spends Ramadan with his parents, who are CSUN alumni, and his 15-year-old brother. After the Iftar, the nightly breaking of the fast, the Mavlan family goes to the local mosque or prays at home. When they moved to the United States, Miran’s family left behind an enormous extended family of about 800 people, who occupy houses lining up and down the street of their hometown.
Maintaining concentration during Ramadan is a challenge for Muslim students.
“The other day when I was reading my biology textbook the cells looked like hamburgers and the membranes looked like French fries,” Mavlan said. “But the hunger doesn’t remind me of food, it reminds me of why I am doing it.”
“We’re only breaking the physical part of the fast,” explained Sham Elmischad, a graduate student and member of the MSA. “Physically we’re getting enough power to get through Ramadan.”
During Ramadan, Mavlan strives to become a better human.
“I may be hungry, but spiritually I feel fulfilled,” Mavlan said.