Ahmed Abbas, owner of Ameera Bread, tosses naan flatbread in his kitchen. It isn’t easy being around food all day while fasting for Ramadan, but Abbas has figured out how to make it work. Staff photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

It’s hard enough to go without eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset, but what if your livelihood revolves around working with food?

That’s the challenge Ahmed Abbas faces every year during Ramadan, a holy month of fasting for Muslims that begins at sunset tonight and ends on June 4. During Ramadan, the 35-year-old Iraqi immigrant, owner of Ameera Bread, must feel his stomach rumble while preparing the Middle Eastern food he sells, and deal with thirst while he and his bakers produce at least 400 to 500 pitas and flatbreads every day in a hot oven. He’s surrounded by falafels, shawarmas, dolmas, Persian pickles, hummus, and eggplant dishes.

But Abbas says that while it can be difficult abstaining from food and water during Ramadan, it’s not as hard as you might expect, and he has a few tricks for getting through the month without breaking his daily fast before sunset. To non-Muslims, such long-term self denial might seem impossible, but for Abbas it’s part of a much grander picture. It’s a time when Muslims think deeply about their own spiritual life, work to purify both body and spirit, and experience emptiness in empathy with the poor.

“A big part of it is to feel the hunger,” Abbas said.

Less than 1 percent of Maine’s population is Muslim, according to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life. Those who observe Ramadan rise well before the sun comes up to have a light, nutritious meal (called Suhūr) that must last them until sunset. After sunset comes iftar, or the breaking of the fast. At the end of the month of Ramadan, members of local Muslim communities often come together for Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of fasting and is usually celebrated with a feast.

Abbas, owner of Ameera Bread, puts tzatziki sauce on a Shawarma sandwich made with chicken.

The dates of Ramadan rotate from year to year, according to the Islamic calendar, so it may fall in any season. The struggle with thirst is obviously more of an issue in summer, especially when working in a hot kitchen.

Abbas combats thirst by drinking tamarind juice in the morning. “That makes you less thirsty during the day,” he said. He has no idea why; he just heard about it, tried it, and it works for him.

Any kind of juice is fine to drink before sunrise, Abbas said – orange juice, apricot juice – but it shouldn’t be too sweet “because that makes you thirsty.”

Another way Abbas and his staff handle the hunger and thirst is to bake Ameera’s bread at night, after they’ve broken their fast for the day. They’re more likely to do so when Ramadan falls during the steamy summer months.

Abbas says working around a lot of food during Ramadan is easier if he partakes of the before-sunrise meal. He smells the “heavy flavors” he’s working with, and even if his brain and stomach scream for food at first, after a couple of hours, thoughts of eating settle down. He’s noticed that, even at the end of the day, his body craves liquids more than solid food. “I don’t eat that much,” he said, “but I drink a lot.”

The first three days of fasting and the last five days are the hardest, Abbas said. After three days, he said, “your body is in survival mode, “so you’ll feel like you’re tougher now. You have more control over your hunger. And the last five days, your body starts losing its energy, the stored energy.”

Some people take vitamins and minerals in the morning to help get them through the day, Abbas said, but that’s not considered cheating. The point of the fasting is “not about killing your body by hunger,” he said. In fact, Abbas said, fasting to the extent of self-harm goes against Islamic law, and there are lots of exemptions, including the very young and the very old, and people with medical conditions that might be aggravated by the lack of food and water. People who need to can break their fast, then make up the day later, after Ramadan is over. If the day can’t be made up for some reason, a donation to the poor can substitute for fasting.

Baking bread after sunset is one way the staff of Ameera Bread helps combat their hunger pangs during the day.

“You have to protect yourself,” Abbas said. “If you feel extremely thirsty and you’re about to faint or you get dizzy, in this case you have to break the fast because it is not a game. We are worshipping.”

Abbas grew up 40 miles outside of Baghdad and remembers the iftars of his childhood – big evening meals shared with extended family, everyone eating on the floor in the traditional manner from a table groaning with food. The women in the family got together during the fasting hours, he recalled, and made “a piece of art by the end of the day – a table filled with all kinds of beautiful and tasty food from all over the world, usually from the Middle East.”

“There are specific dishes that we don’t do except at Ramadan,” Abbas said. “Dates are a must. People break the fast by eating dates. The yogurt to drink, it’s almost like a must.”

Dates are eaten by ones, threes, or fives because odd numbers are believed to confer blessings. Next comes a warm lentil soup, eaten just before prayer. “It’s helping your stomach get ready for the food,” Abbas said.

The rest of the big meal is eaten after prayer, which takes place either at home or at the local mosque. Although it’s fine to eat leftovers during Ramadan, Abbas said a family’s monthly grocery bill can easily double because everyone likes having special foods at the end of the day. Abbas’ childhood favorites, which are still his No. 1 dishes, are okra, white kidney beans, and Iraqi-style dolma  – grape leaves, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini and potatoes, all stuffed with a mixture of seasoned meat and rice.

After Ramadan, Abbas admits, a lot of people fall back into eating junk food. “We do a lot of bad habits after Ramadan,” he said, laughing.

Abbas came to the United States in 2012, eight months after his two sisters and little brother. His parents immigrated here, too. Abbas, now an American citizen and married with two daughters and three step-daughters, worked for the previous owner of Ameera and bought the business from him in 2014.

His life here is different, and he has changed. But he still holds onto his faith’s traditions, even if it means being hungry and thirsty one month out of the year.

“Ramadan” Abbas said, “is the best time of the year.”

Grape Leaves Stuffed with Rice, Raisins, and Pine Nuts

Stuffed grape leaves are one of Ahmed Abbas’ favorite dishes for breaking the fast after sunset during Ramadan. This recipe comes from “Arabesque” by Claudia Roden (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)

Serves 8 or more

1/2 pound grape leaves

2 large onions, finely chopped

2/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste

1 cup short-grain or risotto rice

2 tablespoons currants or tiny black raisins

Salt and black pepper

1 teaspoon ground allspice

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped mint

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped dill

2 tomatoes, sliced

1 teaspoon sugar

Juice of 1 lemon, or to taste

If using grape leaves preserved in brine, remove the salt by putting them in a bowl and pouring boiling water over them. Make sure that the water penetrates well between the layers. Leave them to soak for 20 minutes, then rinse in fresh, cold water and drain. If using fresh leaves, plunge a few at a time in boiling water for a couple of seconds only, until they become limp, then lift them out. Cut off and discard the stalks.

For the filling, fry the onions in 3 tablespoons of the oil until soft. Add the pine nuts and stir until they are golden. Stir in the tomato paste, then add all the rest of the ingredients down to and including the chopped dill. Mix well.

On a plate, place the first leaf, vein side up, with the stem end facing you. Put 1 heaped teaspoonful of filling in the center of the leaf near the stem end. Fold that end up over the filling, then fold both sides toward the middle and roll up like a small cigar. Squeeze the filled roll lightly in the palm of your hand. Fill the rest of the leaves in the same way. This process will become very easy after you have rolled a few.

Line the bottom of a large, heavy-bottomed pan with tomato slices and any left-over, torn, or imperfect grape leaves, then pack the stuffed grape leaves tightly on top.

Mix the remaining olive oil with 2/3 cup water, add the sugar and lemon juice, and pour over the stuffed leaves. Put a small plate on top of the leaves to prevent them from unrolling, cover the pan, and simmer very gently for about 1 hour, until the rolls are thoroughly cooked, adding more water occasionally, a small coffee cupful at a time, as the liquid in the pan becomes absorbed. Let the stuffed grape leaves cool in the pan before turning them out.

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