Featured photo: Pro-Palestinian activist Maitha Ali holds up a Palestinian flag at a protest in Gaza on March 30. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

By the time 7:30 p.m. rolls around, Aya Abdelaziz is nearly dizzy from hunger pangs.

“As we’re fasting, I’m so hungry,” she says. “So before iftar, I’m so hungry. I’m consumed by the thoughts of breaking my fast, and as soon as I break my fast, my body starts to calm down.”

Abdelaziz is a 24-year-old Palestinian Muslim who has been observing Ramadan this year since March 11. 

Taking place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the monthlong ritual is believed to be when the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago. In observation of the holy month, most Muslims abstain from eating or drinking from dusk to dawn, which lasts 12-17 hours, depending on their location in the world.

According to 2020 Census data, there are approximately 10,000 Muslims living in Guilford County.

This year, as Muslims start their days early before the sun has risen with the suhoor and end every evening by breaking the fast with the iftar, they’re thinking about those living and dying in Palestine.

“You sit with the thought of those kids who have died from starvation, and knowing that they don’t have that mental guarantee that there will be food on the table — I can’t imagine that,” Abdelaziz says.

Since the surprise attacks by Hamas on Israel on Oct. 7, the world has watched in horror as the Israeli government has launched retaliatory attacks on Palestinians in Gaza. In the last six months, more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by the unceasing bombings and air raids, which have been largely funded by the US government. That combined with the blocking of any aid into the area by Israeli forces has led to mass starvation and death in the region

As Abdelaziz and other Muslims in Greensboro observe Ramadan, it’s impossible to think of the toll that the devastation is having on their brothers and sisters in Gaza.

“This Ramadan is definitely different for me,” says Maitha Ali, a 25-year-old Palestinian Muslim. “It’s very different; I don’t think anybody will be the same. I will never be the same after what I’ve seen from Oct. 7 and onwards.”

From inside mosques to a restaurant’s dining room to families’ homes, the holy holiday looks, feels and signifies different things for many partaking in its rituals this year. 

The activists

Maitha Ali, Aya Abdelaziz and Juliana Ganim are young Palestinian women in their twenties who have been leading protests in Greensboro for Palestinian liberation.

But the drive to speak out on behalf of their people didn’t start with their generation.

“We have grown up protesting for Palestine as long as we can remember,” Ali says. “We used to do protests downtown and on Wendover Avenue and Gate City Boulevard. We did some in High Point; this was back in maybe the early 2000s.”

Pro-Palestinian activist Maitha Ali protests the War in Gaza in Greensboro, N.C on March 30, 2024. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Ali — whose father Badi Ali founded the organization Muslims for a Better North Carolina — recalls how being raised in an active family affected her as a child.

“It instilled a lot of values of justice in us,” Ali says. Her father, who was imam and president of the Islamic Center of the Triad, died in 2022 after contracting COVID-19.

Abdelaziz shares a newspaper clipping from November 2001 chronicling a protest in which her mother can be seen carrying Abdelaziz in her arms, who, at the time, was just a baby with chubby arms and legs.

Pro-Palestinian activist Aya Abdelaziz protests the war in Gaza in Greensboro, N.C on March 30, 2024. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

And while the passion for their people’s cause hasn’t changed over the years, the amount of support that they’ve gotten from surrounding communities has.

“I would say it’s bittersweet,” Ali says. “It’s very unfortunate that there’s a genocide that’s happening and that’s what had to happen to capture the attention of the world, even though this has been going on for 75 years. It’s beautiful to see that the community can come together. Globally, there are millions and millions of people doing something for Palestine and calling for action for Palestine.”

At the protests she was taken to when she was younger, Ali says she remembers seeing about 40 people or so show up. At the protests they’ve held during the last six months, hundreds have attended.

“In the beginning it was very much Muslim- or Arab-heavy,” Ali says. “But there has been a large number of non-Muslims and non-Arabs coming out who are very serious and dedicated to show their solidarity to Palestinians.”

Half of Ali’s family was expelled out of Palestine and now live in Jordan. The other half — on her father’s side — still lives in a village in the West Bank.

Abdelaziz’s family immigrated to Jordan and part of her dad’s side of the family lives in Jerusalem. Ganim, who grew up Christian, says her mother’s side of the family fled to Lebanon in 1948, the year that Israel was established by Zionist forces in the wake of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. Her dad’s side of the family is spread throughout the world, including in the West Bank.

While the three of them rarely hear from their families in Palestine, they watch on their phones and TV screens the devastation taking place in real time. And as American citizens, they say it’s up to them to speak out.

“Living in America is the reason,” Ganim says. “They fund the genocide; we are committing it. Without our finances and our weapons, it wouldn’t be happening. The fact that we live in America means that we have the most power in this issue.”

Juliana Ganim leads pro-Palestinian activists during a protest in downtown Greensboro, N.C on March 30, 2024 (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Many Muslims, including Ali and Ganim, tie their activism and calls for justice for Palestine directly with the tenets of Islam. They mentioned how Islam is a religion of peace and justice. That’s part of the reason why Muslims choose to fast during the month — to get closer to God, but also to humble themselves and empathize with the poor.

“I find a lot of peace whenever I’m praying,” Ali says. “I just find a lot of peace and hope in prayer and believing in God. I’ve grown stronger in my faith in that manner.”

The community

Moussa Issifou is president of the Islamic Center of Greensboro, a mosque off of Sixteenth Street that caters to a majority African-Muslim congregation. Originally from Togo, Issifou explains how the month of Ramadan is often synonymous with fasting, but it’s also a time to get deeper into the faith.

Moussa Issifou, President of Islamic Center of Greensboro (ICG) (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

“I have a very close relationship with God, in terms of believing that he’s the only one who has created the universe and that it has a purpose,” Issifou says. “The purpose of our creation is for us to worship him and live by what he has ordered us to live by, such as doing good, helping your neighbor and standing for justice.”

While most of the congregation at the mosque is African, Issifou says that they have gathered funds and donated what they can to the people in Gaza.

“We are in solidarity with their plights,” he says.

That’s another part of one of the Five Pillars of Islam, according to Issifou.

The First pillar is to believe in the one God and that Muhammad is the messenger of God. The Second is to pray five times per day facing Mecca. The Third pillar is for Muslims to donate a fixed portion of their income to community members in need. The Fourth relates to fasting during Ramadan and the Fifth pillar refers to the pilgrimage to Mecca for those who can afford it.

“Being Muslim humbles me,” Issifou says. “Knowing that whatever we do, regardless of your position, you are going to be equal to anybody.”

That kind of mentality is physically evident in a community calendar posted on the wall of the mosque that outlines which family is cooking the meal for the iftar on each day of the month. 

On one Monday, Houssein Ahmed’s family spent hours making seasoned rice, baked chicken, a mixed salad and vegetables.

Congregants break their fast at a mosque in Asheboro (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Dozens of community members gather outside of the mosque at picnic tables to break their fast; they open the meal by eating dates and drinking water or juice.

For Imam Yaser Ahmed, one of the most significant parts of Ramadan is this communal aspect.

“It’s the month to focus towards your family,” says Ahmed, who has four children of his own. “You get more connected to your family because you break your fast with that dinner. Iftar is highly preferred to be done with the family, but it also brings the community together. People get connected in Ramadan more than any other time.”

Sheikh Yaser Ahmed, Iman (religious leader) of Islamic Center of Greensboro. March 25, 2024. (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

Sumaya Tabassum, a 25-year-old from Bangladesh, wears a teal-green scarf at one of the picnic tables outside the mosque. She takes her first sips of water for the evening to break her fast. For her, the best part of Ramadan is doing the iftar with her family, but now that she’s thousands of miles away from home, she seeks community at the local mosque.

She and her husband moved to Greensboro last year to attend graduate school at NC A&T State University and this is her first Ramadan at the center. She sits on one side of the patio outside the mosque in the area reserved for women. She’s surrounded by the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of the men who sit on the other side as they chat and eat.

“I’m so proud to be Muslim,” she says.

Sumaya Tabassum (right) with another congregant at the Islamic Center of Greensboro (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

This gathering to break the fast is something that Imam Ahmed remembers witnessing as a child growing up in Sudan. He recalls seeing families bring out pots and pans of food filled with bread, lamb, beans, hummus and seafood to the parking lot where people would gather to eat together.

“Islam bridges the gap between rich and poor people,” Ahmed says. “It’s a time when the community comes together and people give food and anything that they can share, sharing blessings in general.”

A congregant reads the Quran at the Islamic Center of Greensboro (photo by Maaroupi Sani)

And just as the Muslim community is vast and diverse in its racial and ethnic makeup within Greensboro, the ways in which each individual person observes Ramadan can differ, too.

Diya Abdo, a professor at Guilford College, grew up Muslim to Palestinian parents. She was raised in Jordan in a secular household.

“My family identified as Muslim because we grew up in a country where you identified with a religion, but they were very secular,” Abdo explains.

That meant that as a child exploring the tenets of Islam on her own, she was often the only one who would fast for Ramadan. Now, decades later with her own family, Abdo says she doesn’t fast or wear a hijab, but will do the iftar with another Muslim family on occasion.

Diya Abdo wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab scarf (courtesy photo)

“It’s an opportunity for people to spend time with each other,” she says.

Abdo says that during Eid, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, she takes her kids to buy new clothes to wear on that day, much like her parents did when she was a child.

For her, being a Palestinian means picking and choosing parts of the Muslim identity that work for her.

“I’m not very attached to the particular rituals,” she says. 

But the parts that she does observe have to do with community and self-reflection.

“The month is supposed to be about contemplation and reflection,” she says. “You’re trying to rid yourself as much as possible from things that are distracting. You’re really contemplating the world and your relationship and responsibility to the world.”

And as people continue to die in Gaza, Abdo says doing the iftar has become a way for her to teach her kids about the resilience of her people.

“It’s a way to show my kids and say, ‘This is our culture,’” she says. “It’s a reminder to my children: ‘This is part of who you are.’”

The local business

Maher Said can handle the hunger; it’s the thirst that really gets him.

As the owner of Nazareth Bread Co. and Restaurant in Greensboro, Said is used to cutting, prepping, cooking and serving all day, even when he is fasting. But the heat of the grill makes the lack of drinking difficult.

“You feel the thirst more than the hunger,” he says.

Maher Said, owner of Nazareth Bread Co. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

By Wednesday evening around 6:30 p.m., Said has been fasting for more than 12 hours. In about 60 minutes, he’ll feel the sweet relief of breaking his fast with the iftar that his restaurant serves every day during Ramadan.

Sixteen aluminum platters of food line the buffet tables inside the restaurant. That evening, they’re filled with stewed okra, garlic chicken, baba ghanouj, lamb shanks, rice, slaw, shawarma, burgers and sauteed spinach and onions.

Customers line up for the Ramadan buffet at Nazareth Bread Co. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

It’s a tradition that Said has kept going since he opened the business 13 years ago. A Palestinian from Nazareth, Said says that being able to observe Ramadan through this business and offer the iftar to the community is a reflection of his faith.

“Ramadan is one of the best months you will ever celebrate,” Said says. “It brings families to the table every single day.”

While the buffet only happens during the month of Ramadan, Muslims and non-Muslims alike flock to the business to indulge in the food.

“We get a full house,” Said says.

At a row of tables nearby, Doha Altaki from Syria, sits with her coworkers to break the fast. Sometimes she does the iftar at home; other days, like today, she enjoys the moment with friends. Her favorite part, she says, is what the ritual of fasting represents.

Syrian Doha Altaki decided to attend the iftar at Nazareth Bread Co. with friends on March 27 (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

“To pure my body; to pure my soul,” she says. “I feel I am closer to God, to Allah. At the same time, it’s worship. I love to do that; I love Ramadan.”

Still, unprompted, Altaki brings up the plight of people in places of war like Syria and Palestine.

“I’m thinking about our people,” she says. “In Syria or another country. They are fasting, but they don’t have enough food.”

Said echoes Altaki’s comments.

“It hurts all of us,” Said says of the death in Gaza. “It’s affecting us; it makes this year feel different. The minute you sit down at the table and you’re ready to break your fast, it makes you think, What about those kids who have no food? What about those children who are starving? Not only starving but cold and homeless? Because the purpose of Ramadan is to feed with the poor people.”

Owner Maher Said talks to customers as his daughter, Moneera, takes their orders at Nazareth Bread Co. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

On the counter near the register, a plastic box asks for donations for Palestine. Said says he wants the death and the genocide to end.

“I wish the war to stop,” he says. “I want the whole world to remember that Muslims or Jews or whatever you want to call us, we’re all brothers and sisters. We need to look at each other equally. We need to stop the bloodshed that’s going on in the Middle East. And it’s easy; if we can look at each other equally and respect each other, the whole thing can be just gone, you know?”

The resilient

Iman Khan started wearing a hijab a year ago.

“I wear it like a crown,” she says. “It’s empowering.”

Maqsood Khan and his daughter, Iman, inside the Islamic Center of the Triad (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Khan, a 21-year-old Pakistani, has been going to the Islamic Center of the Triad where her father Maqsood is part of the management team, since she was a child.

When she talks about her decision to start wearing the headscarf, her father’s eyes fill with tears.

“My parents wanted me to wear it, but I wanted to wear it in my own time,” she says. “And that’s something they always said, ‘When you feel comfortable, wear it when you want to.’ And ever since I’ve worn it, I have loved it.”

A student at UNCG, Khan says that being able to wear the hijab and see other students around campus wearing them too, offers her a sense of community and shared identity.

“That camaraderie exists,” she says.

At the mosque, congregation members delight in that sense of community. After the Zuhr prayer at noon on a recent Friday, dozens of Muslims gather outside of the building to catch up.

May Zamamiri and Sabah Natour sell baked goods to raise funds for Gaza at the Islamic Center of the Triad (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Inside, a few men sit and read from the Quran, poring over its verses. In addition to fasting, the other core tenet of Ramadan is to study the text during the month.

For Mujahid Ashqer, a community member at the mosque, Ramadan isn’t about celebration, especially this year.

Ashqer was born in Ohio to Palestinian parents and lived in Palestine for decades before he moved back to the US in 2011.

“The month of Ramadan is the month of generosity,” Ashqer says. “It’s not about celebration; it’s about getting closer to God (Allah) subhanahu wa ta’ala, increasing our worship to Allah, charity and good deeds.”

Mujahid Ashqer inside the Islamic Center of the Triad (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

That means an adherence to justice and peace, Ashqer explains.

The word Islam comes from the word salama, which means peace,” he says. “There is no difference between an Arab and non-Arab. We don’t differentiate depending on race or ethnicity…. If you’re American, if you are Asian, if you are African, it doesn’t matter. except in terms of piety and righteousness”

What he wants more than anything is for that kind of peaceful thinking to reach his people back in Palestine, Ashqer says. Currently, most of his family lives in the West Bank where moving inside the city is segmented through checkpoints manned by members of the Israeli military. Ashqer said that for one of his brothers, it takes two hours to travel 15 miles to get to work because of the blocks.

Thinking about the death and destruction in Gaza, Khan points out the word “ummah,” which means “all of us Muslims.”

“There is an Islamic narration that says, the ‘Ummah is like one human body; if the eye is sore, the whole body aches, and if the head aches, the whole body aches,’” Khan says.

And that’s why so many of the Muslims are speaking out in support of Palestine, especially during this month, regardless of where they were born. 

“There’s a verse in the Quran that says, ‘whoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind.  And whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he has the life of all mankind,’” her father says. 

A Quran on display inside the Islamic Center of the Triad (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

As she reflects on the month, activist Juliana Ganim says that she’s never seen this much support for Palestine.

“Palestine has never had this momentum,” she says. “This is our chance.”

Her fellow activist, Aya Abdelaziz agrees.

“This is bigger than us.”

Join the First Amendment Society, a membership that goes directly to funding TCB‘s newsroom.

We believe that reporting can save the world.

The TCB First Amendment Society recognizes the vital role of a free, unfettered press with a bundling of local experiences designed to build community, and unique engagements with our newsroom that will help you understand, and shape, local journalism’s critical role in uplifting the people in our cities.

All revenue goes directly into the newsroom as reporters’ salaries and freelance commissions.

⚡ Join The Society ⚡