by Mahdi Ali
For years after I left my faith, Ramadan was a time of lament. Coming from an Iraqi Shiite household, Ramadan has always been a month of jubilation, communal struggle, nightly celebration and feast, and spiritual reflection. For a host of adolescent American Muslims, it was also a season during which we could venture outside of our homes past curfew; Ramadan is a season celebrated in the night, and I connected to the faith through suhoor with my friends.
Exiting a faith is a messy internal affair. Islam is a peculiar faith that expressly promotes itself as a way of life. I never understood Islam to be an edifice of praying, fasting, and paying zakat. It is the defining foundation of a Muslim’s character. As I found the chasm between Islam and myself deepening, my own internal decision-making mechanism became disrupted. A spiral of uncertainty gave birth to bitterness, and I felt a distinct duty to live antithetical to Islam. That is, I was to be the anti-Muslim. Akafir.
When Ibrahim Mimou—of OPENISM and Salafi Cowboy—articulated his vision to me for a community iftar event, he made it clear that the goal was to bring together adjacent communities. Muslims, non-Muslims, artists, entrepreneurs, doctors, gay, straight; they were all invited to celebrate and break bread. His sentiments frothed a rich nostalgia inside of me. For the first time in years, I felt pride emanating from the faith that I left on ice years before.
The theme and cuisine of the event would be based on “MesoArabia,” an imagined utopia in Salafi Cowboy’s cartoon universe free of borders and nations but rich with cognates of language, art, culture, heritage, and food—a liminal space celebrating cultural hybridity and cosmopolitanism. As a community chef working at a French-Mexican restaurant called Trois Familia at the time, I would be tasked with chaffing up an experimental menu filled with a fusion of Arab and Hispanic cuisine.
Preparation for the event was challenging on a few fronts. First, the prep space was in my apartment, which lacked the accoutrements of a commercial kitchen. Second, we had to feed a lot of people with not a lot of money. In college, I had become accustomed to making inexpensive and tasty food, but doing it on a large scale is another beast entirely. And further, when I was cooking for myself, I would only be making a single dish. For this event, I had to make an assortment of dishes to accommodate a medley of tastes. I had done this at restaurants, but under the direction of a chef, often times a very talented one. Now, I was the execute chef.
Guacamole and Chips
Yogurt with Aleppo Pepper
Corn with Huitlachoche
Pan Fried Eggplant
Avocado Ice Cream with Watermelon Granita
The community iftar itself was a fun and dynamic event. The space was an empty, cavernous downtown warehouse where conversation echoed throughout. Along with a huge bowl of guacamole, Salafi Cowboy presented a new poster, a MesoArabian spoof of a bilingual sign by the California Avocado Commission warning the public against avocado theft.
The dishes we served were unconventional, I was told by attendees, but very hearty. Lots of people were pleasantly surprised by my avocado ice cream. Adding to that, Yousef and Ibrahim brought along their musician friends Takoda (guitar) and Ethan (tenor sax) to play an improvisational jazz set on an exposed, elevated floor above us, which added to the ambience and kept the vibes brewing until late in the evening. Some folks ended up staying till 1 a.m.
A few years ago, I would be baffled by the consolidation of my hybrid identity. I would have seen my current identity as apologetic and structurally fickle. I reject the notion of an identity. Identity, as described by language, feels rigid, and not in a manner that allows it to remain upright. Every human is a conglomerate, a cloud of ideas and moods that habitually contradict. Instead of feeling contempt for the hypocrisy, I feel awe, and am impressed by the Universe’s ability to inject quantum entanglement into every facet of itself. So, in the same vein that the Universe refuses to be nailed to an “essence,” I refuse as well.
This was the spirit of the event.
Mahdi Ali is a cook, mediocre biochemistry student, and now a technologist and financier working in Augmented Reality. His biggest passion is feeding people. He’s been cooking since he was 8 out of necessity ever since his mother was diagnosed with MS, but even before that, you could always catch him in the kitchen or outside by the grill.