Washington’s iftar cars catering to Muslims with empathy
WASHINGTON - On a cold, dark evening during Ramadan in Washington’s Ivy City neighbourhood, not far from the US Capitol, three volunteers stood in front of Ivy City Masjid with massive dishes of vegetarian food.
“Hello, sir!” called out Katherine Ashworth Brandt, a graduate student at George Washington University, to a man walking in front of the mosque. “Would you like some lasagne? It’s free!”
The man did a double-take and then answered: “Yes, please.”
Within minutes, he told Brandt and her volunteers, Dustin Shepler and Lauren Mylott, that he hoped they have many blessings.
“I’m getting notes from Muslims all over the country saying, ‘Thank you,’ which is really moving but also makes me think we’re onto something,” Brandt said, scooping a heaping serving of lasagne onto a paper plate.
“Ramadan is a pillar of Islam,” said Abdullah Ware as he accepted his iftar meal. “This is a blessing.”
Brandt, who was raised as a Christian and celebrates Christian traditions, said she wondered where Muslims in Washington went for iftar. Every year, US newspapers publish articles about Muslims who frequent IHOP, a national chain of pancake restaurants, during Ramadan because it is open 24 hours a day.
Why weren’t other restaurants staying open late for the large Muslim community in Washington?
“In Dearborn, Michigan, businesses really do accommodate that and they understand it’s good for their own bottom line,” Brandt said. “During Ramadan, everything there is open all night. Every restaurant is always packed.”
In the United States, Dearborn ranks second to New York in the number of Muslim residents.
Brandt created Dine After Dark, a non-profit organisation, this year and worked with local businesses to both stay open later and advertise for Ramadan. However, she noted another group was missing out on after-sunset eating options: Washington’s homeless population. Homeless shelters often have early curfews, so meals are typically served before sunset.
Brandt checked with Martha’s Table, a local charity that provides healthy food to at-risk people, which is near the Ivy City Masjid, and the “Iftar Car” was created. Every weekday, Dine After Dark serves meals in Ivy City from 8pm-9pm. The Iftar Car makes its way to the Islamic Centre of Washington on Saturdays and to the Yaro Collective’s iftar on the National Mall on Sundays.
“We see Muslims attending mosque plus people in the community looking for meals,” Brandt said. “Ivy City has been so gracious in hosting us and we’re really excited to get to the Islamic Centre.”
The idea took root after Brandt heard a story about a high school in Brooklyn that planned prom, an annual US high school rite-of-passage dance, during Ramadan. About 240 students protested but school officials said they couldn’t change the date because the event had been planned long in advance.
“I thought: ‘What could be planned longer in advance than Ramadan?’ It just seemed profoundly unfair,” Brandt said.
She said, as someone brought up on Christian traditions, Easter candy was always available at the drug store, Christmas decorations filled shop windows and she would never be expected to work on the sabbath.
“We need to be more considerate to people who are celebrating Ramadan,” she said.
Because Washington draws people from all over the world — many staying only temporarily — many Muslims may not have families or friends with whom to break the fast. Dinner is typically served between 6pm-9pm in Washington restaurants, particularly on weekdays, but there may still be daylight as late as 9pm.
Busboys and Poets, a local company known for its attention to social issues and owned by an American born in Iraq, and City Winery DC, a full-service restaurant in Ivy City, agreed to keep their restaurants open late and market the hours to Muslims.
This year, membership in Dine After Dark is free, including advertising on Brandt’s website, but in the future businesses will be asked to pay an annual membership of $500. Brandt said she hopes the idea will take off nationwide.
“We want to be able to show businesses a proof-of-concept but also start a conversation that this is something people should be thinking about,” she said.
The idea has been well received by the Muslim community.
“Honestly, I was concerned that I’m just this lady who’s meddling in a cause that’s not really my own but, honestly, it seems to be the part that people like the
most: feeling like they have an ally,” Brandt said.