A Raleigh family’s Ramadan combines cultures and traditions

kbettis@newsobserver.comJuly 13, 2014 

— With her glasses tucked into a pink headscarf and wearing a black jacket on a warm evening, Nikki Rana, 41, lifted a pot lid in her suburban kitchen to check on her Moroccan chicken.

She could not taste it yet, because 14 minutes remained until sunset Thursday. She hoped that it had enough salt.

Rana converted to Islam five years after marrying Dr. Ahmad Rana, 52, who had come to the United States from Pakistan. Since her conversion, she joined her family of six and the worldwide Muslim community in celebrating Ramadan, which this year lasts from June 28 until July 28. It’s the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, a period that requires them to fast from food and water during daylight hours.

“My head hurts,” complained daughter Nadia, 10. She and her older sister, Jehan, 11, had chosen to fast all day from food and water, even though it is optional for them before reaching puberty.

The family milled around the kitchen for the last 10 minutes before the breaking of the fast, called the Iftar meal.

“We just kind of huddle during this time,” Nikki Rana said with a laugh.

Finding community in Raleigh

According to the Association of Religious Data, 10,299 Muslims lived in Wake County as of 2010, up from 3,200 in 2000.

The Rana family, who are Sunni Muslims, have found a much stronger Muslim community in Raleigh, with two mosques, than in their previous homes in Fayetteville and Clayton.

Although all Muslims aim to worship at the same time in the same language, not everyone celebrates the season of Ramadan in the same way. In Pakistan, Ahmad’s original home, Ramadan is a festive time full of decorations and celebrations, like Christmas in the United States.

Sometimes, Ahmad will cook traditional Pakistani food, ensuring it is not too spicy for his kids. But on Wednesday night, the Ranas ate Popeye’s for their Iftar meal, because Nikki is a self-declared take-out queen.

When Nikki and Ahmad married in 2002, she was a practicing Christian. Originally from Louisiana, she had met Ahmad while working in the pharmaceutical industry. He moved to the U.S. about 25 years ago to work as an emergency physician.

“The first time I stepped foot in a mosque was when we were married,” Nikki said.

As the years have passed, both sets of parents have grown to accept the marriage, although Ahmad waited several months before telling his family or co-workers.

The couple moved to Raleigh four years ago to be closer to the private Muslim school their children attend.

Ahmad said there is still prejudice in Pakistan. “We are extremely blessed that we live in this great country. You have the liberty to celebrate your festivals and religions here.”

Coming to conversion

In the first few years of dating and marriage, Nikki sometimes attempted to fast during Ramadan. She came to the mosque, learning the prayers and trying not to be offended by worshipers who tugged at her sleeves and helped her to be modest.

“It’s not something you take lightly as a Christian,” she said. “If you denounce Jesus as your Savior, you are destined to hell.”

For about five years, she asked her husband about his faith and researched the religion. She faced the possibility of death and a stroke during the birth of her second child, then feared the worst when her third child was born.

“If I am going to die, I am going to die a Muslim,” she told herself.

Nikki always finds the first few days of Iftar difficult, waking before sunrise to eat breakfast. By noon, she can feel exhausted from low blood sugar and thirst. She takes short naps to keep her energy up.

This summer, she is working from home, writing curriculum for her job as a literacy coach for special education and behaviorally challenged middle school students.

Ahmad often works overnight shifts at the Betsy Johnson Hospital in Dunn. Although that lets him sleep during fasting hours, he doesn’t always have time at work to eat a meal before sunrise.

Still, when he wakes in the afternoon, he does yard work and mows the lawn.

“You just have to pace yourself,” Ahmad said. “Even though you are fasting, your work does not stop.”

The Ranas, like many Muslims, believe that charity – one of their five pillars required to be an observant Muslim – multiplies their heavenly rewards. They will often make a point to donate to fundraisers during Ramadan.

Breaking the fast

At 8:36 p.m., the Ranas sat around their dining room table. Ahmad gave a traditional prayer in Arabic. Translated, it says: “O Allah! It is for thee that I observe fast and it is with thine blessing that I break it.”

The family eagerly consumed their first nutrients since 5:30 a.m. with a small plate of dates, fruit salad, hummus – handmade by the older girls – pita bread, baklava and basbousa cake. This part of the meal provides a quick boost of energy for prayer.

The older girls told their parents that they were feeling their energy return. Mohammad, 7, and Noor, 6, had been snacking all day but still managed a plateful.

Ahmad hurried them to take a last bite, and the family scattered to cleanse themselves privately, a lengthy process that purifies them before prayer. Mohammad scurried into the living room first, his head still dripping, and tugged on his prayer cap to make it stay.

The girls retrieved their headscarves from the laundry room, and the family lined up for five short prayers. Ahmad and Mohammad stand in front facing Mecca, while Nikki and her three daughters stand behind.

They returned to the table for the rest of dinner, including the main dish of Moroccan chicken over basmati rice – with enough salt.

After the meal, the family often relaxes together. Sometimes, if Ahmad does not have work, he may visit the downtown mosque on Atwater Street for the 10 p.m. prayer.

“Ramadan is my religion, it’s not an option,” said Nikki Rana. “It’s not just for me. We do it to set an example for our children and for the sake of Allah.”

Bettis: 919-829-8955; Twitter: @whatakaracter

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