Ramadan at a New York City construction site

By Misbahuddin Mirza, P.E.

The premixed-mortar feeder belched a huge plume of gray dry cement cloud into the air as a new batch was fed into the mixer. I made a mental note of this as I stepped off the scaffold, and onto the stair-tower to begin my descent towards mother earth. The site was abuzz with life. Laborers were using mechanical lifts to convey construction material up to the construction location. Fork lifts scurried around moving pallets loaded with construction material.

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The foreman walked around making sure the masons produced the desired quantity of masonry for the contractor to make the calculated profit; the inspector was overseeing the quality of work. It seemed like any another grueling summer evening shift work at a New York City construction site. However, there was one, very different thing that set this day apart from the other days – absent from this picture were the ubiquitous water coolers, that are usually kept throughout the work site to keep the construction workers hydrated during New York’s scorching summer days. The sub-contractor’s entire construction crew consisted of burly Pakistani men, who had been working on an empty stomach all day! They were all observing the month long Ramadan fasting.

NYC construction worker
Abdul Waris, a 61 year old New York Muslim brick layer mason, originally from Peshawar, Pakistan, says that the Ramadan fast does not make him feel fatigued even during the hot summer days.”

The heat wave had soaked the crew’s T shirts with sweat, and had probably parched their tongues. But, there was no sign of any fatigue or loss of productivity. This reminded me of the time when people were watching Hakim Olajuwon closely to see if fasting was having an effect on his performance on the basketball field. I also remembered the time when my daughter’s Sensei, out of concern, had asked my daughter if she really wanted to continue participating in the Karate tournament while fasting.

“You really should have Iftaar (breaking of fast) with us today,” the Indian site superintendent said, speaking over the trailer’s noisy air conditioner. He sensed my hesitation, and added “well, we know, you never accept a doughnut or coffee from us for obvious reasons; but, it is almost Iftaar time, and Iftaar should not be delayed.” Although, the site super was not a Muslim, he had become very familiar with Ramadan rules. “Well, let me see,” I said uncertainly. I was planning on stopping by at a nearby Turkish restaurant, and wanted to complete my review of some construction drawings before heading out. The sight of all the masons and laborers suddenly making a beeline to rush down the stair tower indicated that it was Iftaar time. I politely joined them for the Iftaar.

Plates loaded with dates and fruits were passed around to everyone. Before I could make a dent in my plate, I was handed another plate loaded with Biryani, Naan, and Kababs. “What do I do with all these fruits?” I protested. ‘Just toss it away.’ I felt guilty. One of the points to remember while fasting is to feel for the unfortunate, who do not have anything to eat. So, how could I waste food, and that too, right at fast breaking? Then I observed that everyone else had actually finished their fruits using plastic forks. ‘Young kids,’ I told myself, recalling some of the food contests I had participated in during my youth. Plus, they were doing hard physical labor, and so were capable of dousing the million calorie diet.

A few days earlier, my 12 year old had complained of stomach pain just before Iftaar. I had asked him to always remember that stomach pain, as he will soon eat to his heart’s content at Iftaar, but, many less-fortunate around the world will stay hungry, as they are too poor to afford to buy food.

This month, America’s eight million Muslims join the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims in the annual, month long training exercise, attempting to develop the power to restrain themselves from indulging in forbidden acts for the next eleven months.

Misbahuddin Mirza
Misbahuddin Mirza having iftar with the construction crew

Now, at this New York Construction site, I settled down on a concrete building, making it into my make-shift dinner seat. I had dinners under the open sky countless times both at Restaurants, at picnics, and in my own backyard. But, having this Iftaar dinner surrounded by hardworking proud Muslim masons, was a humbling and learning experience for me. After dinner, as they washed up and performed ablutions to offer the collective prayers, I couldn’t help but admire the sheer willpower of these fellow Muslims.

Now, as I continue my Ramadan fasting, I realize how insignificant my acts of fasting and worship are compared to those of these hard working NYC Muslim construction workers.

Misbahuddin Mirza, MS, PE, a Teaneck, NJ resident, is a licensed Professional Engineer, registered in the States of New York and New Jersey. He is the Regional Quality Control Engineer for the NY State Department of Transportation’s Structures Division, New York City area. He has taught at New York and New Jersey’s weekend Islamic Schools, delivered Friday sermons, and has written for major US and Indian publications.

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