With and Without a Firm Grasp

by Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab
With and Without a Firm Grasp — a Ramadan calendar published by Inga with Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab and designed by Forough Abadian. [A bright, ‘cyber’ green Ramadan calendar with a grid of dates and times that indicate when to pray and when to begin and break fast during the holy month.]

I woke up to the smell of eggplant in the oven, and I could hear my parents discussing their weekend plans in the kitchen: Mom was planning to moderate a panel discussion with women in Darfur, and Dad would call Salma, my cousin in al-Obeid. Our mornings together tend to follow a similar pattern: Mom and Dad enter the kitchen and make breakfast while watching the news or listening to a Sudanese classic — Wardi, perhaps. After breakfast, never before, my parents brew black tea and cinnamon in gold-rimmed tea cups and migrate to the living room, which is attached to our kitchen. I join them at or around this point, walking towards the coffeemaker. They greet me with an emphatic ahlan wa sahlan (from Dad) and sabah al-khayr (from Mom), and I respond with a softer “good morning.” This morning was more or less the same as others, but it was also special, because there was eggplant in the oven.

Sudanese cuisine boasts a medley of salads that don’t read as “salad” in Western society. A few of them resemble the cold and crunchy salads that a Westerner might be familiar with, but many others take on a different form. Sudani salads don’t follow a rigid template or formula when prepared; the beginning, middle, and end of preparation are responsive to the ingredients in one’s kitchen cabinet, resulting in a supple and creamy consistency in many cases. As an example, salatat aswad, which literally translates to “salad of an eggplant,” looks less like Caesar salad and more akin to the Levantine baba ghanoush that’s typically eaten with bread. In English, these dishes might be described as “dips.”

But I don’t like this translation of salatat aswad, and I’m not sure if I can find a better English word that reflects our salad’s character with any measure of accuracy or integrity. Salatat aswad is a soft and sometimes spicy Sudanese dish, not a dip. It’s an unforgettable salad that involves a sequence of baking or frying and building upon layered vegetables, sauces, and spices. The word “dip” just doesn’t cut it.

In his book Approaching the Qur’an, Michael Sells describes translation as a process that can never be perfectly one-to-one. He elaborates, writing:

My own view is that translation—never complete, always only an approach—is an essential element of human existence. Even among those who speak our own language, we often find we have interpreted a word in a way other than it was intended. We can never fully capture or seize the perfected meaning. If we could grasp or seize it, we would soon find that the meaning has lost its magic in captivity.1

I want to embrace translation as something that is process-oriented and impossible to perfect — something that reflects our human nature, a work-in-progress that’s perpetually and beautifully flawed. For the remainder of this essay, I’ll continue to translate a handful of words, expressions, and religious practices with the understanding that my translations are, in Sells’s words, only approaches and never complete. My translations are not definitive or authoritative; they instead aim to arrive at a conceptual throughline that positions language, warts and all, at the heart of this discussion.

Process images, notes, and tangential references scattered across my desktop. Calendar designs by Forough Abadian. [Multiple windows open against a blue and green desktop.]

The term salatat aswad is an example of an idafa in Arabic grammar, i.e. a pairing of nouns that illustrates possession and relationality. In an idafa (which translates to “addition”), the first noun is governed by the subsequent noun; its substance, purpose, and material composition is largely informed by the noun that follows it. Salatat aswad is a salad (salata) that’s shaped and defined by the eggplant (aswad) it contains. Its resulting taste and texture echo the soft and malleable interior that characterizes a cooked eggplant, alongside its absorbency and subtle tanginess.

When approached with the idafa framework in mind, “salad” in Sudan becomes a fluid concept governed by a deliberate process of weaving together ingredients that would otherwise appear disparate and misaligned to the Western eye. Just as the paired nouns are interwoven within each idafa, the process of preparing eggplant salad both hinges on and, if cooked properly, results in a tight relationship between eggplant, onion, peanut butter, pepper, yogurt, and lemon juice.

Another idafa example, and one that I’m attempting to arrive at here, is imsaakiyat Ramadan: a prayer timetable that indicates when to pray and when to begin and break fast (also referred to as a Ramadan calendar).2 Just as with salatat aswad, breaking down the term imsaakiyat Ramadan helps us understand the interdependent nature of praying (salah), fasting (sawm), and designing around these practices.

Ramadan calendar circulated in Mumbai, India (2013). [A light pink and white Ramadan calendar with a simple and straightforward design.]
Ramadan calendar circulated in Barcelona, Spain (2016). [A brightly-color, maximally designed Ramadan calendar with a patterned border and photograph at the top.]

In Arabic, imsaakiya shares the same root as the verb amsak, which means “to hold.” Whereas amsak refers to holding onto something, imsaakiya refers to holding off or abstaining from something, such as food and drink during Ramadan. Amsak reinforces our possession while imsaakiya calls on us to let go of that possession for a moment in time, and in turn, offer it to someone else. Think about ordering a beverage at a restaurant and asking the server to “hold the ice.” When we make this request, regardless of our intention, we are offering more ice to those who prefer it. And when we abstain from eating and drinking, we are reserving our food and drink for those who may need it more than us, either indirectly or directly through charitable service. Fasting in Ramadan is less about hunger and starvation and more about where we direct our focus, where we seek nourishment and support when the superficial sources are no longer within reach.3

In celebration of this year’s holy month, Forough Abadian and I designed a printed Ramadan calendar for Muslims in Chicago. We sought inspiration from prayer timetables that have been produced and circulated in communities that span the globe, ranging from printed handouts to software from the early 2000s, from one-color spreadsheets to illuminated graphics. We also referred to friends and family members for help with translation, color selection, and distribution efforts. These calendars were co-published with Inga, a bookshop in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, and while most have been distributed to masjids and organizations throughout the city, they are also available at Inga for free (with a suggested donation to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)).

Ramadan calendar that we published in Chicago, photographed in Inga’s bookshop (2023). [The Ramadan calendar lying on a table surrounded by books.]

The circulation of printed Ramadan calendars reflects an ongoing exchange of designed data that I find interesting for a handful of reasons. Two pillars of Islam are beautifully championed in these eclectic calendars: prayer and fasting. Several languages are reflected throughout these timetables and in many instances a combination of scripts coexist side-by-side. Scale, font selection, color, and format are stretched in different directions, resulting in a wide range of typographic moves and decorative devices that effortlessly balance humanist expression with the expected functionality of a spreadsheet-calendar. 

Of course, there is another reason for my interest in these printed calendars that points to technology as both an important engine in Islamic history and a more recent threat to Islamic society. Many Muslims today rely on apps and websites when seeking prayer times, since they deliver this data with speed and accuracy. Like a lot of things that have transitioned from print to web, salah apps offer a blend of convenience, immediacy, and dependability, especially for those of us who live in areas where the azan is not heard everyday. But the trade-off for this convenience is loss of privacy through data extraction and the active surveillance of Muslim communities.

Thinking back to the word amsak, today’s technology might reveal an uglier side of holding, one that comes with strings attached. Our computers, phones, and devices offer information that’s immediately available for our consumption, and while this information helps us organize our day and practice our faith, it also reinforces oppressive power dynamics that rely so heavily on capturing and controlling Muslim communities. In contrast to prayer apps and websites, imsaakiyat Ramadan is localized and handed out in-person, making it less accessible to people outside of the served community and more difficult to track and trace in real time.

Ramadan calendar that we circulated in Chicago, inverted black and white detail (2023). [Close-crop of the times on the calendar, in black and white.]
Ramadan calendar that we circulated in Chicago, bitmapped acknowledgements on the back of print (2023) [The acknowledgements read: shukran & mamnoon: Faisal Mukarram, Isra Omar, Gulrana Syed, Jacob Lindgren, Inga Books, Linco Printing, Meg Miller + Are.na.]

Printed Ramadan calendars still pull from data that’s sourced online, so they are by no means a perfect remedy to the larger problem of tracking and surveillance. But they at least prompt people to gather and seek salah times within their immediate communities, rather than searching for prayer times on an app and in isolation. Perhaps this means that the printed calendars are like Sudani salads and the apps are like dips — easy to find, easy to contain, easy to consume without cooking. While I’m trying to distance myself from the dips, I can’t avoid them entirely, and I can’t deny their relation to our salads. Dips and salads, America and Sudan, and English and Arabic operate within a continuum that loops and fluctuates with time. These things function and fall apart and function again, taking new form at the start of each cycle and reintroducing themselves to me with an anxiety that’s rooted in optimism.

I’m holding all sides of me with and without a firm grasp as I continue this effort at approaching myself.

[1] Michael Sells, introduction to Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (Ashland: White Cloud, 2002), 22.

[2] Prayer timetables are also circulated in other months, but the word imsaakiya is not used in those cases. Imsaakiyat Ramadan is a particularly specific idafa, because the first noun is rarely, if ever, used outside of discussions on Ramadan.

[3] For more on Ramadan, its linguistic meaning and cultural significance, I recommend Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s latest newsletter, “Ramaḍān is heeeeerrre!I Will (?) Figure This All Out Later (2023, March 24). In this newsletter, Rasheed references Tajuddin B. Shu’aib’s Essentials of Ramadan: The Fasting Month (United States: Islamic Book Center, 1991).

Shiraz Abdullahi Gallab is a designer, publisher, and learner based in Providence. She is interested in language, form, and specificity, and she co-published the aforementioned Ramadan calendar with Inga Books.