It’s almost time for dinner on the next-to-last night of Ramadan. Hassan Ahmed sits on a well-used sofa facing a big-screen TV that dominates the front room of his small, two-bedroom apartment in the Kennedy Park neighborhood of Portland, Maine. He’s watching an Egyptian movie playing on an Arabic satellite station. After a commercial break, Hassan, a Sudanese refugee who came to the United States in 2003 with his family, relaxes his body and leans back into the couch. His dark black skin stands out in contrast to the white jelabia he wears. His short hair is starting to recede from his forehead, where expressive lines form when he’s thinking. The room is illuminated with soft yellow light from a floor lamp in the corner. Outside, the sun hangs low in the sky and the street is empty. A bitter wind blows off the Atlantic several blocks away — another cold Maine winter not far behind.

In the apartment, the thermostat is turned up near 80 degrees. Ahmed, Hassan’s 13-year-old son, sits at the far end of the L-shaped sofa, on the other side of a glass coffee table that is draped with a paper tablecloth decorated with colorful balloons. Hassan’s wife, Maria, her black hair hanging loosely down past her shoulders, is in the small kitchen preparing dinner. Their two young daughters, 12-year-old Samar and seven-year-old Abrar, sit quietly on wooden chairs between the kitchen and the TV. Dinner is only minutes away, and everyone is hungry after a day of fasting.

In the kitchen, Maria opens the oven and slides in a tray of roughly cut goat meat and chopped onions. The meat is from a farm on the outskirts of Portland. Hassan drove out to the farm this morning to help slaughter the animal for tonight’s meal, following dhabiha, the Islamic ritual method in which the animal’s neck is cleanly slit with a sharp knife. After a few minutes under the broiler, the onions and meat begin to sizzle. The aroma reaches out of the kitchen and into the living room where the movie plays.

From time to time, Hassan gets bored with the movie he’s watching and switches between Arabic stations from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon, as well as Indian and Chinese stations. He moves from one station to the next quickly, pausing only long enough to see what is on and then moving along. His son Ahmed provides a running commentary of what programming each station shows. He says the Egyptian stations have lots of violence; the Indian stations have lots of singing and dancing; and the Saudi Arabian stations have lots of news.

Ahmed, still wearing his yellow T-shirt and shorts from soccer practice this afternoon, asks his father to change the channel to football. “Soccer,” his sister Samar says, correcting him. “They call it soccer here.” Ahmed looks up at her quizzically before brushing the comment aside, as if he’s heard it before but finds the difference trivial. Hassan happily picks up the remote and hits a few buttons. But now there are two pictures on the screen: a movie and a soccer game. Hassan looks over at Ahmed in exasperation and says something to him in Arabic as he hands the remote to his son, who takes it confidently and quickly corrects the problem. The girls giggle in their seats on the side of the room. The hands on the clock that hangs on the wall between the living room and the kitchen turn slowly. The meat in the oven is almost done.  

Hassan and his family are Furs from Darfur, “the land of the Furs” in Sudan, where Arabs have forced black Africans to conform to their culture and strict interpretations of Islam for generations. Recently, Arab domination has turned into widespread violence, which has resulted in hundreds of thousands dead and more than two million Darfuris driven from their homes. Hassan calls the violence committed against his people by the Sudanese government genocide. It’s due to fundamentalism, he says.

Like most everyone from Darfur, Hassan is a Muslim, although he states matter-of-factly that the Arabs forced Islam onto his people. He prays and follows halal and raises his children as Muslims, but he is distrustful of those who claim a special knowledge of God. Who can really claim to know such things? Portland has a mosque, but Hassan does not go there for Friday prayers. He says the people there, mostly refugees from Somalia, are fundamentalists. He didn’t leave his homeland and forsake his profession — he was a journalist before he fled; now he works in the production line of a printing plant — to spend his time with fundamentalists, he says.

At 6:45 p.m., with the living room fully engulfed by the kitchen’s aromas, Ahmed excitedly digs through a pile of papers next to the TV until he finds the one that lists sunset times for this year’s Ramadan. Muslims throughout the world fast from dawn to sundown during the month of Ramadan, the holiest month in the Islamic calendar. It is thought to teach humility and sacrifice. By fasting during the day, Muslims show their commitment to God and learn about self-discipline and the plight of the less fortunate. Then at sunset each night, iftar, a large meal, is shared with family and friends.

“Six forty-seven,” Ahmed announces as he looks up from the sheet of paper. “One more minute.” He has been fasting all day today, one of four days during this Ramadan, in practice for all 30 days next year.

After Ahmed’s announcement, the children rush to the kitchen and come back with platters of food, which they place on the crowded coffee table. Then the whole family sits on the couch surrounding the coffee table. As the clock hits 6:47, Ahmed takes a bite of meat. But before he can enjoy it, Samar grabs the paper with sunset times from the spot on the couch where Ahmed left it. Her hunch confirmed, she shows him the correct time for the day: 6:57. “Tomorrow is the last night,” she says gently. He chews the meat slowly and swallows, then blushes and sinks back into the couch.

With 10 minutes to go until sundown, the family sits around the table telling jokes and laughing about Ahmed’s mistake. Daoud, a family friend in his 20s who is tall and slim and very dark, arrives at the door and is greeted with much joy. He is offered a seat in a chair that has been moved into the room for him. He sits and joins the conversation. Hassan tells how Ahmed confused the days and ate before sundown. He recounts how Samar corrected Ahmed and how the whole family burst into laughter. It has not yet been five minutes since it happened, but already Ahmed’s mistake is becoming something of a family legend, the kind that gets repeated every year and grows into something much bigger with each telling.

Daoud is just as amused by the tale as everyone else, but Ahmed is ready for the story to be forgotten. After the jokes die down, Daoud looks up at the TV screen and is reminded of an image he saw recently. He was watching TV at home, and suddenly it was showing a refugee camp in Darfur. He recognized someone on the screen, someone he knew back in Sudan. How strange it had felt to be here in Maine, where the cold wind blows off the ocean, and to see someone familiar so far away on the arid plains of Darfur. A silence hangs in the room as everyone’s mind shifts to another world.

But this is not the time for such thoughts. There is enough time in the day for worries and troubles, for anxieties about work and bills and loved ones. There is enough time for remembering one’s homeland, where men on horseback gun down civilians and makeshift bombs rain down from government planes, where people feel the drought to their very bones. There is time enough in the day for all that. Now it is time to be with family and friends, to think about the future and what could be, to tell stories about small mistakes made by boys trying to be men, and to enjoy food after tasting hunger.

On the table sits a tray of goat meat and onions, a plate piled high with flatbread, a bowl of pineapple slices, and two bowls of meat in its own broth. A small bowl is filled with red pepper flakes to dip the goat meat in. Pitchers of juice and cups and napkins — the table is so crowded there’s barely room for it all. Everyone looks around, waiting as the hands move around the clock and as the sun inches toward the horizon. Shadows are disappearing into darkness outside. The street is still empty. The wind still blows cold off the ocean just blocks away. But inside the thermostat is turned way up, the open oven still gives off heat, and everyone in the living room crowds around the table.

“It’s time to eat,” Hassan announces.

“But it’s only six fifty-five,” Samar exclaims.

“No matter. Let’s eat — it’s close enough,” he answers her with a smile.

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