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Dearborn: The American city that does not sleep during Ramadan

The US city with the highest concentration of Arab Americans fully lives the spirit of the Muslim holy month
Bakeries are open 24/7 in Dearborn during Ramadan (MEE/Ali Harb)

DEARBORN, United States - Dearborn residents become nocturnal during Ramadan. In the city with the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the US, the Islamic holy month can be felt everywhere.

Traffic increases at night, while the streets are vacant during iftar or breaking of the fast. Bakeries are open 24/7, cafes have their peak hours after midnight and homes are decorated in celebration of the occasion.

As anti-Muslim zealots rally against “Sharia law” around the country, Ramadan here is an opportunity to show a “cool” side of the faith - charitable events, joyous gatherings, tasty pastries and a prevailing sense of community, local Muslims say. The Ramadan festivities attract non-Muslims, who are intrigued by their neighbours’ feasts, to the point where some of them refrain from eating and drinking during the day to fully live the experience.

Nada Shatila holding a tray of kulaj (MEE/Ali Harb)

Nourhan Mattar, who coordinates the Yallah Eat food tours for the Arab American National Museum, said restaurants’ schedules in Dearborn flip flop during the Muslim holy month.

“One thing that’s interesting is that there’s a lull when it comes to restaurants during Ramadan, but it’s the busy season for bakeries,” Mattar told MEE. “They’re open all night long typically because the Arab community values their freshly baked goods very highly.”

Many shawarma take-out places close completely for the duration of the month.

Mattar added that some restaurants opt to open later than usual, not only because of the decreasing number of diners during the day, but also to prepare for the influx of customers in the evening.

She said some non-Muslim residents sometimes seem confused by the shifting schedules during Ramadan, “but it’s all shrouded in curiosity”.

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The museum is organising a programme on 20 June with an informational segment and an iftar dinner to give people an idea of what Ramadan means, Mattar said.

At New Yasmeen Bakery, one of the oldest Middle Eastern bakeries in Dearborn, the parking lot fills up after midnight as people head for sohoor, the early morning meal before sunrise.

Manaeesh, cheese and zaatar pies, and other carb-rich pastries are popular during sohoor. However, moshtah, a long and fluffy loaf of bread, is a special Ramadan treat.

According to New Bakery manager Tarek Seblini, sahlab, a beverage of thickened, sweetened milk served with powdered cinnamon, is also a must-have sohoor item.

“Some people come to have sohoor here and then they go straight to work,” Seblini told MEE. “Ramadan here in Dearborn feels like you’re living in our home countries - live action all night.”

Susan Dabaja, Dearborn’s city council president, lauded the city’s atmosphere during Ramadan. She said Muslims and non-Muslims alike appreciate the shifting schedules and spirit of joy and giving.

Dabaja said the city council has extended the operating hours of hookah lounges, which are normally required to close at 2am, to accommodate Muslim residents who want to go out and socialise during sohoor.

Dabaja said non-Muslim residents are curious and respectful of Ramadan traditions.

“People are more aware of Ramadan and the purpose behind Ramadan,” Dabaja told MEE.

She added that the culture of acceptance in the city around Ramadan is “heartening” despite the news about Islamophobia and bigotry in other places.

Killoud Dabaja, the owner of a Biggby coffee shop franchise, holds “Ramadan Nights” every Friday, offering coffee-based henna tattoos and half-off drinks. She also invites a food truck and an ice cream truck to operate outside her business. The coffee shop, which normally closes at 9pm, extends its hours to 1am during the month.

The patio of Sky Cafe after midnight (MEE/Ali Harb)
She said the national coffee chain’s corporate office had no problem with her altering the hours of operations or the Ramadan Nights programme.

Dabaja told MEE that non-Muslims may have a certain negative image about Islam, but when they see how “cool” Muslims are about practising their faith, they change their perception.

“Ramadan is about community; it’s about giving,” she said.

The food

Sky Lounge is one of numerous hookah cafes that have taken full advantage of the extended hours. The smell of flavoured tobacco, tunes of Arabic pop music and young diners fill the place's patio after midnight.

The cafe remains lively until sunrise, manager Ali Fawaz told MEE.

“The atmosphere is beautiful,” Fawaz said of Ramadan. “We have customers from different countries. Even people from out of state come here… We try to ensure an atmosphere where people feel at home.”

Shatila Bakery, a store recognised nationally for its baklava and ice cream, is a go-to destination for post-iftar desserts. During Ramadan, Shatila implements a system where customers are called by number to cope with the rush.

Katayef, a pancake-like dough filled with cream or nuts, deep fried and dipped in syrup, is one of the most common Ramadan desserts.

The bakery also serves a Ramadan-only pastry called kulaj, which consists of a rectangular pocket of filo dough filled with sweet cream and deep fried.

“It’s always been a big part of our life,” Nada Shatila, a co-owner of the baker which was founded by her late father, said of Ramadan. “We used to stay all day here at the bakery while our parents worked in the back, frying the kulaj or preparing the katayef.”

Shatila added that Ramadan traditions have been becoming more prominent in Dearborn over the years as the Muslim community grows.

“We feel it all around… The streets are empty during the day now. People are closer. People are always gathering together more so than usual. You can definitely feel the spirit of Ramadan,” she told MEE.

Local charities also increase their activities during the month.

Najah Bazzy, who runs local non-profit Zaman International, has partnered up with local businesses to deliver hot food to the needy among other initiatives. She said with an increased sense of giving, her organisation does not need to solicit donations in Ramadan.

“People called and donated thousands of dollars… The charitable giving has increased. It’s a different feeling. People are calling us to say, ‘What can I do?’” she said.

Bazzy credited the charity to a higher level of consciousness sparked by fasting.

“Fasting creates that giving spirit,” she said.