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Celebrating Ramadan in Minnesota
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The Marina Grill and Deli in northeast Minneapolis caters to the area's Muslim community. During the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend, the Marina has attracted huge crowds each night with its Ramadan buffet. (MPR Photo/Julie Siple)
This weekend marks the end of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim year. For Muslims throughout the world, the month has been one of prayer, charity, and fasting from sunup to sundown. The Islamic Institute of Minnesota estimates 100,000 Muslims live in the state, 80,000 in the metro area alone. A handful of Twin Cities restaurants have been catering to those observing the holy month by offering a special way to break the daily fast -- Ramadan buffets. One of those restaurants, the Marina Grill and Deli in northeast Minneapolis, has become a gathering place over the past month.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Walk into the Marina Grill and Deli 20 minutes before sundown, and you'd never know the place was about to wake up. There's not a single customer, and no one is even standing near the cash register. The only action is at the grill, where two Egyptian brothers are frantically shaving lamb and frying chicken, as if the place were packed with hungry customers.

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Image Cooking for the crowds

Adel Hegazi and Shaker Elsaied own the restaurant. They've been serving up Middle Eastern dishes for 25 years in places like Cairo and Lebanon. Now they're cooking in Minneapolis, in what clearly used to be a Super America.

There are Koranic verses on the wall and traditional Egyptian pipes on the windowsills, but the place still looks like a converted gas station. The big refrigerators that used to hold Diet Coke and Gatorade are still there, but now they're full of hummus and Ramadan sweets.

Hegazi and Elsaied lay out their buffet just as the sun sets, and within minutes, the place is swamped. Suddenly there aren't enough seats. A line snakes out the door. Friends shout across the restaurant in greeting, someone turns on Al-Jazeera, and Elsaied shakes his head at the number of people.

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Image Buffet is ready

"Too many, too many," he says. "Especially on the weekends, very busy. I don't have enough parking outside. Everybody is parking on the street."

No one seems to mind the chaos, and the group is as mixed as it is large. The restaurant seems to attract a mostly immigrant crowd. Two men speak Somali in one corner, while a young family uses Arabic in another.

"They come from everywhere," Elsaied says. "American people, Arab, Pakistani, Indian -- everywhere."

Abdul Ahmed, from Somalia, says it can be tough for immigrant Muslims to observe Ramadan in Minnesota because the holiday is celebrated so differently at home.

"The day is just starting after the breaking of the fast," he says. "So everybody comes out and goes to the markets. The shops are open until late at night. You get the feeling it is Ramadan."

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Image Full house

Egyptian Mona Gharib agrees. "In Egypt, we have fun," she says. "Here, is nothing. We eat, and go back to sleep. We have work tomorrow."

Ahmed and Gharib come to the Marina Grill in part because they find community and a sense of holiday that is otherwise missing in Minnesota.

"At least you see people who are like yourself, who fasted the whole day, who came to eat food," says Ahmed. "It just makes you feel good, you know, that you are among your brothers and sisters."

Still, just as the conversation turns a bit philosophical, Ahmed stops. He admits it's not just the spirit of community that draws him to the deli.

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Image Good food!

"The food," he says. "The food. Don't forget that. That's the most important thing that we came here."

Grilled lamb, stuffed grape leaves, kofta kebabs, felafel. Co-owner Shaker Elsaied says he opened the Marina Grill and Deli because he thought there was a market for these Middle Eastern specialties.

"You know, the business is to make money, too. I don't want to say I just opened this only to help the people. I help myself, too."

On that note, Elsaied and his brother have decided they'll keep the buffet going for a few days after Ramadan. Who knows, they say, people might still come.

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