Eid al-Fitr, or the Feast of Breaking the Fast, celebrates the end of Ramadan, the lunar month during which Muslims fast during the daylight hours. Along with Eid al-Adha, which occurs at the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, it is the most popular Islamic holiday. No one knows how long Arab Americans have been celebrating Eid al-Fitr in Indianapolis, but for three decades, Dr. Taiseer Shatara and Mrs. Amnah Shatara have celebrated the holiday with Muslims from a variety of national backgrounds in central Indiana. IUPUI student research Jay Brodzeller, who interviewed them, also discovered that there is a lot more to Ramadan than fasting and feasting.
Jay Brodzeller: How do you typically start off celebrations for Eid al-Fitr?
Amnah Shatara: The whole month of Ramadan is like a celebration! We fast all day long, but then we have activities going on every night, plus the late night prayers.
About a week before Eid al-Fitr comes, we get prepared. We prepare sweets and special foods, and we shop for new clothes. It’s a tradition to buy new clothes. And then comes the new moon sighting.
We get up the morning of Eid and you dress up, you put on cologne, you get real fancy. And then we drive either to the masjid–to the mosque–or because there are so many Muslims who want to pray we use a school gym. One year, we went to the Grand Park in Westfield.
Everybody sits, and we have takbir before the sermon–we have praising, there’s a lot of praising out loud, everybody’s together, from 8 until 9, and then at 9, we do our two prayers. After that is the sermon, the speech of the Eid. And then usually when that’s done, everybody gets up and everybody greets everyone and hugs, and says, “happy Eid.” And there’s just so many people.
Everybody likes to wear their country’s clothing. I don’t want to brag, but this is the truth: when I moved to Indy in 1991 I would go to the activities we have at the masjid, and my husband said, “we’re Palestinian, why don’t you wear the Palestinian traditional clothes? When are you going to wear it?” And I’m like, “oh, that’s a good idea.” So I would wear mine, and people from Pakistan, India, and Ghana, they always wear theirs. The Arab women always said, “why do you wear the Palestinian clothes?” And I said, “because this is our clothing that we can express where we come from and who we are, and what a better time to do it when we’re celebrating?” So believe it or not, even the young girls come up to me and they come and show me, and really I get tears in my eyes, they tell me, “I’m so glad you showed us this,” because now the young girls are wearing them. They’re asking where you get them and they even come and borrow some of my stuff to wear. So then you kinda can know where everybody is from, you can tell by their clothing.
And then there are sweets. When there was a smaller congregation–when we first moved here there were not that many–we would make a breakfast buffet. Everybody would bring food and we’d have breakfast. But now with thousands of Muslims, we have Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Dunkin’ Donuts, the coffee, and they bring bagels. After that, people go out with their friends, or just their family. We usually go out for breakfast.
Eid is really three days, you talk to everybody for 3 days. But there is something else in Islam, the day after Eid people fast for 6 days. That’s not mandatory, but it’s something they prefer, if you can, to do. And a lot of people do it. Honestly, I don’t, but some people do.
Taiseer Shatara: The most important thing is that you contact all your family.
Amnah Shatara: Oh yeah, that’s the most important thing. We spend like the first day on the phone calling people we haven’t spoken to in years or months. You call your relatives. During Ramadan, the night before, some people may have little grudges or something, and you should call them and ask for forgiveness. We’ll call the family first, especially the elderlies–we have to start with the elderlies. I have two older sisters, so I will call them, and then my mother-in-law and uncles. We send cards, we do FaceTime, we Zoom.
And then we just eat, eat, eat, eat for three days! A lot of people try to take some days off from work, and if you can’t, that’s still okay.
We buy kids gifts. We do buy them gifts. Back home, they would give them money. But here, with Christmas, you know the kids kind of feel like, “well, why do we just get money?” So now, we do give them money–my husband always gives them money–but I say, I don’t care, I’m gonna go buy them some toys, too.
Oh and decorations! A lot of decorations. I forgot about that. I like crafts, so I’ve been teaching my grandchildren we need to do some home crafts. So we do a craft, we do a lantern, we’ll try to do a masjid, we do the moon and the stars, and do all this for them–you know how it is with kids, they love making things. We don’t do a tree, but we do put lights, and it’s nice.
Jay Brodzeller: Do you have any specific ways you decorate certain parts of the house? Or does it kind of depend on how you feel that year?
Amnah Shatara: Everyone has a mantle, so people do it by the fireplace. But all over. You can do it in the kitchen, you can put it on the staircase, it’s not a specific place–just anywhere in the house. So that they can see. There’s just so many ideas today, just like in Christmas, you have so many days until Christmas. Well now that’s thirty days, and each day, you pull out a paper and you do something. Every day there was a prayer, too. And then every day the kids get to do a certain game. It could be anything–like okay, we’re going to try to do tic-tac-toe, for example, and make it be something associated with Ramadan. We do a lot of Qur’an reading during Ramadan. We always do Qur’an reading but during Ramadan it’s the most.
Jay Brodzeller: Are there any specific Qur’an passages that you read every year?
Amnah Shatara: No, your aim is to finish the whole book.
Jay Brodzeller: Is that during Eid or during Ramadan?
Amnah Shatara: During Ramadan.
During Ramadan you also go to the masjid, or it can be in a home or whatever, but mainly you go to the masjid. After the evening prayer there’s a little break, and then there’s reading of the Qur’an during prayer. So every night they try to finish sections of the Qur’an. So the aim is by the end of the month, before Eid, to finish reading the whole Qur’an, and then usually there’s a little celebration at the masjid when they finish the Qur’an.
Taiseer Shatara: The whole idea is not just to read. Hopefully, you understand the meaning of what the different chapters. Because anybody can read, but if you read and you don’t understand the significance of what you read, it’s sad. So you try to read and understand, and for those people who do that, obviously it takes time. Finishing the whole book of Qur’an is not mandatory. The most important thing is understanding and how you apply it to your own life.
Jay Brodzeller: What are some of the specific types of food you usually prepare around this time?
Amnah Shatara: Katayif, stuffed pancakes. That’s number one sweet that we eat during Ramadan.
Taiseer Shatara: People do make rich food during Ramadan, obviously because it’s only one meal a day. It depends on where you come from. For us as a Palestinian family, it’s katayif stuffed with either cheese or different kinds of nuts.
Amnah Shatara: But katayif is connected with Ramadan [because of the crescent shape, like the moon].
Taiseer Shatara: Some people might substitute with fruit nowadays.
Amnah Shatara: A lot of people have soup. That’s a tradition, people have soup to break the fast. Because we believe first to break the fast with a date, you eat that date. Then most of the time we pray. But sometimes we go, “you know what? We had a long day. Let’s eat a cup of soup before we pray.” It could be lentil soup, wheat soup, chicken soup, broccoli cream, anything.
We pray as the family together, and when we come back we eat salad, meat, rice, whatever the food you make. But I realized lately a lot of people just have a salad or side dish and may not eat right away. It is very upsetting to your stomach. You eat nothing for seventeen or eighteen hours, and then you stuff yourself. Can you imagine how you’d feel? We will eat very light, and then later we’ll eat something else.
We do get up before dawn, maybe like an hour, so depending on what time it falls in the year–because we do a lunar year–so every year Eid Al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha is ten days earlier.
Some people don’t go to bed during Ramadan. They stay up and do more reading, praying, and then they’ll eat a little something around 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and then sleep and get up again around 4 or 5.
It all depends. But me personally, if I get up and eat before dawn, it’s something very light. And we have to have coffee to get us through the day.
Jay Brodzeller: What are some of your favorite savory dishes you like to make specifically for Eid?
Amnah Shatara: We usually like to roast lamb. Some salad and rice of course. I have a daughter who won’t eat lamb or beef, but eats chicken, so we do some roasted chicken with vegetables.
Jay Brodzeller: Is there a specific role that children play during the holiday?
Amnah Shatara: No, not really, we just kind of spoil them. Yeah, and then they enjoy their toys and extra sweets and missing out on school. But that’s about it.
I remember once when we came home after prayers, we had a big brunch, then we had lunch, and they just played. We put on a lot of music and they just danced and danced. They’re wearing their best clothes and we took a lot of pictures here at the house.
Some of them do try to fast–like my grandkids this year, they fast like half a day. We don’t pressure them. We tell them “you don’t have to” but they want to. They see it, and they want to imitate, they want to do what the parents are doing. And they get goodie bags–you have to have goodie bags with candy and all that good stuff.
Jay Brodzeller: Is there a certain age that children usually begin to participate in the fast?
Amnah Shatara: Is it eight, Taiseer? Eight or Nine?
It all depends on the child.
Taiseer Shatara: Yeah it depends, but you know you don’t force them, obviously, because even if they’re grown up, if they are sick or unable to, they don’t have to do the fast. The kids, I think if they’re at age 8, they can start to try. Some of them like to do training. They fast half a day, and when they grow up, they’ll be able to have a full day of fasting.
Amnah Shatara: As parents, we keep an eye on them. Because I remember when my kids–because they would want to do it, and if I see them a little tired, I say, “that’s it, you have to eat.” And they get very upset and I go, “well listen, you did five hours, that’s enough.”
Jay Brodzeller: You mentioned that you usually wear your Palestinian clothes to service on Eid. Do the women do that or also men?
Amnah Shatara: Anybody can do that, anyone. The men, they can, but…
Taiseer Shatara: The whole idea is to wear your best clothing, okay? This is a day of joy and happiness, and for the service you’ve done to almighty God, so enjoy it. It doesn’t have to be expensive as long as it’s clean. And it’s not a competition. If somebody wants to buy a suit for $500, and somebody buys pants and shirt for $20, as long as you wear the cleanest and the newest clothing. If you cannot afford it, you don’t have to go spend it. If you can afford it, fine. But you don’t have to spend your savings just for show, no. That’s not the idea.
Jay Brodzeller: Aside from gifts and money for the children, is there any other philanthropy that goes on during the holiday?
Amnah Shatara: Yes, we actually need to do it before that morning prayer. Before we have that prayer the day of Eid–actually they’re announcing it in between the praising or chanting–they would say, “remember, you need to do that last donation.”
Taiseer Shatara: That’s Zakat al-Fitr. You give it before the imam, or leader, comes in to give the sermon. We pay $10 per person. My family is six, so I pay $60, and it’s preferred to be given a week before. Because this money goes to the poor. This money will be divided and given to those families in need. It is not a donation–it’s a duty. And it doesn’t have to be given just to Muslims. It’s given to any poor person.
Jay Brodzeller: Is there anything that your family does on Eid that is unique to your family? Like any traditions that you have?
Amnah Shatara: We usually go out. Before COVID, we would get together with other Muslim families. Either take the kids out to Chuck E. Cheese or you take them to some indoor park, or we go to each other’s homes, and just celebrate and have sweets and coffee. But after COVID, I said, “We’re not going out to eat, we’re coming back home.” And my husband says, “You’re tired, you’ve been fasting, you’ve been cooking.” And I said, “No, but I want the kids to take their freedom playing in the house.” So, now they just hang out and we eat and, of course, they talk with relatives that they don’t speak with much.
Jay Brodzeller: How do you feel that your Arab culture influences your traditions and how you celebrate Eid?
Amnah Shatara: When I was young and overseas, women in Palestine would visit the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem during Ramadan, but women did not go to pray at the local mosque. We would stay home, and my dad, God bless his soul, he would go and come back. Afterward, that’s when people would come by to wish us a happy Eid. Then we’d serve coffee and tea and sweets.
Now women do go to the mosque. They have a section for men and they have a section for women, and the men and women go together with the kids, and they all do our prayers there. And then they come back home, and families visit each other. Our tradition was: “You come to my house, later I’m going to your house.” To return, you could say, giving everybody good wishes. People cannot wait to host others. “Okay, you guys are gonna come over and you’re gonna see what we prepared.” There is no housecleaning, there’s no shopping that day, everybody just happy and people get together and they’re very happy–thank God–it’s nice to have one day to relax.
Jay Brodzeller: What’s your favorite part of the holiday?
Amnah Shatara: Um, I don’t have to clean! Even though I had to during COVID for the two celebrations, but it was my pleasure, because we weren’t going out and doing much at that time. And we get to contact people we haven’t spoken to. It’s what they call “bringing the hearts together.” And people we forgot to call, they call us and they remember us. So it’s a nice feeling. It’s a good thing.
Taiseer Shatara: In this country everybody works. So at least we tried to teach our kids to take a day off, so we can be together and really have the joy together. Here, everybody’s on the run, always go, go, go. But I think you can afford a day to relax and be with your loved ones. And to me that is the most important thing, that my kids and my grandkids come to the house and we sit down and chitchat.
Jay Brodzeller: Are there any stories or passages from the Qur’an that you like to talk about specifically during this time?
Amnah Shatara: That’s why we have Ramadan. We believe that the Qur’an came down with Gabriel during the month of Ramadan.
There are certain prayers we do, like, “God is forgiving, he is merciful, he forgives, please forgive me.” We have to repeat this a lot during Ramadan. We believe that the doors of hell are shut, okay? And the doors of heaven are open. So you should do a lot of prayers, ask God for forgiveness, ask God Almighty for His mercy to purify us, to help us. And, you know, you can do anything for thirty days, but you’re hoping that you can carry, if not all, then some of it throughout the year. Until the next Ramadan.
Jay Brodzeller: What is the phrase that you repeat before the prayer?
Taiseer Shatara: “We praise God, you, God the great, oh God the great, we worship nobody except you. Almighty God, we ask you for forgiveness for our sins and the mistakes that we have done, to give us the strength and ability to continue even after Ramadan to stay on the right path.” Because what happens to a lot of people, they pass Ramadan, and then all of the sudden after the thirty days is over, they go back to the old ways and old bad habits. So to protect us from going back to the bad habits, and to forgive us for what we’ve done–because nobody’s perfect–we ask Him to forgive all our mistakes, our sins, and to always guide us to the right path. That’s basically the biggest prayer.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more information on how Muslims observe Ramadan and practice Islam in the United States, see The Practice of Islam in America: An Introduction.