“Hey Driton, do you want to come out tonight?”
“Umm…after I help my parents out with some stuff I’ll try to make it.”
To someone who does not know me so well, this may seem like an honest response to a question. However, the select few who actually know me would call it a “Ramadani Special” in the making. Although it sounds like an Italian entrée, it’s actually a term my close friends use to describe the way I manage to slip away from situations that make me uncomfortable. A psychologist would probably diagnose me with some sort of social disorder, but my reason for acting like this is far from that. The truth behind this behavior is a result of the Islamic beliefs that shape my life.
Islam has always been a part of my family history. Four generations leading down to my grandpa have served as Imams, or religious leaders, in the community. My great grandpa even donated an acre of the family backyard to have a mosque built in our hometown Kercove, Macedonia. As for my mom’s side of the family, her uncle was the first to translate the Qur’an to Albanian. This was all before my parents migrated to the U.S. in 1980. Macedonia was their homeland, but the living conditions were unbearable there. Political turmoil limited Albanians to peculiar jobs so working the land was the only way to make a living. As a newlywed couple, my parents decided to take the risk of migrating. A unique world filled with different customs and a new language awaited them. Although they left a lot behind, they made sure to preserve the religion and culture in us by sending my brother and me back every year for summer vacations.
“Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Ash- hadu an’ la ilaha ill Allah…”
Every morning at about 4:30 AM, this phrase can be heard echoing between the mountains of Kercove. The majority of the community ignores the hazan, or call to prayer, by simply falling back asleep. However, by the early age of seven, hearing the sound of the hazan five times a day during my summer vacations drew me closer to Islam. My grandfather, who still serves as the Imam, influenced me as well. He was so respected among the community that it was not unusual to see a room full of people stand as he entered the doorway. His bold, statue-like face had seen it all— whether it was war, poverty, or losing a close family member. He was the type of leader who would submit to no one. After I realized my seemingly invincible grandfather would bow in obedience five times a day for prayer, I knew there was something special about the teachings of Islam and I wanted to know more. What I did not know was that practicing Islam would put my patience and self-control through an ultimate test.
The main restriction that affected me in my early childhood was not being able to eat pork. Even in first grade I would find myself asking the lunch lady if that day’s lunch had any pork in it. This may seem like a minor restriction, but try watching someone else eat a corn dog with ketchup on it knowing that you can’t have any—it’s not as easy as it sounds. Even watching fellow second-grader Tyler Slagell perfectly stack his ham Lunchables before he ate them was pretty tough. Not eating pork was manageable, but it was avoiding the food items that had gelatin, a byproduct of pork, that was difficult. Basically almost every unhealthy, delicious-looking snack that elementary students eat has gelatin in it. So whenever I was offered Rice Crispy Treats, Gummy Bears, or Skittles, I responded by saying I was allergic. Although this was not the truth, I knew it would save me a lot of unnecessary explaining. As a kid, avoiding gelatin would have been much easier if it wasn’t for hyper friends like Cory Richter who were seemingly always eating Skittles in front of me. Once in a while after we would hang out, I would buy a gelatin free snack and imitate the way he would shove his hand in his pocket for more Skittles. I would purposely eat the candy in a sloppy way so that my lips could get discolored just as his would be. I was a kid and I wanted to be like everyone else.
During a certain month of the year I quickly realized that because of my religion I had to do certain things that were far from the norm. On the days that I did fast as a kid during Ramadan, I found it was easier to wait in the library during lunch instead of watching Ryan Meyer slowly pull items out of his blue lunch box and spread them across the table. My grades would always go up during this month, but the other aspects of my life were stalled. Not eating for over 12 hours left me physically drained so recess and after-school activities were out of the question. As much as I wanted to take part in after-school snowball fights against the 8th graders, I simply did not have the energy. When the other kids were running around town together, all I could think about was how badly I wanted it to be 5:00 PM so I could break my fast. The amount of talking I did at school during this month would decrease as well. Not eating the entire day leaves a pretty unpleasant smell in your mouth and I didn’t want to gross anyone out—especially my seventh grade crush who happened to sit next to me that month. With brown hair and dark eyes, she was just my type at the time. Who knows what could have been if it wasn’t for me ending every conversation awkwardly so I could avoid the embarrassment of my bad breath? I soon figured out that having bad breath would be the smallest of my Islamic problems as I entered high school.
In 2006, just before my freshman year, my family moved to Memphis, Tennessee to open the Memphis Family Restaurant. The customers made us feel welcome the first week by complimenting the food and service. However, a conversation between a farmer and my mom caused us to second-guess how welcome we really were. As he walked up to pay his bill, I noticed a suspicious expression on his rugged face. He patted his plump belly just before handing over the bill and said, “That’s some good biscuits and gravy you guys got.” My mom replied, “Thank you, Sir” in a heavy foreign accent. After hearing her talk, the farmer looked down at his muddy boots with a smirk and said, “Say, you guys aren’t the same faith as Johnny from Dixon are you? ’Cause when I heard what he was, I never went back there again.” Johnny was an old Muslim-Albanian friend of my dad’s and he also owned a restaurant about 15 miles north of Memphis. My mom quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation, and replied, “No, Sir.” I felt my face heat up after hearing my mom’s reply. However, I knew that the restaurant was all we had. An honest answer could have threatened the success of our business— especially in an all-Christian community.
The challenge in high school was to practice Islam, while at the same time keeping it a secret from everyone. This was tricky at times, especially since drinking alcohol and dating are prohibited. Any one of these rules is enough to hamper one’s social life in America, let alone both of them put together. As it is considered a sin to be in the presence of alcohol, any sort of high school party was off-limits for me. Invitations to these parties never failed to make for awkward situations.
“Ramadani, you going to be at Jake’s party this weekend?”
“…Yeah man, I should be there.”
Although it’s not something to boast about, I learned how to think quickly on my feet. I remember one instance in the locker room after we had just won a state quarterfinal football game. With the music blasted, my friend Sam approached me screaming, “We are going to get messed up tonight!” Not wanting to kill the atmosphere, I turned to him and screamed back, “Hell yeah we are!” That Friday night, like many other nights, ended in me watching TV with my parents and talking about the game.
Not drinking or going to parties gave me a competitive edge in athletics. When the soccer squad was hung over on off days, I always managed to squeeze in an extra training session or two. My main focus was to always improve my game whether it was the first training of the week or the last. Being diligent every day put me in a prime position to reach my full potential. At times, this straight-edge lifestyle would get lonely but my solution for this was finding friends who had similar interests to me and who did not drink. Other than my older brother who is my best friend, this restricted search brought back one result but that was all I needed. I found that my good friend Collin Clark was in love with soccer just as much as I was and that he did not drink alcohol. At a height of about 5’3” and always wearing his black indoor soccer shoes to school, you wouldn’t exactly categorize him in the “popular” group. The same went for me, but this did not bother us one bit. In fact, we were able to establish an identity of our own by combining for over 80% of the soccer team’s points for a few years in a row.
Unfortunately, Collin was not able to help me with the no-dating policy in Islam. The main reason behind this policy is that dating can lead to pre-marital sex. This rule isolated me because I had to make sure I never put myself in a long-running situation where this could end up happening. I also had to make sure I never ended up alone with a girl. I crafted many of my Ramadani Specials to avoid from engaging in the forbidden. Senior year, I formed a close friendship with an attractive girl that ended terribly. My miscommunication about Islam led her to the false pretense that I wanted to date her so she eventually stopped seeing her boyfriend. After talking for about a year, she became the first person at Memphis Community High to know about my secret. I apologized and let her know that I was Muslim and that this was why I couldn’t see her. Although I was very attracted to her, I never let our relationship get too serious because I knew it was forbidden. On the other hand, she had no religious restrictions to control her feelings for me so it was hard for her in the end. I will always remember this incident because it was the first time that my dishonesty hurt someone else.
To a lot of people it may seem like following Islamic beliefs is more of a hassle than anything else. No Muslim can say they see an immediate benefit from God by praying five times a day. However, every diligent Muslim knows that his or her work will be accounted for at the end of this life. I feel that the more Islamic duties I accomplish, the better I am doing for myself in the long run. The benefit may be ten or twenty years from now or it could be when I am not around anymore. The more I learn about this faith, the more it molds my lifestyle away from the materialistic world. As the Prophet said, “Worldly life is a prison to believers, but it’s a paradise to disbelievers.” I acknowledge the fact that life in this world is difficult, but I also believe that if I stay steadfast in my duties, there could be an eternal reward at the end of it all.
During the first few weeks of our English 100 class, we focused a lot on the idea of the writer as a “noticer,” as someone who documents, as someone for whom the accuracy of a singular detail truly matters. The essays we discussed and the in-class writing exercises we completed were not only centered on a descriptive and narrative voice, but on a self-awareness of the decisions we make when we write. What details do we leave out when we describe something? Why do we decide to leave gaps in some stories and not others? What do these decisions say about us? What do they say about the stories we are trying to tell? These questions helped some students in the class consider the knowledge, context and details only they were privy to when writing a narrative/descriptive essay. For others, including the author of this essay, the answers to the questions represented a risk, as they were afforded the opportunity to tell a story or describe something for the first time.
As with many personal essays, “The Ramadani Special” started with a hesitant first draft. Narrative scenes were short on context and details; places and people were left unnamed. In a lot of ways, Toni’s hesitance to divulge information was natural, as his essay, in its final form here, focuses on his past ability to conceal and divert, to be murky about concrete details regarding his religion. Clarity, itself, was a risk, as it often is for writers, and Toni did not shy away. After peer review work and a conference, the essay began to thicken. Not only was he more specific in his use of description, but he also created a system of connections, showing the reader the history and context of his beliefs and how they were both challenged and strengthened.
I like to think about “The Ramadani Special” as both a conversion and a coming-of-age story. Though no one literally converts from one religion to another, the essay chronicles Toni as he goes from being a closeted Muslim to someone who is openly proud of his faith, someone who is willing to share who he was and is to others. Additionally, the reader follows Toni as he matures in his approach to Islam. We see him making decisions. We see the self-censorship. We feel the awkwardness, the subtle sadness of it all. Though one could imagine the essay reverting to sentimentality or abstraction at these moments, it never does. Instead, Toni took what is often a risk for young writers: he trusted the story. He trusted his ability to notice where he was and where he is now. That was enough.
— Josh Kalscheur
This project helped me learn a lot about myself as well as my writing. After going over the first draft with Professor Kalscheur, I realized that I was subconsciously ambiguous in my approach to writing the paper. It was not because the topic was unfamiliar to me—as it is a narrative of my life— but I believe it was because I was uneasy about being so candid to the world regarding something I had kept subdued for so long. Although it is a passionate topic for me, the first draft was weak in the sense that it did not invite the audience in; it was simply a poor view of my unique lifestyle. Before beginning the second draft, Professor Kalscheur encouraged me to be proud of my experiences. This small piece of advice caused a huge change in my essay. Not only did the essay become more personalized and enjoyable for me, it became more entertaining for the audience.
The main lesson I learned from this project is that a person should be proud of who they are, even though writing about it may seem uneasy at first. It is important to remember that a good narrative essay can emerge if enough passion is added—no matter how abnormal the topic is. However, for the passion to be there, I believe a writer has to be honest and overt in his or her approach.
— Driton Ramadani
Student Writing Award: Narrative Essay