NEW YORK (AA) – More than 300 Turkish Muslims enjoyed the first iftar meal of the holy month of Ramadan on Monday at one of the oldest Islamic places of worship founded by Turks in the U.S.
The backyard of Ulu Cami, or Grand Mosque, enclosed by trees and neighboring single-story homes in Paterson, N.J., was filled to capacity at 8.30 p.m. (GMT0030) right after sunset as Turks of different generations, thousands of miles from their motherland, awaited the call to prayer to mark the end of the 15-hour fast.
The main course included doner, traditional Turkish lamb dish cooked on a vertical rotisserie, served with rice, shepherd’s salad made of finely-chopped vegetables and, of course, baklava, a much-beloved sweet pastry dating to Ottoman times.
With dates and water within easy reach everywhere on the long tables that accommodated 20 or more people, president Hamza Bolur of the Ulu Cami United Islamic Center, recited the call to prayer.
The crowd slowly grew animated as glucose levels recovered, with dinner table chatter buzzing in dual channels: Turkish among adults, and English among children and adults whenever they spoke to their children.
Mustafa Bahacan, Ulu Cami’s affable imam, came to the U.S. four years ago mid-Ramadan on a five-year assignment by the Turkish government. Although the interview was conducted in Turkish, he has been learning English and has seen the local community engage more with the mosque each year.
“There is an essential mission here,” Bahacan said. “This is the mosque with the biggest Turkish community in the United States.”
Ulu Cami is nearing its fortieth anniversary. Founded in 1978, the project arose out of a need when the first mosque in the area, the tiny Karacay Mosque, was not enough to meet the demands of the community.
Every year during Ramadan, volunteers work to cover the costs of the iftar meal, one day at a time during the holy month. On a typical weeknight, meals can cost as much as $4,000. That cost rises on the weekends with more hungry worshippers attending.
“Since 1978, these iftars have increased in number every year because there is a growing community,” Bahacan said.
“When you talk to Turks who have been here for a long time, they say, ‘Any time we saw Turkish people in here, we would become so happy, just like we’ve seen next of kin,’ and they used to keep in touch and look after one another.”
It used to be much harder to find halal food, too, Bahacan said, a concern that was blissfully absent from the minds of the iftar-goers Monday.
“Now you can find Turkish goods everywhere; pastry such as simit and pogaca are even easier to come by than in Turkey,” he said. For good reason, as Bahacan thinks there might be as many as 10,000 Turks living in the vicinity of Ulu Cami in Paterson.
“Every year during Eid prayers, we pray three times,” the imam said, referring to the congregational prayer held at the end of Ramadan. The community floods the mosque that can hold up to 1,000 worshippers, he said.
Even after the opening of two other nearby mosques, prayers at Ulu Cami continue to enjoy a small but consistent congregation every Ramadan and, other times during the year, albeit much less.
“We Turks are still quite new here in America,” says Bahacan, one of only 25 Turkish imams across the United States. There are 1,000 in Germany, where millions of Turks live, 250 in France and 65 in Australia.
Bolur, the mosque’s president, dropping by for the after-dinner conversation, said he has lived in the United States for 25 years and two of his children were born here.
Though he has a flourishing family settled in the U.S., he yearns to return to Turkey. “Pray for me to return,” he said with a smile only moments after meeting a group of newcomers from Turkey.