BROOKLYN – Ramadan is a time where neighbors get together and break bread when the sun sets; the meal is called iftar and comes after a day of fasting. Usually, people host a big iftar in the park or in restaurants and invite the entire community, regardless of faith. It’s what Arts & Democracy has been doing for the past three years on the Avenue C Plaza. It’s what a Muslim Staten Island Assembly Member did last year (along with getting his colleagues to fast with him). But this Ramadan is different in so many ways. There’s no physical community, but there is a virtual one. And with that, comes virtual iftar.
The annual community iftar on the Avenue C Plaza was always a delight. They featured neighbors from all different faiths and backgrounds, local politicians, delicious food, and children running around under the sky. On Wednesday, May 13, Arts & Democracy (the organizer of the annual iftar), along with its partners, decided to take it to Zoom. Council Member Brad Lander was, of course, in attendance. In fact, he noted that there was no place he would rather be– it was perhaps, his favorite night of the year.
“The iftar is interesting because the first year the Avenue C Plaza was there, there was a little tension about what kind of iftar there would be because some folks from the mosque wanted to have a fairly traditional iftar to show their non-Muslim neighbors what a traditional iftar is,” Lander said. “And some people had the idea of a radical, feminist, culturally infused iftar. But Avenue C Plaza is big enough and there are enough nights of Ramadan… and the obvious answer was to have both of those things.”
And so every year, there are two community iftars on the Plaza. Last year, the outdoor iftar shared by 300 people was quickly moved indoors to P.S.179’s cafeteria after a sudden raging thunderstorm showed up.
“The secret is that Avenue C Plaza is not just a place at the intersection of McDonald Avenue and Avenue C. It’s a thing that we have created together; this community of people, so diverse in where they come from. Muslims, Christians, Jews, non-believers,” he said. “We made a beautiful thing happen, And that thing is in our minds, and our hearts, and in our relationships with each other. If you close your eyes, it is not that hard to imagine that we are all on Avenue C Plaza right now.”
Hasiba Haq, the Program Director at Arts & Democracy (a non-profit organization), believes the community is super important, especially during these tough times.
“This year is different obviously… We aren’t able to gather with our friends and family. We are not able to go to the mosque, we are not able to meet up with our community,” Haq said. “This virtual iftar is really a chance for us to be able to be in community with one another. This moment is really for us to gather and enjoy each other.”
Across the Verrazzano Bridge, Assembly Member Charles Fall– the first Muslim elected to the NYS Assembly– hosted his virtual iftar. Last year, he began something called the Ramadan Fasting Challenge. It was where he encouraged his colleagues in the Assembly and State Senate to fast for a day. A year ago, the challenge took place in Albany. Many government officials took part and later broke bread together. For Fall, this was something he wanted to continue every Ramadan. And despite a pandemic, this Ramadan was no different.
“We came up with the idea to have our colleagues in government… to fast for one day to help shed some light on what Ramadan means, and to also help correct some of the misinformation that is out there about Islam,” Fall said. ” Ramadan is about getting closer to God, giving back to the community. It’s also a very thorough evaluation of yourself; where are you now, what could you be doing better… This is a month for being pure and getting back on track to where you should be.”
Ramadan is coming to an end. Muslims are in the last ten days of the holy month, and Fall encouraged people to not only fast, but to give back to the community and volunteer. Because that is what Ramadan is all about.
Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte (along with other Brooklyn folks) made an appearance in the Ramadan Fasting video. Her head was draped in a beige hijab; she was standing in solidarity with her fellow Muslims.
“I’m wishing a Ramadan Mubarak to the Muslim community,” she said. “Remember, this is a time to give back to your community and support those in need.”
At Fall’s virtual iftar, which took place yesterday on Zoom at 6:30 p.m., a number of government officials and community leaders took part. State Senator John Liu, from Queens, was fasting. He admitted that it was a rough day because he was so used to constantly eating while in quarantine. But, it was worth it.
“In the face of all this tragedy, we pull together like we always do… The beauty of these iftars is that it brings everybody together,” he said “That’s ultimately what iftar is about. It is about having people come together and doing something that we all need to do, which is to eat. And it’s not just for Muslims, it’s for everybody.”
Back in Kensington, Lander had made everyone close their eyes and imagine they were physically together, even though it was just a virtual meeting.
“You might think this was one more Zoom meeting, but actually in my mind and in my heart, we are together on the Avenue C Plaza for this iftar and there is just no place I would rather be,” he said. “Ramadan Mubarak!”