Her three sleepy sons have been roused from bed, and
Celeste Saleem begins fixing a simple breakfast of grits and salmon cakes -- and keeping a
watchful eye on the clock. There is still more than an hour before sunrise as her husband,
Omar, gathers the boys together so each can take a turn reading passages from the Koran.
Though most of the Washington area is still fast asleep this early in the morning, the Saleem family is among an estimated 220,000 Muslims in the region who are observing Ramadan, Islam's holiest month.
Ramadan celebrates when the prophet Muhammad first received the word of Allah, and Muslims mark the month by repenting and fasting every day between dawn and sundown. This year the observance started Dec. 31 and will end with the crescent moon on either Jan. 28 or 29.
The Saleems, who live in Mount Rainier, have not had an easy time adjusting to the month's spiritual regimen. Omar Saleem converted to Islam five years ago. His wife joined the faith four years ago. The couple have to coordinate the schedules of three active children, Karl, 16, Sean, 12, and Kalvin, 9, so that the crucial prayers aren't missed.
"Prayer time is five times a day, and sometimes it gets in the way because I'm outside playing," said Sean, who attends Hyattsville Middle School. "But I try to do at least two prayers a day."
Five years ago, Omar Saleem was Karlton Smyre. Then, as now, he worked as a mechanic for the D.C. public school system.
"There were two guys on my job who were Muslim," Saleem said. "The noon prayer coincided with our lunchtime, and I began going with them to Masjid Muhammad."
The mosque Masjid Muhammad is at Fourth and P streets NW, and a majority of those who worship there are working-class African Americans. Hundreds of people from across the city also attend the Friday juma prayer.
The mosque was built in 1960 and was a Nation of Islam temple until the death in 1975 of Elijah Muhammad, the Nation of Islam leader. His son, W.D. Muhammad, sought to return Islam in the United States to its traditional roots.
Omar Saleem's transition to Islam was a gradual one.
"My parents are devout Christians -- Seventh-day Adventists," he said. "They searched for many years to find a faith that they were comfortable with. I give credit to them for giving me the example of search and study. It led me to Islam."
His religious beliefs, he said, have allowed him to progress both spiritually and materially. And he credits his conversion with making him a better husband and a more active parent.
"There was a time in my life where I was bored with my status," Omar Saleem said. "I felt stagnant. Islam emphasizes not just the afterlife but the focus on this life as well."
Shortly after taking his vow of faith, he said, he was inspired to start his own business, and he now manages his own landscaping and lawn service in addition to his full-time job as a mechanic. At Masjid Muhammad, a bulletin board is filled with the cards promoting local Muslim businesses.
"When he first converted, I was really upset," said Celeste Saleem, who also was a Seventh-day Adventist. "I didn't understand why he chose Islam. My family didn't understand either -- they were very cautious."
Celeste Saleem's extended family includes 19 ministers, and both of her grandfathers were pastors. But as she began to learn about her husband's new faith, she said, she slowly became more comfortable with the religion. They are raising their children in the faith; the days after Christmas were difficult, they said, when their children's school friends showed off new toys.
"Some parts of it are confusing to me," Sean said. "When we were Christian, I used to think [Muslims] were weird because they dressed differently. But during this month, I've learned more about the faith. Before, I used to laugh at them."
The Saleems do not make their children observe the fast, going without food or water from sunrise to sunset, which is meant to teach self-restraint, cleanse the body and help worshipers identify with the poor and the hungry. But the boys are proud of their parents' discipline and help in the kitchen when they break the fast each evening after the maghrib prayer.
"I'd be starving," said Karl, who said he's been trying to read the Koran more.
The Saleems said Ramadan, which follows the lunar calendar and falls at a different time each year, is much easier to observe in the winter, when the sun sets earlier in the day. They say their faith has allowed them to increase their understanding of other cultures.
Like other African American families who have converted to Islam, the Saleems often find themselves refuting the notion that they must believe in the separatist teachings of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
"It's a very touchy subject," said Omar Saleeem, who embraces the more spiritual aspects of Islam. "If you're African American and Muslim, then people immediately start asking you about Farrakhan. Many people hold him in high esteem. It's usually best to sidestep the subject."
Celeste Saleem, who works as a legal secretary at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said her colleagues at the office have been supportive during the fast. She attends a women's interfaith meeting when she has time, and she participates more frequently in activities at Masjid Muhammad.
She said she decided to convert because her husband did and because she saw how much happier and more motivated he was.
"First, Omar started coming in," said Yusuf Saleem, the imam at the mosque since 1990. "And then I saw his wife. She didn't just dive in, she observed. And then I noticed that their dress began to change."
The Saleems now have Arabic, as well as English, on their answering machine and use the computer room in the northeast corner of their home -- facing Mecca -- for prayer. The Koran sits on a bookshelf next to the Bible. Celeste Saleem always wears the traditional Muslim head covering.
"Now I'm to the point that if I don't have my scarf, I feel like I'm missing something," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company