Charlotte Observer: Taxi drivers mark Ramadan with Iftar-on-the-go meals

Each evening at about 6:30 p.m., Idrees Muhammad sets out a modest feast in Shan Foods, a part-eatery, part-convenience store on the city’s north side. A fleet of taxi cabs pulls up to the strip mall soon after.

Sweetened milk, a container of dates, a tray of fruit tossed with cumin and cinnamon, and pakoras — fried pieces of vegetable-filled batter — await the cab drivers and nearby residents who come each day to this seemingly unlikely gathering spot during the holy month of Ramadan.

Throughout Ramadan, Muslims break a 12-hour fast with an Iftar meal, which in many Muslim countries is a time to see extended family or to celebrate with close friends. But for taxi drivers who work shifts late into the night, the meal is more functional, a short break from the day’s work when there isn’t time to meet up with one’s family.

Call it Iftar-on-the-go, but definitely don’t call it fast food.

“At Iftar time, you are here, you’re among friends,” said Palok Mohammed, a Bangledishi cab driver sharing a table at Muhammad’s place with two cabbie friends one recent evening.

Mohammed said it wasn’t hard to fit Iftar into his work day. A cab driver for the last nine years, he said it was simply a matter of “good planning.“

Shan is tucked between a Subway sandwich shop and a beauty supply store in the back corner of a small strip mall several miles north of Chicago’s downtown core. It caters to nearly every ethnic group, serving up a free Iftar table each evening during Ramadan as it plays host to cab drivers, immigrant families and devout Muslims in spotless white robes.

The dozen parking spaces outside are often packed with cabs as drivers slip inside for other meals besides Iftar. Cabbies discuss the weather or news from the other side of the world over a $1 potato-filled samosa or a plate of curry on the go.

Muhammed writes the day’s Iftar time on a whiteboard as several men wait at empty tables for sunset. There is no signal to mark the sunset, no announcement that it’s time to break the fast as the men get up and gather around the food table, piling their small plates with fruit, fried batter and a few dates.

Muhammed Akbar, a cab driver here for the last year, said making time for Iftar can be a challenge, especially if it means bypassing passengers and fare money.

“You have to constantly tell yourself, `I’m going to pass these people,’ and of course your light is off, but there’s still kind of this tension,” Muhammed said. “You really have to focus yourself, and make that commitment to stop at a certain time and go somewhere to break the fast.”

Muhammad frequents a number of restaurants around the city, depending on where he is when the sun goes down. And while he prefers to break the fast with his mother and siblings at home, which he does a few days a week, eating in restaurants is special in its own way.

“I love doing it with the other cab drivers, too, because you’re talking and you’re chatting, but it’s more of a relaxed environment at home of course,” he said.

While Palok, the Bangladeshi cab driver, makes a point to come to Shan somewhat regularly — it helps that he lives nearby — not all the other drivers can do that.

“For me it is everywhere, I have no fixed place,” said one cab driver, getting up from his table at Shan before evening prayer. “Sometimes home, sometimes airport, sometimes downtown.“

Reem Rahman, a spokeswoman for the Illinois chapter for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said it’s not unusual for the city’s cab drivers to stop for Iftar wherever they happen to be at sunset. The important thing is to share it with someone, even if it’s not family, she said.

“When you’re driving you could be anywhere when it comes time to pray,” Rahman said. “The best thing is to break fast with the community, and definitely to just share it with people.“

Muhammed, the owner, agreed.

“The sense of community that is created, these people that you don’t eat with every day, they’re co-workers in a way,” he said.