By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – They do it in imitation of the Prophet.
Brother Muhammed sat cross-legged in the floor before a meal of fragrant, desert cuisine. “This is the month when one sees the wonder of God,” he said. Seated around the feast, Muslim men spooned onto their plates Moroccan delicacies, including a dry, sweet topping made from nuts and sugar, airy, yellow cakes sprinkled with coconut, and bright, heavy oranges, like those hanging in the florid courtyard of the Mezquita of Cordoba.
Nearly 1,400 years ago the Prophet Muhammed, voicing the haunting, poetically luxurious language of Allah, instructed his followers, “It is better for you if only you know. Whoever of you sights the crescent on the first night of the month,” must fast.
Muslims call it Ramadan, the period each year, according to the lunar calendar, during which they immerse themselves in prayer, self-denial and almsgiving. Last Wednesday, the third night of the month-long observance, Muslim brothers gathered at sundown at the Tupelo Islamic Center to break their daily fast.
Their women were home with the children, and on Sunday all would gather at the mosque, but tonight, as they’ll do each night, the men came together to pray and break bread.
Hasan took a thick, round loaf into his hands.
“This bread, brother, warm, with butter, oh, it is wonderful,” he said. “Eat, brother, eat.” He ladled a thick, hearty chowder made from corn, chick peas and celery.
One of the brothers spoke of seeing ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak caged and in a hospital bed. The brother spoke in Arabic with a serious expression. Out of politeness, he translated.
“God gives you the name, then takes it away,” he said.
There’s little doubt that food, specifically high food prices in Egypt, contributed to the civil unrest that led to Mubarak’s ouster.
Here in the U.S. a recent Gallup poll showed that Muslims’ perceptions of their own well-being has increased more in the past three years than any other religious group. They have less cognitive dissonance than ever about being 100 percent Muslim and 100 percent American, the poll said.
Members of other religions often don’t share their optimism. Only 56 percent of Protestant Christians surveyed believed American Muslims are loyal to their country. Fifty-nine percent of Catholics agreed.
These brothers are part of everyday life in Northeast Mississippi. They work in professions like information technology. Two brothers came from the Toyota plant. They primed their palates with sweet drinks, like milk and apple juice and strong Arabic tea.
“He makes a long pour as a sign of respect for you,” said Hasan, as Habib, a brother from Morocco, raised the tea pot a foot above the cup, letting the dark liquid fall in a thick stream.
“It’s good to let the stomach rest, to cleanse ourselves,” said Ali, a Palestinian brother. He explained, in much the same way fasting Christians do during Lent, that care for the body is a holy endeavor and pleasing to God.
Spread everywhere on the tablecloth were dates, the sweet, fibrous fruit the Prophet used to break his fast. Dates, fruit of the desert, staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, wonderful for restoring blood sugar.
Habib brought out his prized culinary creation, Moroccan tajine, tender lamb cooked with peas and olives and smelling wonderfully of basil, curry and cumin. The brothers tore off pieces of flat bread and gathered around the dish, sopping up the savory broth and eating together as a sign of unity.
“Eat, rest, brother,” they said. When they’d finished, they cleared the meal off the floor and Habib vacuumed.
“In Islam, nothing is without credit,” said one of the brothers, pointing to Habib, who went about cleaning with a solemn air. Every kindness, the brother said, every blessing, every consideration a Muslim gives to another human being will be rewarded many times over by Allah.