Food for the Soul: Ramadan in Berkeley

(see North Gate News Online)

BERKELEY, CA: As soon as the bells of the Campanile strike the sunset hour, Marwa el-Sheemy drops her books and dashes out of the International House Library.

Running down Bancroft Way with the wind in her face and her eyes on a terrifically pink horizon, the Egyptian-born exchange student from Scotland, like every other observant Muslim in the Bay Area time zone, is thinking about only one thing: Iftar, the meal with which she will break the day’s fourteen-hour Ramadan fast.

Every year in Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, practicing Muslims all over the world abstain from food, drink, smoking and sex during daylight hours.  And on the Berkeley campus, as in the rest of the world, this time-honored custom means different things to different people. 

“It’s a way of learning to control your desires,” says Momen el-Husseiny, a PhD Architecture student from Egypt. “It teaches you patience.”

For Sarah Misherghi, a Business major of Libyan origin and resident of the I-house, Ramadan is more about “empathizing with people less fortunate than yourself, by knowing how it feels to actually be hungry.”

On the other hand, Usman Khalid, a first-year Pakistani student in the MBA program, says that fasting in Ramadan is just something he’s grown up doing – he can’t think of any reason why he shouldn’t.

But no matter where you come from or what it means to you personally, Ramadan for Muslim students at Berkeley has become synonymous with a modest little eatery on Bancroft Way called Julie’s Café.

Owned and managed by Mustafa Durmad, a native of Thailand, Julie’s “healthy and halal” Café is now in its fifteenth year of hosting free iftars for Muslim students in Ramadan.

“I started because my daughter asked me to,” says Durmad. “She was an undergraduate at Berkeley at the time. She said to me, dad, we don’t have any place to eat together in Ramadan!”

His daughter now has a PhD from Harvard University. His son, Omar, is a UC San Diego-trained immunologist. But “Mustafa uncle”, as Durmad is affectionately known by Berkeley’s Muslim students, is still doing the cooking at Julie’s.

With the help of his wife Ameena, a small staff, and volunteers from the campus MSA (Muslim Students’ Association), Durmad’s café comes to life Monday through Thursday after he closes it to the public at 6pm. Extra chairs are dragged onto the patio, platters of dates and freshly baked brownies materialize on the tables, and simmering pots of rice, soup and Thai curry emerge from the kitchens as excited, hungry students shuffle in from the street, waiting patiently in line for their turn at the buffet.

“What I love is the sense of community,” says Laura Miller over the din, biting into a bread roll. “You just bond so much with other people sharing the same experience. I’ve never felt it before.” A ‘07 Berkeley graduate, Miller belongs to a Jewish family, and converted to Islam in February. “This is my first Ramadan,” she smiles.

Colin Hughes would agree with Miller. A graduate student at Berkeley and a resident of the International House, Hughes spent a year in Bosnia in 2003 as a Foreign Service Intern with the US Department of State. Although he is not Muslim, Hughes says he fasted the entire month of Ramadan with his Muslim friends in Sarajevo.  “It was incredible,” he says. “The whole country gets involved. I would love to do it again – but in a Muslim country!”

Usman Khalid can relate to that sentiment. “It’s difficult here,” he admits. “Back home, everyone is doing it. You have restaurants open at 4 in the morning for sehri [the dawn meal]. And it’s considered rude to eat in public before iftar. Out here, people don’t even know what Ramadan is.”

And when they find out, reactions vary from curiosity to outright disbelief.  “I couldn’t even go a few hours without water. Honestly, I’d die!” cries Abbie Swanson, a first-year at the Journalism School. 

Others, like Gah-Yi Vahn, a PhD student from South Korea, are fascinated, but hesitant. “I’d like to try,” she says, “if only I could persuade myself to get up and eat at 5 in the morning!”

Though people new to the Berkeley Ramadan experience, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, flock to the group iftars at Julie’s, Mustafa Durmad feels that the turn-out has dwindled over the years.   

“Last Ramadan, there was a day we fed 500 people in here. This year – see for yourself.” He shakes his head and sighs. “There is less spirit in the kids.”

Be that as it may, Durmad has no plans of retracting the pact he made fifteen years ago. “As long as I am supported by contributions from the Muslim families and merchants, I will carry on every year. And even if I am not supported, I will still carry on.” Students are also encouraged to contribute to the iftars by making payments on the MSA website.

His resolve and dedication to what is truly a challenging feat is admirable. Still, Durmad says he is “growing old”, and you cannot blame him for being relieved that Ramadan will end the coming Friday, 12th October. On Thursday, Julie’s will serve its last iftar of the year.

The last ten days of Ramadan are especially sacred, as Muslims strive to search for Laila t-ul Qadr, the Night of Destiny, when the first verses of the Qur’an are said to have been revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. After taking the last swigs of cold Thai coffee, a Julie’s specialty, and crying out their thanks to Mustafa uncle and the pleasant-faced volunteers, Muslim students hurry towards Dwinelle Hall for two hours of group prayers and worship, the taraweeh.

On Saturday, 13th October, these students, along with Muslims all over the United States, will celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, the second most-important festival in the Islamic calendar. California residents are going back home for a weekend of scrumptious home-cooked food, traditional desserts, bright new clothes and an ample dose of friends and family. This weekend, they’ve truly earned it.


2 thoughts on “Food for the Soul: Ramadan in Berkeley

    Yaya said:
    June 24, 2011 at 1:35 am


    I was very interested in Laura’s story of being a Jew and converting to Islam. I would love to write a section about her and the reasons for your conversion in my book.

    Would you be willing to work with me on this? This would help share her story on a more international level.

    Is there an email or something that can be used for me to contact her about this?


    Fahim K said:
    August 26, 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Nice article!

    Bravo to Uncle Mustafa for his efforts and love for Ramazan!

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