Forest Park residents Imad Tarhoni, his wife Sarah Ganbi, and their two children, Bayan and Dary, began observing the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Sunday. The two adults, like all observant Muslims, will fast, i.e. go without eating or drinking, from sunrise to sunset for 30 days. Bayan and Dary will keep the month in ways appropriate for young children.
When Tarhoni described what Muslims do during Ramadan, he sounded very much like a Christian talking about Lent or a Jew explaining what Yom Kippur is all about. He said that, in addition to fasting, Muslims are supposed to give up bad habits like smoking and saying bad words. They are supposed to do charitable acts, read the Qur’an and pray.
He explained that Muslims don’t do all these things just for discipline. The rule in Islam is to do no harm, not to your neighbors nor to yourself. The reason, therefore, to give up smoking or cheating, for example, is to be good to yourself and others. The goal is to arrive at the end of Ramadan with a new set of healthier habits which have been reinforced by a month’s practice.
“The purpose,” he said, “is to train yourself to be a good, moral person.”
The evening prayer during Ramadan, called taraweeh, includes passages from the Muslim Scriptures that cover the whole Qur’an in 30 days. Tarhoni said some Muslims go through the whole book two or three times during Ramadan. The intent is to get the words to soak in to your head and heart.
He recalled that when he was growing up in Libya he would go to the mosque after sunset with his father and two brothers to pray and listen to the imam recite passages from memory. He used the English phrase “by heart” to describe what repetitious reading of the Qur’an can do, whereas the imam “reads it from his mind.”
Muslims also pay special attention to the poor and needy during the holy month.
“During the day when you feel hungry,” he explained, “you identify with the poor and appreciate what God has given you. At the end of 30 days, we buy new clothes for widows and orphans who don’t have family to celebrate with.”
Tarhoni added that Ramadan isn’t all fasting and sacrifice but is also the occasion when extended family travel long distances to be together. A happy time for family and friends is the meal after sundown called iftar, when the faithful socialize after breaking the fast for another day.
Iftar reminded him of Mark and Cindy Waldron. Right before he and Sarah left North Africa for the U.S., he felt some anxiety about the decision he had made to do graduate work at Rush University in biochemistry. The Arab Spring with hopes of transforming dictatorships into democracies was turning into an armed conflict, so there was concern for his homeland where he had been a practicing physician. At the same time he feared the unknown.
“When I first came to the U.S.,” he said, “I was a little worried. It was a new country, a new community. This was the first time I had lived for a long time in another country. I didn’t know how people would react to me.”
A whole chain of events, however, changed his fears into gratitude. The first people who came to his aid were Forest Park residents Mark and Cindy Waldron who had been hosting foreign students in their home.
“One of my colleagues from Libya,” said Tarhoni, “told them about me. After arriving at O’Hare we got a room in a hotel. Sarah was pregnant with Bayan and experienced high blood pressure, so I took her to the hospital. Mr. Waldron heard about what happened and when Sarah got out of the hospital, he and Cindy took us to stay in their home.”
In fact, Bayan’s first real home — if only for a week — was with the Waldrons, who then helped the Tarhonis find an apartment, begin to understand a culture very different from their own, and start connecting with people in the community.
“I won’t forget that first week,” said Tarhoni. “Mr. Waldron even cosigned for our first apartment in River Forest. He didn’t know me well and he still signed for me. He was a really good representative for American society.”
The Forest Park welcome didn’t stop with the Waldrons. Bayan came along with his father to our interview at Garfield Elementary School. When he told Garfield teacher Jane Catezone that he would be in her kindergarten class in September, they both got excited, and when Bayan was leaving the interview he gave Jill Torres, his English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher, a hug.
“From the time I arrived in the U.S. in 2011 till now, I’ve felt no discrimination,” said Tarhoni. We walked around town and went to the grocery store. Whenever we had a chance, we talked to people and they welcomed us. There were smiles all around. A lot of my friends stick to the mosque and neighborhoods where there are a lot of Arabs. I’m glad I made the right decision because what they are doing is isolating them from American culture.”
The 35-year-old has a long row to hoe before he can return to Libya and work as a physician-researcher. He thinks he will finish the work on his PhD by 2018 and by then will have passed his boards. After that will come residency and a post-doctoral fellowship.
“I’m glad to see diversity increasing in Forest Park with more Muslims coming here and contributing to the community,” he said. While encouraging Americans to not stereotype Muslims, he at the same time urges his fellow Muslims not to stereotype Americans.
“I always encourage my friends,” he said, “not to stick just to the mosque and only shop at halal stores. Accommodate yourself to this new environment, not only for your own personal benefit but also for the benefit of the whole community.”