Celebrating Islam in Maine, Moon Watchers and Out of Nowhere

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast Friday, August 2nd, I’m Your Neighbor Portland hosted its largest event yet, “Ramadan Mubarak: A Holiday Celebration and Education for Families of All Faiths.” Over two hundred people attended throughout the evening, including members from the Muslim community, Portland residents and those passing through on their First Friday Art Walk circuit.

Many attendees waited to be decorated in beautiful henna designs

Many attendees waited to be decorated in beautiful henna designs

Attendees could have their names written in Arabic when they first entered. The Portland Library had a display of their collection on Islam next to the I’m Your Neighbor Portland bookshelf, and PPL staff were on hand for anyone who wanted to check out books. The henna station was extremely popular and volunteers were kept busy as a constant stream of people were lined up waiting to have their hands painted with beautiful designs. Peaks Island author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien had her art work from Moon Watchers on display to show the process of her research and early sketches for the illustrations. There was also a prayer rug room set up with a video of how to pray and prayer rugs loaned to us from our Muslim neighbors on display. Volunteers were on hand to answer any questions visitors had about the prayer rugs or Islamic practices.

Prayer rugs and a video on how to pray were on display

Prayer rugs and a video on how to pray were on display

After introducing remarks were made by project director Kirsten Cappy, Reza Jalali, director of Multicultural Affairs at the University of Southern Maine and author of the children’s book Moon Watchers took the stage to talk about Ramadan and practicing the Islamic faith in Maine. He touched on his own experiences coming to Portland and the growth he has seen in the Muslim community in the almost thirty years he has made this city his home. Jalali also spoke about the five pillars of Islam and the celebration of Ramadan as part of an “Islam 101” education for those in the audience who were unfamiliar with the practices. Attendees were given a chance to ask questions, some of which were answered from Muslim teenagers who were in the audience.

Pious Ali of Maine Interfaith Alliance then hosted a panel discussion with Reza Jalali, Anne Sibley O’Brien, Maria Padian, author of Out of Nowhere, and Padian’s cultural adviser, a Somali young man named Shobow Saban. The topic of the panel was the process of cross-cultural collaboration on the titles Moon Watchers and Out of Nowhere. Pious guided the panelists in conversations about how each team came to work together and the many conversations that took place between author and cultural adviser. O’Brien and Padian shared what they learned about Islamic practices and the Iranian/Somali culture during their research. The panel concluded with the audience answering the question “What is one thing you will take away from this evening?” The remarks made were wonderful; many commented on a greater understanding of the religion and Ramadan and one attendee expressed a reawakened desire for connection across faith. Another said it was “wonderful to be here with so many neighbors.”

Shobow Saban (left), Reza Jalali and Maria Padian (right) stand together after their panel discussion on cross-cultural collaboration

Shobow Saban (left), Reza Jalali and Maria Padian (right) stand together after their panel discussion on cross-cultural collaboration

At 8:15, it was time to break the fast as a community. As Jalali described during his talk on Islamic practices, Muslims fast from sun rise until sunset during the month of Ramadan, as a time to practice self-discipline and to increase awareness of and compassion for the poor and hungry. A man from the Muslim community gave the call to prayer and signaled the time to break the fast. Hungry attendees of all faiths gathered to taste food from Tandoor Bread and Restaurant including Iraqi flat bread, hummus, falafel, lentil soup, white bean soup and mountains of rice perfumed with saffron, raisins and almonds. For a sweet end to the meal, there was rice pudding and baklava.

Our thanks go to the many volunteers, Portland Public Library staff, Reza Jalali and Pious Ali, who dedicated their time and expertise to make this event a wonderful success. We also thank the family at Tandoor Bread and Restaurant for providing such excellent food to break the fast and which certainly was enjoyed by all who joined.

Guests of all faiths were invited to break the fast at 8:15

Guests of all faiths were invited to break the fast at 8:15

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Ramadan Mubarak: A Holiday Celebration and Education for Families of All Faiths 8/2/13

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Reza Jalali’s happiest memories from his childhood in Iran are celebrations of Ramadan.  Each year in Maine as he follows the progress of the moon during the Muslim holiday, Jalali remembers with a laugh how as a child he was “fascinated by how the moon seemed to follow me around.”  These memories and his hope that his children will always remember their own Ramadan stories inspired him to write the children’s picture book, Moon Watchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle (Tilbury House).

Out of NowhereMaria Padian remembers her childhood holiday celebrations being a “blizzard of accents” and an unusual combination of dishes served–Irish soda bread beside Spanish rice. With both sides of her family coming from immigrant backgrounds, Padian watched with interest the arrival of new immigrants in her town in Maine. She wondered how these Somali newcomers, black, Muslim and often non-English speakers, would fare in their new surroundings. Her young adult novel Out of Nowhere (Random House) resulted from these curiosities and through many conversations with Lewiston and Portland youth.

Moon Watchers and Out of Nowhere will be celebrated in a Ramadan celebration and education at the Portland Public Library in Monument Square on Friday, August 2, 2013 ongoing from 5:30 PM-9:30 PM as part of a city-wide read entitled “I’m Your Neighbor, Portland.” Attendees can have their name written in Arabic, henna painted and visit a prayer rug exhibit. A panel discussion with author Reza Jalali, illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien, and author Maria Padian will explore how their knowledge of Islam grew through community relationships and research for their books. At 8:15, all are invited to break the Ramadan fast with catered food from Tandoor Bakery and Restaurant. The event is free of charge. All ages and faiths are invited. For more information, contact Curious City at 207-420-1126.

“The event will offer a great opportunity to learn about Ramadan, one of Islam’s Five Pillars, while meeting our Muslim neighbors, who call Maine home,” says Reza Jalali.

img189.jpgMoon Watchers is a children’s picture book that offers an inside view of daily life of a modern Muslim family in Maine during Ramadan. Shirin and her older brother Ali have a history of not getting along so when she catches him sneaking food one afternoon during his Ramadan fast, she is faced with the choice to tell on him or mind her own business. Readers from all faiths will appreciate this universal story with its thought-provoking focus on family life.  The picture book is illustrated by Peaks Island children’s book author and illustrator Anne Sibley O’Brien.

Out of Nowhere is told from the perspective of Tom Bouchard, a Franco-American high school teenager who seems to have it all. However, his life suddenly turns upside down when Somali refugees begin migrating to his small town home in Enniston, Maine. Not everyone in Enniston welcomes the new Somali residents and when Tom screws up in a big, way he must grapple with a culture he does not fully understand and take responsibility for his actions.

The Ramadan celebration and education allows families of all faiths and backgrounds to engage in conversation with and explore Islamic practices. Through breaking the fast together, a sense of community is created through the common act of sharing food.

Author Profile: Reza Jalali

“The project offers a unique opportunity to read multicultural literature while learning about your new neighbors. It humanizes New Mainers and helps us to understand who they are and why they are here.” –Reza Jalali

Reza Jalali is a teacher, writer, and community organizer. Originally from Iran, he has lived in Maine for over two decades. When not working at the University of Southern Maine or playing soccer for fun, he writes stories, which especially delight his children. Moon Watchers is his first children’s book, which tells the story of a modern Muslim family celebrating Ramadan. This title gives readers of all faiths an inside look of how one family celebrates this holiday.

JOIN US at the Portland Public Library on August 2nd to celebrate this title.

MoonCov4On Writing Moon Watchers

A sky watcher, Reza believes we each have a star named after us. He continues to search the night sky to find his and those of his family and friends. Reza remembers his own childhood Ramadans this way:

Some of the happiest memories from my childhood in Iran are from the time when my family observed Ramadan. In bigger cities the signal to stop eating and start the fast would be announced by the boom of a single cannon, but in our town (before people got alarm clocks) men from the neighborhood would go around beating the ground with their sticks, reminding us that it was time to finish our pre-dawn meal. My mother, always the storyteller, told me that in the old days, those fasting would check the time in the evening by carrying outside two strings of cloth—one black, another white—to see if they could be told apart in the waning light. When they looked the same, it was time to break the fast. I was a moon watcher as a child, fascinated by how the moon seemed to follow me around. (Afraid of being teased by older boys, I kept this to myself.) Even now, I chuckle when I catch a glimpse of the moon following me around as I walk outside under a full moon in the Maine night sky. I hope our children, Azad and Setareh, will have their own stories of Ramadan and will share them with others one day.