By the time the last rays of the setting sun illuminate the facade of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society in Olde Kensington, Dalal Dabbour has been cooking for six hours. She says she’s not hungry, although she is observing the rules of Ramadan, which require the faithful to fast from dawn to dusk each day of the month-long holiday.
She “lost [her] appetite being around food all day.” Her husband Amer and sons, Jawad and Anas, join her in the kitchen of the family’s business, Al Amana Grocery. They’ve all been working since 2 p.m., stirring food on the stove, spooning rice and beans into takeout containers, and filling hundreds of Styrofoam cups with lentil soup.
On a Monday evening, they are cooking for an expected group of 200, a lower turnout than usual. They often receive up to 350 guests. Now, as the sun is about to set, they methodically prepare to feed the masses.
Amer and Dalal Dabbour immigrated to the United States from Syria in 1992, at which point Amer’s brother established the Al Amana Grocery at the rear of the Al-Aqsa Islamic Society. The business began as an “empty warehouse” but, over the years, has grown to include a grocery, restaurant, and bookstore. Amer took over the business in 2003, and his family has worked there ever since, offering some of the best falafel and hummus in the city.
The Dabbour family began to offer meals during Ramadan after an anonymous donor gave them the means to do so six years ago. Since then, they have been providing three-course dinners, free of charge, to anyone who wishes to join them. The diners are mostly practicing Muslims who pray at the Al-Aqsa mosque, but neighbors and the homeless who wish to join are never turned away. The dinner also draws local politicians, including former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who joined them for Ramadan during his time in office.
“We’re all family here, [so] we can’t turn anyone away… if we have food, we have to give it,” said Anas Dabbour, who views the practice as his God-given duty.
As the clock strikes 8:13 p.m., the precise time of sunset on Monday, May 20, everyone leaps into action. The voice of the mosque’s Imam comes over the loudspeaker, calling community members to join him in the second to last round of prayer for the day.
While members of the local Muslim community begin to file into the mosque, Anas and his brother Jawad set up servings of milk and dates, takeout boxes of food, and cups of soup in the grocery’s shared parking lot. Anas admits that he wishes he could join the call to prayer, but pointing to the sky, says that he “hopes [he] will be forgiven, given what [his] family is doing for the community.”
The prayers are quick and, when they are finished, people immediately line up for their choice of homemade chicken, fish, or lamb accompanied by rice, beans, soup and salad. There is a separate table offering chicken fingers and French fries for the children.
The four members of the Dabbour family and two volunteers serve their customers efficiently and happily and, before long, the tables in the parking lot are filled with people sharing food and conversation. Still, the Dabbours stay vigilant, making sure that everyone is attended to until the last call to prayer, just before 10 p.m. Anas says that it will be near midnight when the family gets to eat anything themselves before driving back to their home in Northeast Philadelphia, only to repeat the process the following morning. The fasting month of Ramadan ends at sunset on June 3 and is followed by the Eid al-Fitr festival.