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When piety cuts into the partying

For Muslims such as Omar Younis, observance of the holy month of Ramadan is one of the few religious rituals they still follow. They're likened to Christmas Christians.

August 13, 2010|By Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
  • Omar Younis has a drink at a San Francisco nightclub.
Omar Younis has a drink at a San Francisco nightclub. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from San Francisco — As men and women in makeshift togas danced and jumped to booming house music, Omar Younis made out with a woman he had met just a few hours earlier at her 25th-birthday dinner.

A friend of a friend, the woman was Younis' fixation of the night. He had accompanied her from the restaurant to a karaoke bar — where he promised to get up and sing just for her but never did — and was now at a San Francisco nightclub, hoping to end the night with her. As make-believe Romans danced in the dimly lit club, Younis and the woman, an aspiring actress, kissed in various alcoves as his friends watched with amusement.

"Take note, he's a player," friend Geraldine Calbimonte had said earlier at the karaoke bar. When Younis frowned at her, she added quickly: "Just kidding, just kidding."

At the bar, Younis, a 27-year-old with Middle Eastern good looks, had been drinking a vodka and cranberry, followed by swigs from a beer. At the club, he ordered a drink for himself and finished off his date's brew. Ken Maxey, another friend, mused that no one watching Younis now would guess he was a Muslim.

Indeed, the lively club scene seemed a long way from Younis' upbringing in an observant Muslim home in a Cleveland suburb, where his parents were principals of a weekend Islamic school and he won a Koran memorization contest. Because of his religious beliefs, Younis did not attend dances in high school.

Islamic practice doesn't play a significant role in Younis' day-to-day life now, but when Ramadan began this week, he, like other Muslims, began abstaining from eating and drinking during the day.

The Barnes & Noble mobile interaction designer said he would also swear off drinking alcohol, smoking pot and socializing with women during the holy month, and would avoid bars and clubs. He planned to spend most nights at home, alone, breaking his fast the traditional way, with a few dates — the fruit, not the females.

Ramadan remains sacred even for many Muslims like Younis, who don't practice their religion on a daily basis and bend, or break, many of its rules. For some, observance of the holy month is the only religious ritual they still follow.

"I know that Ramadan is a [basis] of forgiveness, I use that literally to cleanse my soul and I feel if I was to bypass it, that would be tragic," he said. "I feel that Ramadan is a gift for me and to other Muslims, and it would be like refusing a gift from God."

Zareena Grewal, a professor of American and religious studies at Yale, likened these Muslims to Islam's version of Christmas Christians. During the month, mosques teem with congregants, some of whom haven't been there since the previous Ramadan.

Grewal, who grew up in the United States but has lived across the Middle East and Pakistan, said most Muslims worldwide probably don't pray five times a day but wouldn't think of spurning Ramadan. The repentant quality of the month has made it the one act of worship they observe, she said, and in Muslim countries or communities where everyone is fasting, not doing so can paint one as an outcast.

"If you're not fasting you're just seen as a buzz kill, you're bringing down the mood, this is the holiday season," she said.


Younis' evolution from pious to party boy was gradual. He said he wishes he could practice his religion fully and blames outside influences, like a stone slowly eroding under rushing water.

The middle child of five, Younis grew up in an Iraqi American family where Arabic was spoken at home and his parents were liberal and loving. When his father, a college professor, became too busy to run the weekend Islamic school, Younis' late mother, who wore the hijab, took it over. His parents never drank alcohol.

"It was in no way part of my family life," he said. "It was known this is haraam [forbidden] and when I would hear people try to justify [alcohol], I would laugh and quote from the Koran."

At home, the children were reminded to pray five times a day but not pressured to do so. As a child, Younis would join his father whenever he saw him praying. As he got older, he would remember to pray on his own. At 7, he began observing the traditional dawn-to-dusk fast for the entire month of Ramadan.

The holy month was the one religious practice the family observed together, his older sister Inas Younis remembers, waking up before dawn for the pre-fast meal, breaking the fast together at dusk and going to dinner parties. Not fasting during Ramadan would lead to pangs of guilt, she said.

"Ramadan is such a communal activity. ... It becomes not just about you and God, but you and the community," said Inas, 36, a stay-at-home mother of three living in Kansas City. "And God is all-forgiving, but sometimes the community isn't."

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