NEW PORT RICHEY — The men and women sit patiently underneath two large tents. Plates of food lie untouched in front of each of them.
The adults cannot eat or drink until sunset. And on this Friday night, the sun is moving all too slowly above.
The people chat about business, family and politics. A few check their watches.
Finally, just before 8, a short man standing in the parking lot of the Islamic Center of New Port Richey cups his hands around his ears and begins the azan, the ritual call to prayer.
The fast is over.
Everyone begins with the small, brown dates on their plates before eating the fruit salad and samosas, fried potato dumplings.
For 30 nights in September and October, about 250 to 300 people gather at the Islamic Center to celebrate Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic year.
They observe the fast every day during Ramadan from sunrise to sundown. For them and other Muslims all over the world, not eating or drinking represents a sacrifice made for God.
At sunset, they come from all over Pasco and North Pinellas to break the fast together in a ritual called iftar.
The $1.2-million center opened on Grand Boulevard in March 2007. This year marks the second Ramadan celebrated here.
The plates empty quickly in the first few minutes. Then the participants rise and enter the mosque. They take off their shoes and wash their hands and feet before going inside. The men and women line up in their own sections, a wall separating them.
An imam at the front of the mosque leads them in a brief prayer before the feast can begin.
Underneath each tent outside, volunteers have set up a large buffet — lamb and chicken stews, spicy Indian rice and stacks of bread home-cooked in a clay oven. There's pizza for the children at a separate table.
There's no charge to eat. All the food is donated by members.
Conversations in several languages — Arabic, Hindi and Bengali — have started by the time everyone has their food. Inside each tent, people from all over the world sit together. Some have known each other for years. Others meet for the first time, sharing stories.
There's the Albanian who escaped Communist rule and lived in a refugee camp for several months. There are immigrants from all over the world working at gas stations and convenience stores seven days a week and fasting every one of them. There are second-generation Muslim Americans talking about starting their own families.
As the buffet empties and the crickets buzz at near-deafening levels, the adults continue to talk. The boys pick teams on a small basketball court lit by two floodlights. The girls play on a small swing set.
Gradually, everyone trickles into the prayer hall again, their stomachs full this time. They complete one final prayer before the night ends about 9:30. Some will stay even longer to hear excerpts read from the Koran.
"At the end of the day, iftar is a community event," said Abdur Rahim, a member of the center's leadership. "There are white Americans, black Americans, Asian Americans, European Americans. … It's truly a melting pot of America.
"If the world could learn to do this, we could have a very peaceful world."
Nomaan Merchant can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6244.