It's Ramadan, "the loveliest part of the Islamic year," a time of family, friends and colored lights. But Saddiqah Ali-Shaibani and Salwa Al-Mutawa, transplanted 7,000 miles from their homes for the first time, have found that here it's just another month.
"During Ramadan all families come together at night and read and pray. Neighbors visit and bring you special foods," said Mutawa. "But here we have no neighbors, no friends. Here it's nothing."
For the 30 days of Ramadan, the holiest of the Islamic months, the healthy Islamic faithful refrain from eating, drinking -- even water -- smoking and sex from dawn until night.
It is a month of spiritual preparation, when Moslems try not to commit even the slightest sin, meditate, read their holy book, the Koran, and be kind to others in order to make amends with God before Id Al-Fitr. At that time (beginning Aug. 12 this year), Moslems celebrate by giving gifts and merrymaking, much like the Christian Christmas.
Mutawa and Shalbani, 23-year-old American University students, have tried to recapture the Ramadan spirit by inviting two or three other students from the United Arab Emirates to pray and break the fast with them each evening in their Connecticut Avenue apartment.
At approximately 8:45, they break their fast with the traditional dates and buttermilk or water, foods from nature, before delving into the table full of Middle Eastern foods that they take turns cooking.
Round flat breads, cheese-and spinach-filled bread folded into tiangles, and more flat crusty bread topped with ground meat begin the feast. Then for the main course, finely chopped salad, mounds of rice and chicken and vegetables in a watery tomato sauce.
Although nearly all of them have not eaten for more than 17 hours, they eat sparingly gracefully gathering rice and chicken with their fingertips. Eating with the fingers is an acceptable custom in the Arabian Gulf, but they say they wouldn't do it in front of most American guests because they might think it barbaric.
At 3 a.m., those of the group who are fasting will rise for another meal of leftovers, they said.
Goinga without food and water does not bother Hadif Al-Dheheri, 23, a regular at the Ramadan gatherings, who has fasted during 15 of his 23 years. "But it's a little harder because your days are so long here. In my country we begin fasting at 4 or 5 a.m. and breakfast at 5 or 6 p.m.," he said. c
The 50,000 Washington area Moslems fast from about 3:45 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. when they celebrate Ramadan.
The women said they do not even mind foregoing a glass of cold water in the 100-degree weather (It's even hotter back home, they say) but attending school full-time and handling housework and cooking can get rough. "In my country, schools are closed and everyone only works a half day, then you go home and sleep until 5 p.m. when you break your fast," said Mutawa. "Then you go to the mosque, pray and visit with friends until 3 a.m. or later."
More traditional Moslems would have gone through a prayer ritual before eating, they said. This group prefers saying their prayers privately in their own home.
After dinner, they listen to Arabic music and talk. Shaibani, dressed in a rich lavendar silk robe, models her prayer shawl and several colorful silver-and-gold edged party robes she brought from home.
The women said they generally wear Western clothing -- even at home -- except when praying or visiting old family friends who might be offended.
All five of the students are on scholarship from the three-year-old University of the United Arab Emirates, and, after earning Ph.d's from AU they will return home as professors.