When I meet Mohamed, it is the afternoon of the 28th day of Ramadan. This means, he hasn’t eaten since the darkness of the early morning, and he won’t eat until dusk. We sit at the dining room table in the home that he shares with his wife Reba, who he met in his home country of Morocco.
Maine was home to one of America’s first mosques, built in the 1800’s by Biddeford’s early Albanian community. For many years, Maine had little Muslim community, but now there are between 5,000 and 8,000 Muslims in this state, celebrating Islam in diverse ways.
Ramadan is observed by Muslims worldwide by a month of fasting. It’s a month of going without so that riches can be appreciated and poverty can be understood. It’s about the birth of a religion, a personal relationship with God, and the depth of human compassion and tenacity. For Mohamed, his experience during Ramadan enhances his connection to himself, Morocco, and his faith.
HOW DID YOU COME TO YOU FAITH?
Well, I was born in a Muslim country, Morocco. It’s not something you choose. I grew up with it. I grew up in a very open-minded Muslim country. Islam is new in Morocco, it arrived about 800 years ago when the Arabs invaded North Africa. There are other beliefs in Morocco, for example, Judaism is about twenty percent. The way I learned Islam is totally different than how people learn it in other parts of the world. Specifically, in the Middle East, it’s totally different. You have the split with Shiite and Sunni. They have their different ways. In North Africa, we are just Muslims. I grew up practicing Ramadan. I never felt forced. My father never went to the mosque until he aged. He never told us what to do. I haven’t been in a mosque for several years.
WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE A MUSLIM IN AMERICA? AND IN MAINE?
One thing that I like about this country is that there is a free will. You can be whatever you want to be. You can worship a chair and nobody would give a damn about it. In Maine, people think it’s a little limited here, the mentality can be limited. You know, I never felt that people were racist or would judge me. I think five years ago, I’d get offended. Now, it’s the way I live. If you are open minded or civil, you don’t see our differences.
WHEN AND WHY DID YOU COME TO MAINE?
I moved here in 2008. I arrived in Portland on Valentines Day. I came because I met my wife, Reba, she was in the Peace Corps. We did some work together, theater work together. I used to clown. We did some clowning. When I was a kid, we used to go to the Youth Center, it’s like the Boys and Girls Club, and there were so many different things. We used to play ping-pong, do singing, and I learned clowning.
WHAT DOES RAMADAN MEAN TO YOU?
It’s the environment in the country I came from. We do have our strict laws, but I never felt I was forced to believe in anything. When I do Ramadan, it’s so personal to me. I know there’s lots of people who come from the Middle East, when they move to the U.S., they lose their Muslim identity. I lost lots of things when I moved to the states, but my identity, I would never lose that. Except Ramadan. I give up so many things. I wasn’t drinking when I was home, I drink here. I wasn’t smoking when I was home, I smoke here. There are things I have added on to myself. The way I think of the religion now, or any religion, it has changed. I learned as I go. Maybe in the next ten years, I will be someone different. But Ramadan, the fasting, I really hold on to. It’s helps me with self-control. It helps me with who I am. I am a very patient man, and Ramadan taught me to be that way. You have to give up some stuff, and feel the way it is to be poor. Today is the 27th day of Ramadan, when the Qu’ran actually started, the day Muhammad became the prophet. Ramadan was named after Ramadan, a month. There’s twelve months just like in a Gregorian calendar, and Ramadan in the ninth month. It was named by the seasons, and it came from an old word which means thirst. That month was the summer, when there was drought. For me, Ramadan is very personal. I do it for myself. It’s about not feeding the body, the fasting means not to eat, not to drink, nothing sexual. You are giving up things for your body, but you are feeding your soul. You do all these things and you know you are doing it for God and for the people.
WHAT IS AN AVERAGE DAY LIKE DURING RAMADAN?
Long! Actually, this is my first year working during the daytime for Ramadan. I used to work at restaurants. I worked from four until midnight, and I was around food all day. It was crazy, but it was actually a good test for me. I did that for five years. This year, with my new job, I leave at 7:30 for work and I’m there until 5:00, and it’s busy, nonstop work. There is a routine. I have an app on my phone, because the time changes everyday. There’s sundown to sunset. I follow the app or the time. I wake up about 3:30 in the morning. I eat a small meal, like a banana or yogurt. And then I walk or I go outside for a cigarette. I don’t want to eat too much because Ramadan is the month in which people can get really fat, because they are consuming sugar like crazy and eating a lot. And you eat a big meal and just go to bed. After I eat before dawn, I go back to bed and wake up around 6:30 and go to work. If it’s a weekend, I’ll sleep in. Usually at my lunch break, I leave work and drive to the Eastern Prom and I have a sheet I put on the grass and I lay down. I just exist. It clears my mind, and I love to be near the ocean. And then I go back to work, that’s the hard part of the day, but the work makes it go faster. Then, at sundown we sit down and we eat. I drink a lot of water. We can’t drink water during the day, like nothing.
DO YOU THINK ABOUT FOOD?
No. Barely. Unless someone is eating, and I’m like, “I want a bite!” I think day one, day two, they are really hard. Then after that, you are used to it. The other day, I came home from work and took a nap. I slept past when I normally would eat!
WHAT’S AN AVERAGE DAY LIKE FOR YOU, NOT DURING RAMADAN?
I love breakfast. I am a big fan of breakfast. I wake up early in the morning, and make coffee and my breakfast. I usually smoke a lot. At my break at work, I’ll smoke lots of cigarettes. During Ramadan you don’t smoke. Or drink. I haven’t had a beer in two months, and that’s part of it. It’s the one time of the year, during Ramadan, in which I remind myself that I don’t have to do that.
WHATS IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Education. I just like to learn. I love learning, and teach other people. I wake up every morning, I read the news and learn something. I hear words in English, and I say, “What’s that?” I have to know it. That’s how the day goes for me, I’m learning.
TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY?
It’s seems kind of personal, but I had an issue that I bottled things inside me. I can’t let things out. I don’t know whether it’s my culture or if I am just very patient. But someone will hurt me or say things to me. I will argue with my wife, for example, and I will just bottle things. Then later, I explode. I have been good just saying things recently. People would tell me that I am sharp, but it’s just how I feel. I have to say it.
WHAT IS THE BEST MOMENT OF AN AVERAGE DAY?
In Ramadan? Eating. The flavors are better. A banana tastes like a banana to me now. I noticed that from not eating sugar. When I quit sugar, eating an apple would really tastes like an apple. There’s so much sugar in energy drinks, I am done with that life. I want to enjoy nature. In an average day, I work with lots of people in crisis. I think 60-70% of them are refugees, they are all immigrants, and they are struggling. And my favorite part is to draw a smile on their face. Making people happy at work is my favorite thing.