When I arrived at Shatha and Sana Dweik’s Oak Lawn home for dinner on a recent Friday night, I was a little bit nervous, as you might expect someone
who’d never been to a Ramadan iftar (dinner)
Shatha and I had talked on the phone earlier in the week about my coming to celebrate the breaking of the fast with her and her mother, Sana, but I didn’t entirely know what to expect. As soon as I arrived and Shatha welcomed me into their home, which smelled of delicious spices and resonated with the sizzle of something on the stove top, my uncertainty dissolved. I could tell it would be a lovely evening.
Shatha, Sana and I chatted about the hot weather and how that was affecting their fast. Shatha, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the summer heat of July made it harder for her not to stop and get her morning pick-me-up – a Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee – but she stuck to her fast, no matter how tough it was without caffeine.
“The whole thing about fasting is that you feel how other people feel who don’t have clean water to drink or food to eat every day,” Shatha said.
“You appreciate the basics. When you are hungry or when you’re fasting, you don’t think about Louis Vuitton,” Sana added with a laugh.
Sana and Shatha are originally from Kuwait, but Shatha, now 26, has grown up in Oak Lawn since she was a toddler. She has always considered Oak Lawn an incredibly welcoming community and said the surrounding suburbs are like a “little melting pot, a true representation of America.”
At the same time, things are different in Oak Lawn than in Kuwait – comparisons I would never have thought about. When Sana grew up in Kuwait, neighbors would gather from all around to feast at sundown. Businesses would close early. Shatha does research for the United Nations as a volunteer, and she says even now, some Middle Eastern countries change their schedules to fit with the holiday, much like American businesses and schools tend to do around Christmas.
“I think it was the United Arab Emirates,” Shatha said, “And it had Ramadan hours for the whole country – it was like 9 to 2 or something like that.”
Even though there are differences, one of the important parts of Ramadan is continuing to perform one’s normal duties well. Shatha, who has two internships and a graduate assistantship this summer, said this can be tough at times, like at her company's daytime barbecue, but she celebrates the breaking of the fast with her mother each night, and that makes the fast worthwhile.
As we sit down to eat, I look the wonderful feast Sana has prepared: fava beans with yogurt, spaghetti with a yogurt-like sauce (similar to Alfredo sauce), Arabic chicken, tabbouleh (a salad), hummus and pita bread. While enjoying our food, we chat about many different things, from Shatha’s love of Harry Potter to our adoration of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and from Sana’s sighting of a hummingbird in the backyard to the goofiness of Fluffy, one of the family cats trying to get in on the feast as well.
Once we’re finished and we sit back down in the living room for a dessert of harissa and baklava, something Shatha said earlier comes to my mind.
“[Muslims,] we’re just part of the community, you know, we’re people,” she said. “We’re a little bit different in terms of our faith maybe, but I think we have more things in common than not have in common.”
After bonding over our mutual appreciation for 90s Nickelodeon cartoons and our fandom of everyone’s favorite Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, I realize I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite as welcome with anyone I’ve interviewed as I did right then. I’d never laughed so freely with someone I’d just met. We did have a lot in common, and one difference in religion wasn’t going to make or break that.
Before bidding Shatha and Sana goodbye, Sana insisted I return to have dinner with them at the end of Ramadan. With Ramadan ending Wednesday evening, I plan to phone them up shortly. I may not always know what to expect when I walk into the kitchen, but I’ll never know if I don’t give it a try.