Unconventional Ramadan camp draws DC-area kids

Young Muslim Americans learn traditional crafts and modern values during Islam’s holy month

Camper Fatima writes her final calligraphy composition on hand-dyed paper at Camp Ramadan.
Ayesha Ahmad

BETHESDA, Md. — On a hot July afternoon, at the private Washington Waldorf School in this affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., 11-year-old Fatima is tracing an intricate swirl of Arabic script. It’s a calligraphic rendering of a well-known phrase from Sura (chapter) 27 of the Quran: “This is by the grace of my Lord.”

Dressed in jeans, a patterned shirt, a loose gray cardigan that hangs open and a bright red hijab, Fatima is clearly something of a perfectionist. Leaning over the light table that illuminates the design from below, she dips her bamboo stylus into a pot of black ink and carefully contemplates her next pen stroke.

“I told my mom I really liked the calligraphy — I would do this as a hobby,” she said later. “I’m the kind of person who would, like, kill my parents not to have to go to this kind of thing, but I end up enjoying it.”

Fatima is one of about 60 Washington-area Muslims ages 3 to 15 who attended Camp Ramadan, a crafts-based day camp that the organizers say is the only such program in the United States.

Bucket of watermelon in hand, Counselor Alexa Abdelatey leads the youngest kids on the camp grounds.
Ayesha Ahmad

Held for the second time this year, the camp mostly eschews religious practice, except for brief midday prayers. Instead, the emphasis is on traditional Islamic arts and crafts that are not commonly taught in America — including paper marbling, marquetry (wood inlay) and decorative bookbinding — as well as on personal development through community service and leadership workshops.

Although there are other Ramadan camps in the United States, most either focus narrowly on Quranic study and religious teaching or, at the other end of the spectrum, offer fairly typical American summer camp activities (albeit without serving food).

Camp director Mona Eldadah
Ayesha Ahmad

“For our kids, it was incredibly important for us to pull something together where they are at, teaching them in their mother tongue — English — about their cultural heritage,” said camp director Mona Eldadah, an Iranian-American mother of four who grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington.

The camp is a project of the Next Wave Muslim Initiative, a nonprofit organization founded by Eldadah and a group of other like-minded people in response to what they felt was a lack of suitable programs for a younger generation of Muslim Americans.

Different snacks from around the Muslim world were served daily to the youngest kids. On this day the kids had pita bread, cucumbers, carrots and hummus. 
Ayesha Ahmad

For observant Muslim families in the United States, the holy month of Ramadan — which ran from June 28 to July 27 this year and will continue to fall during the summer months through 2016 — can be a balancing act between honoring religious traditions, including sunrise-to-sunset fasting beginning when kids are preteens, and letting children take part in quintessentially American activities like summer camp.

“The days are long during Ramadan: You’re fasting and there isn’t much to do,” said Eldadah. “The camp gives the kids the opportunity to do something meaningful.”

Josh Berer helps a camper lift a finished piece of marbled paper off the water where the design was made.
Ayesha Ahmad

The group teamed up with Josh Berer, an American calligrapher and craftsman who has lived and studied in Yemen and Turkey, to lead the middle and oldest age groups in an ambitious program based on the classical Islamic arts. (The youngest children, ages 3 to 6, made more simple crafts.)

According to Berer, “There’s all of these people who are interested in engaging in and learning traditional Islamic arts who have no idea how to go about it. There are no materials in English; you can’t find anything at your Michaels crafts store that caters to that community.”

One afternoon toward the end of the weeklong camp, Berer and a fellow teacher, Ali Sherbiny — an Egyptian-American acupuncturist who studies Arabic calligraphy on the side — supervised Fatima and a half dozen other kids as they sat at the light table tracing a complex calligraphic pattern.

Across the hall, Laila Kokabi, a graphic designer and photographer who immigrated to the United States from Iran nearly a decade ago, helped another group cut marbled paper into strips to frame the results of their printmaking. Earlier in the week, they had learned how to make paper from pulp, traced and then cut geometrical patterns into linoleum slabs, and applied paint to the linocuts to make prints on their handmade paper.

Berer demonstrates the results of paper marbling.
Ayesha Ahmad

The paper marbling — a major art form in the Middle East, where it’s known as ebru — seemed to be especially popular. In ebru, paints made from pigments and ox gall (bile, used as a surfactant to help the paints spread) are manipulated into elaborate, colorful swirls and patterns floating on top of a thickened water base, on which paper is then carefully placed to capture one-of-a-kind designs.

One middle-school-aged girl summed up the experience: “The ebru was really fun, but the ox gall was stinky!” A boy around the same age, who had produced an attractive ebru, said his favorite thing had been etching the linoleum for the printmaking.

Some of the oldest group of kids copy Aziz Efendi's Muhammad composition in calligraphy class.
Ayesha Ahmad

To supplement the arts classes, Mona’s husband, Basil Eldadah — a Michigan-born Iraqi-American with an M.D./Ph.D. who works in biomedical research administration at the National Institute on Aging — ran a daily leadership workshop for the oldest attendees that included instruction on public speaking and team building.

“This is fundamental personal development stuff for young people to learn,” he said. “What we really want to do is give these young adults the opportunity to grow into their potential.”

Campers ages 7 to 10, meanwhile, collected toys and canned foods to donate to a local homeless shelter for families and made decorations to brighten up patients’ rooms at a rehabilitation hospital in Baltimore.

The service aspect of the camp is fitting for Ramadan, which is seen as a time not only of physical abstinence and self-discipline but also of spiritual growth and introspection, when the faithful are encouraged to reflect on what they have and consider those who are less fortunate.

Basil Eldadah leads midday prayer for the whole camp.
Ayesha Ahmad

“It was educational, to tell a story to the kids about families who are actually living in a shelter, and then have them see that,” said Mona Eldadah. “They were really in need and really grateful.”
But dearly held American values, like diversity and inclusiveness, also have an important place at Camp Ramadan. The campers are of Arab, Iranian, Pakistani, African-American or mixed heritage, and their families may practice Sunni or Shia Islam, but they identify first and foremost as Americans.

“We’re like the ‘American melting pot’ for Muslims,” commented Mona Eldadah. “I think American values do come into this.”

The kids watch Berer demonstrate paper marbling.
Ayesha Ahmad

That spirit of openness also extends to the camp’s organizers: Berer himself is Jewish, a fact that he says has been a complete nonissue. He wears a tight-fitting hat that could be seen as either a skullcap or a yarmulke, but when kids ask him his religion, he doesn’t hesitate to tell them.
“I’m a product of a multiethnic society,” he noted, explaining that he developed a passion for the Arabic language and the Middle East while in college and that it, combined with a previous interest in graffiti, led him to embark on a career of studying and teaching Islamic calligraphy and art.
Indeed, Berer describes Camp Ramadan as just one part of a broader vision. “Mona and I both see this as really just the beginning,” he said. “The ultimate goal is the revolutionization of the way Islamic art is taught, and the way people engage with it in this country.”
Mona Eldadah, similarly, sees the camp as the seed of something that could grow much bigger: “I hope it becomes something that people can model and do in different communities all over the country, making Islam relevant to children and having it be something meaningful for them.”

Camp is great, but nothing is more fun than an empty box!
Ayesha Ahmad

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