The air at Rumi's House of Kabob, a middle-eastern restaurant in Greeley, is filled with the smells of roasting kabobs, sweet garlic, and warm pita. In the kitchen, you'll find Moein Shafie preparing salads and drizzling olive oil on hummus, while the chef roasts the meat and makes the rice.
It's not too different a scene than what you'll find in any restaurant, except that Moein and his sister Laya – who also works at Rumi's – are operating on empty stomachs. Both are working in the midst of Ramadan, a month of fasting, self-control and reflection observed by millions of Muslims the world over.
Fasting while they work in the restaurant is very different from fasting in Iran, where the two siblings grew up.
“Even if you didn’t fast, you weren’t allowed to eat in common areas of the school in front of other people,” explains Moein. “It’s like that in all public areas. You’re not allowed to get on the bus and have a sandwich in your hand. It’s a respect thing.”
None of the customers at Rumi’s have shown any disrespect. They just aren’t always familiar with the holiday, one where observers spend their daylight hours fasting. Laya recalls one customer coming in and asking her about her heritage.
“She said, ‘Oh so you’re fasting?’ and she said ‘I’m so sorry! I feel bad for ordering food now,’” Laya laughed, saying it was fine. “I don’t mind it. She was really nice about it.”
During Ramadan, "the day sort of turns upside down for us," Laya says. But even though they’re surrounded by food, Rumi’s is very supportive. The owners of the restaurant are also fasting.
“They have our backs,” says Laya. “So when it’s time to eat they make us sit down and eat, which is really nice. I mean if I were to work in another restaurant they wouldn’t do that.”
Usually the two take a short break around sundown to have a cup of tea or a bite of halvah, a sweet made from sesame seeds and honey that resembles a little lump of peanut butter. Then it’s back to work until the restaurant empties.
Ramadan isn’t all hard work and hunger though. Usually Laya and Moein’s family stays up late into the night, snacking, watching television and enjoying each other’s company. They’ve been catching up on Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black.
“I mean yeah you get hungry or thirsty, of course you do,” says Laya. “But that’s the whole point of it!”
“During Ramadan you invite friends and family over a lot so that’s always fun,” says Moein.
In addition to fasting, people who observe the holiday abstain from smoking and don’t participate in any sexual activities -- even with a spouse. Still, both Laya and Moein agree that there’s a lot to be gained during Ramadan.
“You feel more compassionate towards the poor and toward people who don’t have enough to eat on a nightly basis,” says Moein. “You really start feeling how they might be feeling.”
Laya says the self-control she exercises during Ramadan carries over into the rest of her year. She’s a college student, so there are lots of people who spend their free time drinking or partying, including a number of her friends.
“I don’t do that,” says Laya. “I feel like I can control myself because of the fasting.”
When Ramadan ends, the siblings are always a little relieved to go back to their old routines. Staying up all night to eat can get exhausting. Yet Moein is usually a bit sad when it’s over.
“You kind of miss it,” says Moein. “After a few months you kind of want it back, because it’s like one-twelfth of your life.”