Feeding the Soul, If Not The Body

| 08 Jul 2015 | 11:10

Lunchtime at the B&D Halal Restaurant on West 29th Street is usually a bustling affair.

Nearly each of the eatery’s roughly 50 seats are occupied, while other patrons wait their turns at two dozen steel pans brimming with stewed chicken or goat, fried fish and plantains, spiced rice and grains.

But on a late June afternoon, the otherwise spare restaurant’s eight tables, each of which can seat six, were nearly empty. Regulars ambling toward the cash register, Styrofoam containers in hand, remarked at the relative quiet.

“It’s Ramadan,” the cashier, Djenabou Diallo, said.

In New York, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, began on June 17 and will last until July 16. The month commemorates the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad and is observed by the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, including the roughly 1 million who live in the city, by fasting from dawn until just after sunset. In Arabic, Ramadan’s etymology can be traced to words meaning “scorchedness” and “sun-baked ground.” And when Ramadan occurs during the summer months, that can be especially apt—particularly for those preparing food for others but who are fasting themselves.

At B&D that afternoon, manager Ali Barry, who oversees food production, had been fasting for nearly 12 hours.

“After two or three days, it gets easier,” he said, echoing sentiment from other cooks and restaurateurs who are also fasting. “You don’t think about it.”

He had awakened at 3 a.m., and ate a meal of rice with some spinach and avocado. “I eat a lot in the morning,” he said.

“I slept a little bit and I came to work,” said Barry, 28, who works six days a week at the eatery just west of Seventh Avenue.

Although he carts the pans of aromatic meats, fish, vegetables and grains from the kitchen to the immense steam table in the center of the restaurant, there’s no temptation to have even a spoonful, he said. Fasting has become habit as much as custom.

“It becomes normal,” said Barry, who came to the United States from his native Guinea in 2006. “I started fasting at about 13 or 14.”

In fact sustenance can become an afterthought. “Sometimes after Ramadan, I forget to have my lunch,” he said.

Since the Islamic calendar is about 11 days shorter than the Gregorian calendar, Ramadan shifts with the seasons and for the last few years has been all or nearly all in the summer — when the days are longest and warmest.

At Baba Ghanouge on Church Street downtown, Sam Zaarour was taking phone orders from behind a simple counter on a July afternoon that would reach into the low 80s.

Zaarour, who works seven days a week at his son’s restaurant, starting in early mornings, said the mostly temperate weather this Ramadan had made fasting easier to bear than during others in the summer months.

“When it’s too hot, that’s the problem,” said Zaarour, 60. “In the winter, it’s easy. ... This summer is not bad.”

On a wall beside the cash register, just below eye level, a timetable for the New York Metropolitan Area listed the times for the beginning of the fast; the morning prayer; sunrise; the noon prayer; and iftar, the breaking of the fast.

This year, with the beginning of Ramadan nearly coinciding with the start of summer, the length of the prescribed fast will have shortened by just 25 minutes by the time Ramadan concludes.

Zaarour, who came to New York from Lebanon 17 years ago, had been fasting since 3:45 that morning. Behind the eatery’s glass partition, bright purple-red beets, roasted eggplant, creamy hummus, compact stuffed grape leaves and a collection of neatly cut and colorful vegetables, dips and sauces offered no inducement, he said. He had another five hours before he would break his fast. If he thought ahead, he did so cheerfully.

“After you eat, it’s like someone gave you a million dollars,” he said. “You are very happy.”

Across Church Street, Umar Irshad, who manages the Pakistan Tea House, said the start of Ramadan can be a challenge.

“You get hungry by looking at food,” Irshad said as curries, biryanis and other dishes warmed in a steam table nearby. But, he added, “if I’m fasting, I’m fasting.”

Irshad, a 24-year-old from Pakistan, has been fasting on some days, but not all; a medical condition precludes him from observing the fast throughout Ramadan. He refrains from eating and drinking when he is able.

“You have power even if you’re fasting,” he said. “God has given me life and I’m thankful for that, and that motivates.”