Ramadan in Dickinson

IMG_0570I haven’t been great about cataloguing my stories so far (I’ve cut most of my articles out of the paper and stuffed them into a plastic envelope thing — real old-fashioned clips!), but I wanted to share this one.

Ramadan started over the weekend, and I used it as a “news peg” for a story about the small Muslim community in Dickinson. I’m not in love with the way my piece turned out — I could have done better, and jeez, that schmaltzy ending — but I love that I got to write it (if only because it was a chance to introduce one of the country’s most WASPy regions to a touch of Islam and a few words of Arabic).

I was expecting to have to work a lot harder to gain access to the community and their prayer service — they would have every right to be remain cautious of a stranger intruding on such a private, personal act, particularly one from the media. And in a town that’s not exactly friendly to ‘outsiders,’ I could understand if they would prefer to stay a little anonymous. Instead, the group was welcoming, eager to talk, eager to share their stories. The imam put in a good word for me, asked that people help out however they could; I had a line of people waiting to speak with me after the prayer service, even if they didn’t know quite who I was or why I was there.

As a mistrusting, often-angry misanthrope, I am always amazed by how open, warm and generous people can be with their time and themselves. Even if the story isn’t a work of art, it’s been one of my favorites from my time here so far to report and be a part of.

This post is already veering into TLDR territory, but the full story is below. You can also read as a PDF here (Forum News Service ‘archives’ all of its stories after five days–which is just bad business sense, in my opinion).


Praying together: Ramadan brings Dickinson’s small Muslim community closer

This weekend Muslims around the world, and in North Dakota, will observe the beginning of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting and reflection.

Every day through July, from sunup to sundown, they will abstain from eating and drinking.

The fast is a way for Muslims to attain piety, strengthen their relationship to Allah — the Arabic word for God — and feel empathy for those less fortunate than them, explained Dr. Ibrahim Ahmed, a pediatrician who serves as the imam, or religious leader, for the Dickinson area’s Muslims.

The U.S. Census doesn’t track religious affiliation, so there are no exact numbers on just how many Muslims live in the state, let alone Dickinson. It’s not a state unfamiliar with Islam; one of the first, if not the first, mosque in the U.S. was built in Ross.

According to a Pew Research poll, less than 1 percent of the population in the Dakotas identified themselves as Muslim. For Dickinson’s small Muslim community, Ramadan is as much a time to grow closer to God as it is to each other.

A place to pray

Just a few months ago, Dr. Muhammad Jamil thought he was one of just three Muslims in Dickinson.

The internal medicine specialist, along with Ahmed, his colleague at St. Joseph’s Medical Clinic, and one other friend, would use Ahmed’s cramped office for daily prayers at work.

“The main thing in Islam, you should pray together,” Jamil said.

He used to travel the 90 miles to Bismarck every Friday to attend special prayer services at the chapel at St. Alexius Medical Center. It had to make do; the closest mosque is in Fargo.

Slowly, though, Jamil, Ahmed and their friend, Sadi Haque, began meeting other Muslims in the area, ones who, like them, had been praying in small groups, unaware of each other.

“Every day, people hear about us,” Ahmed said. He met new members at Walmart, and Muslims started coming from as far away as Williston and Killdeer to pray.

A group began meeting in Ahmed’s basement for Friday prayers. Haque posted a listing on IslamicFinder.com, inviting others to join.

Gradually, Jamil said, they grew.

Since December, Dickinson’s Muslim community has been filling the Armstrong Room in the basement of the Elks Lodge every Friday afternoon to pray, facing the holy city of Mecca, surrounded by dried flower wreaths and paintings of the prairie — not things you would likely find in the mosques in Egypt, Ahmed’s native country, or Pakistan, where Jamil is from.

Others come from Sudan, Ethiopia, Senegal, Bangladesh, the U.S., usually for work.

“Two months ago I heard of the prayer services,” said Mamadou Toure, a native of Senegal who came to Dickinson seven months ago from Missouri, where he taught at a Quranic school.

Before he met Ahmed and Jamil, he said, “I prayed alone.”

A first for many

For many of the community’s members, this will be their first Ramadan in Dickinson.

A lack of understanding among non-Muslims about what the month signifies, or awareness of what it even is, makes fasting difficult.

“It’s very, very hard,” Ahmed said. “No one else is observing or understanding that you’re fasting. Sometimes we have to put extra effort to please God.”

Seydina Sylla, another native of Senegal who initially came to the city in 2011 for work, spent last Ramadan in Atlanta, a city with a sizeable Muslim population where he was able to take time off of work to accommodate his fasting schedule.

“Not like here,” he said. “Islam is not like it is in Atlanta, or other states.”

Sylla said he is asked all the time why he isn’t eating or drinking; his part-time job at Applebee’s makes fasting especially hard.

“If I could, I’d take a break,” he said. “But I just try to ignore it.”

Sylla said he focuses instead on the fasting itself, and what it means to him: it’s “food of your soul,” he said.

“A lot of people don’t know what is hunger,” he said. “If you’re Muslim, rich or poor, you fast anyway. In worship of Allah, you have to do it.”

Ahmed said he hopes one day that Dickinson Muslims will have a place of their own where they can worship Allah: a masjid, or mosque, in a storefront somewhere.

The Elks Lodge has been very welcoming of the prayer service, Ahmed said, but the group has been outgrowing the Armstrong Room.

The group will have to hold iftar, the special meal to break the fast, at a member’s house; Jamil said they’re considering going all the way to Bismarck to celebrate Eid, the end of Ramadan, in July, but he hopes there are enough people here that they can have a celebration in Dickinson.

It’s less important where they pray, though. What matters is that they do it together.


“Blazing Saddles,” The Best Interracial Buddy Comedy, Turns 40

Mel Brooks’ Western spoof Blazing Saddles turns 40 Friday, and along with its over-the-top jabs at racism and Hollywood, it set the gold standard for what is now an overused cinema trope: the interracial buddy comedy.

You’ll have to track down a DVD — Blazing Saddles is glaringly absent from Netflix’s streaming service. But here’s the gist of the film: The no-good State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr (not to be confused with the actress of a similar name, Hedy Lamarr) wants to build a railroad through the quaint fictional town of Rock Ridge. Hoping to scare off the townsfolk and prepare the way for a land grab, Lamarr sends in the first black sheriff, a former railroad worker named Black Bart, played by Cleavon Little. The plan backfires, though, when Bart teams up with local gunslinger Jim (Gene Wilder). Together, they win over the unrepentantly racist town and save Rock Ridge from near destruction. Along the way there are a few gunfights, Mel Brooks as a Yiddish-speaking Native American chief, Madeline Kahn in a corset, and the invention of the candygram. The end.

In his tepid New York Times review, Vincent Canby called the film “every Western you’ve ever seen turned upside down and inside out.” But the real heart of the movie — the “center of gravity” that Canby lamented was missing from the story — is the relationship between Bart and Jim.

Read the rest at NPR’s Code Switch.

From Code Switch’s 2013 Signoffs II: More Short Stories About Remarkable Lives

Cecilia Preciado Burciaga opened doors into higher education that had been closed to Latino and Chicano Americans.

As one of the first top Latina administrators at Stanford University, Burciaga never stopped thinking about “the ones not there,” she said in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor. And the ones not there were Latinos and Chicanos, who prior to the 1970s made up a disproportionately small number of students in higher education. When she started at Stanford in 1974, just 2 percent of the student body was Mexican American; Burciaga was just one of a handful of Chicanos on staff, according to Notable Hispanic American Women.

You can read more about Cecilia Burciaga and other amazing figures here

Single Muslim Hipster Seeking Same? You May Be In Luck.

Hipster Shaadi


Since moving to Canada four years ago, Annie Idris has tried her fair share of Muslim matrimonial sites. Four or five, by her guess. “But I haven’t been lucky,” she says.

The 31-year-old, whose parents are from Pakistan and who grew up mostly in Saudi Arabia, says it’s mostly cultural differences getting in the way — the men are sometimes too conservative for her taste, or they don’t share her interests. She’s talked to plenty of eligible bachelors, but none have been The One.

Around her home in Toronto, she says she doesn’t often meet potential suitors who meet her “priority questions”: Is he open-minded, thoughtful, honest? Does he hate Bollywood movies, like her? Most importantly, is he Muslim?

About a month ago, a friend sent Idris to HipsterShaadi.com. Only about a month old, the community there is still small. The primary target: young hipsters, with usernames like “okra_lover” and “Hungry_Hungry_Hijabi.” They’re artists and doctors and M.B.A students. They’re from Arizona, New York City, California, Delaware, even Canada. They’re all looking for love. And they’re all Muslim.

Read the rest at NPR’s Code Switch blog here.

It Takes A Classroom to Learn The Family Language

I started an Arabic class last month after years of vowing to learn the language half of my family speaks–but that my sister and I never learned. I wrote about the experience and what it means to be a heritage language learner for NPR’s Code Switch blog:

The desire to reinforce ethnic identity through language is a feeling that I and many other first-, second- and third-generation Americans understand well. My half-Palestinian mother grew up in Lebanon and speaks Arabic; for various reasons, I don’t. She says teaching me and my sister against constant interruptions of “What did you say?” from our English-only-speaking father became too stressful. As proud as I am of my Arab heritage, without a linguistic marker to link me to the community, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable identifying as an Arab, at least not compared to my cousins who grew up in the Middle East.

Without Arabic, little else about me is Arab. I don’t dress or look like an Arab (feel free to rely on stereotypes for this one — trust me, I don’t fit them). I can’t dance the dabke. I eat hummus and have a scarab (a small turquoise beetle amulet thought to bring good luck) in my purse, sure, but without Arabic, can I even call myself an Arab?

Like Alvarez, I responded to the feelings of ethnic inadequacy by choosing to buckle down and finally learn the language I felt I was lacking. I decided last month to enroll in an Arabic course at a local school — not just to be able to better communicate with my family, but to somehow legitimize my Arab-ness. She and I are what linguists call heritage language learners, and we’re just two of the many young adults turning to language as a better way to understand our identities.

Read the full piece here.