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Mornings in Michigan: During Ramadan's early hours, thousands gather for food, faith, and community

This story is part of Mornings in Michigan, our series about morning rituals from across our state.

Every weekend during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, thousands of people gather in Dearborn for the Ramadan Suhoor Festival. A former Sears parking lot is transformed into a community-wide get together that lasts into the wee hours of the morning.

Outside Dearborn’s Fairlane Town Center mall, the line to get into the festival winds through the parking lot. Event organizers are collecting the $1 entry fee that will be donated to local charities. There is an elaborate and sparkly tunnel, decked out in fairy lights and shaped by a light-up crescent moon.

Visitors are greeted by a cutout display containing a sermon on Ramadan by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him).

It reads, "(its) days, the best of days. Its nights, the best of nights. Its hours, the best of hours.”

Sisters Farah and Mariam Jalloul are reading the board. Farah said they’re excited about the 50 or so food trucks tonight, but that’s not the main reason they’re here.

"We spend the rest of the night just in worship and being with family and praying," Jalloul said. "I wouldn't really say we're spending the entire night eating. I know that's like a misconception, and we're not really doing that."

The festival started in 2019 in order to bring together the food trucks that organizer Hassan Chami noticed popping up around Dearborn during Ramadan, the month when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

"Suhoor is the midnight meal, the middle of the night meal that we have before our next day of fasting," Chami said. "So that's what the festival is all about."

This is the second night of the festival, but Chami is still amazed by the crowd he saw on opening night.

"I'm still high off life right now. It was amazing. So many people coming up from so many different states, different cities," he said. "People from Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, Cleveland, Columbus. We've just seen so many people, it is unbelievable."

Some vendors have food trucks, some are booths. The variety of food is almost overwhelming: falafel, barbecue, burgers, tacos, bubble tea, and lots of desserts.

At his booth, Yasser Hashwi is serving traditional Lebanese ice cream. He started making it after losing his job at a pastrami facility earlier in the pandemic. After months of perfecting the recipe at home, he opened his ice cream shop, Booza Delight, in Dearborn Heights last month. Booza means “ice cream” in Arabic.

The dish he’s serving tonight is an ashta roll.

"Honestly, I have so many people ask me what the flavor is. You have to try to know, because it's a whole different flavor," he said.

It’s a beautiful dessert — a thick slice of a white ice cream that has pistachios around the edges. It’s very creamy, but not too sweet. Someone could probably eat a lot of it without getting a brain freeze.

It’s also topped with ghazl el banet, a white fluffy, dense, sweet topping similar to cotton candy. The ice cream also has hints of rose water and while the flavor is hard to describe, it is definitely delicious.

Another treat belongs to Malik Abukaff, who is bringing a piece of his Palestinian grandfather’s home to his kunafa food truck, AbuK'nafa. Kunafa is a sweet and savory cheese pastry dessert topped with syrup, and Abukaff's has an impressive cheese pull.

"Actually, he taught it to my father, and then my father taught me. So I was handed down generation to generation," he said.

In Dearborn, like cities around the world with large Muslim populations, businesses shift their hours to accommodate people who are celebrating Ramadan.

Yasser Hashwi and his wife May are from Lebanon, and they say this overnight festival reminds them of home.

"Like in Lebanon, or any Arabic country, when it's Ramadan, it's crazy," he said. "You want to go buy something, you have to wait in a line before the Iftar. And then in the morning you have a guy with a drum..."

"...(T)hey just do the drum, so people can wake up. And they'll go to the prayer and then they eat before the Imsak, which is when you stop," May finished his sentence.

Just after midnight, vendors pause sales and participants stop eating to listen to a Qu'ran recitation.

For Hashwi, the recitation and worship is a reminder of why people are here tonight.

"It's all about really helping out the people in need. That's why we fast from the sunrise to sunset. So we could feel the people who (don't have) food — how they feel," he said.

The festival also offers a sense of belonging, said Dearborn resident Farah Jalloul.

"You know that everyone here, a lot of the people here, were fasting just like you," she said. "It's a communion of sorts. It's a camaraderie we get to experience and celebrate our really holy month with our communities." 

The Ramadan Suhoor Festival runs again this Saturday and then Friday and Saturday next week, from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Digital intern Emma Ruberg contributed to this post.

Copyright 2022 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

Nisa Khan is a digital intern for Michigan Radio. She is currently a senior in the University of Michigan’s School of Information, studying User Experience. Her experience includes being a news editor for The Michigan Daily, an Asian American Journalists Association fellow, a Knight Foundation/CUNYJ fellow, an intern for ProPublica, and an intern for the investigative team here at Michigan Radio. She’s so excited to be here!