Zaman, a Muslim undergraduate, keeps halal, which means he only eats foods that are permissible according to Islamic law.
The restrictions include not eating pork or pork byproducts, any food prepared with alcohol, or meat from animals not slaughtered in God?s name?these items are haram, or not permissible.
?Sometimes I force myself to eat vegetarian during the week,? he says of his dining hall experience. But most days, rather than be forced into a quasi-vegetarian lifestyle, Zaman eats out in the Square.
Although Harvard University Dining Services has taken some steps to accommodate Muslims in dining halls, some students say the University could do more.
?The Muslim community is growing. There are many more Muslim students than there were a decade ago, or even five years ago,? says Abdelnasser Rashid ?12, a former president of the Harvard Islamic Society. ?That?s something that [Harvard University Dining Services] and HIS should be talking about.?
QUESTIONS OF QUALITY
Harvard currently provides a weekly halal dinner for undergraduates in Winthrop on Mondays and a community dinner in Adams on Thursdays.
But Muhammad Hassaan Yousuf ?12 says that the quality of food during the Monday dinner tables has seen better days.
?I?ve seen members of HIS go and they would be unable to eat the meat,? he says. ?Sometimes, it would even be raw inside.?
Rashid agrees that there are problems with the quality of the meals.
?The meat, to put it frankly, is often not well prepared. It?s so bad, in fact, sometimes, that it wouldn?t make sense for them to offer it to everyone else,? Rashid says, adding that the food during the Thursday meals in Adams?more popular among Muslim students?is better.
At home, Rayhnuma Ahmed ?14?s Bangladeshi family prepares halal lunches of chicken and beef.
But during the school year, Ahmed is forced to rely on sandwiches, yogurt, and salads.
In an effort to provide meat options to students like Ahmed, Harvard began supplying halal hotdogs and burgers for the grills in 2002. But Muslim students say the grill options are not filling the void left by meatless lunches.
Ahmed orders from the grill once or twice a week at the most. ?It wouldn?t be healthy to eat a halal hamburger or hotdog every day,? she says, noting that grilled chicken would be a healthier option.
Rashid says the halal grill options are a good start in Harvard?s efforts to accommodate students who keep halal.
In order to provide halal food that meets religious standards, Harvard dining services must ensure that the halal meat does not come into contact with other meat, according to Rashid. This requires staff to be particularly cautious in their preparations, switching gloves between dealing with halal and non-halal meat and sectioning off part of the grill, he says.
?I came today and I looked at the grill to see if there was an area that was a bit cleaner, and there wasn?t,? says Rashid, who chose not to order meat that day.
Yousuf says that he has also had negative experiences at the grill.
He says some employees did not recognize the significance of his halal dining restrictions. A meeting with the Leverett Dining Hall manager, he says, resulted in a refresher workshop for the staff on halal cooking.
?If you ask the dining hall staff, they are very helpful,? Yousuf says. ?They?ll be very careful and change their gloves.?
?YOU HAVE HILLEL?
Last year, Yousuf?who was then director of development for HIS?says he asked HUDS for a list of all dishes involving pork and pork byproducts.
?They said it?s very hard to have a list because the ingredients keep changing,? he says. He says he contacted them repeatedly for the list, but did not hear back.
Instead, Yousuf asked HUDS to consider identifying halal foods on the name cards, next to the vegan and vegetarian signifiers. That request was also turned down because, Yousuf was told, it would open the door to listing ingredients relevant to any and all eating habits, including any allergies and other religious preferences.
Students have been left to their own devices to identify halal food?literally. Rashid developed an app in CS50 to determine which foods were safe for Muslims to eat.
Crista Martin, a spokeswoman for HUDS, says that the University is in the process of making it easier to access halal meals.
?In the near future we hope to implement a web-based menu search tool that will be useful to Muslim students in identifying any food cooked with alcohol,? she said in a statement. Martin also pointed to the grill options, the two weekly meals, and kosher dining?which meets halal requirements if it is not prepared in alcohol. All dining halls are equipped with a kosher fridge and all students have access to the Hillel dining hall.
But students are wary of relying on existing options like Hillel.
?I got the sense that they were trying to say, ?Why do you need this, you have Hillel,? and to me, that was kind of inappropriate,? Zaman said, pointing to the range of interactions with HUDS.
Muslims should also not have to feel dependent on another religious group for food, he said.
?We?ve all eaten [at Hillel] before, but it?s not a habit to get into. It?s a space where we?re welcome to, but it?s a space that?s not ours.?
?A HUGE ADVENTURE?
On Thursday evenings, Adams Dining Hall Chef Ed B. Childs breezes through the Adams Small Dining Room with trays of rich halal food for the roughly 70 people who will flow through during the two-hour dinner.
Thursdays are a highlight of his week.
?I look forward to Thursdays,? he says. ?We choose the menu. Each meal is a huge adventure.?
Childs delves beyond the normal dining hall recipes, exercising his culinary skill for the attendees of the Harvard Islamic Society?s Thursday Dinner Tables.
?It?s El Salvador night tonight, it?s Indian night sometimes,? Childs says, recounting the different types of halal cuisines he serves. ?It?s a great atmosphere that really bonds this group.? Sometimes the recipes are from his travels, and sometimes the students request halal versions of classic American foods like the Philly Cheesesteak.
The dining hall staff often contribute recipes from their home countries, such as the El Salvadorian rice and beans dish.
The Adams House dinners, unlike the ones at Winthrop, are also open to the Harvard Muslim community at large. Rachid Chakri, a Moroccan immigrant and Extension School student who works at Harvard University Health Services, has been attending the meals for several years.
?[Childs] told me about it since he knew that I am a Muslim,? he says. ?I like the food. I like making friends, because this is a chance for the Harvard Muslim Community to know each other. We are all Muslim, but there are differences.?
?I?ve never seen anyone more appreciative of dinner than this group,? Childs says.
At Winthrop?s Monday dinners, lagging attendance leaves some students worried that they will be cut entirely.
But they say that halal food should be available regardless of numbers.
?Who eats or needs halal food, I don?t think you can put a number on that. It all fluctuates. I know people who?ve changed since they?ve come here,? Zaman says. ?Why can?t they present it as food for everyone in the dining hall??
Another concern is missing out on community-building aspects of the Harvard experience. At the 375th anniversary dinner, for instance, many Muslim students were unable to eat the meat entrees. The vegetarian entr?e, Welsh Rarebit, was prepared with beer, also placing it into the category of haram. Students like Ahmed, the sophomore, were left eating salads.
?I think there?s a negativity complex where you think it?s okay that you don?t have any food to eat tonight, but in reality there?s $50,000 being spent on you every year,? says Zaman. Although he appreciates the efforts Harvard has made, dining is still frustrating. ?I don?t pay for only Mondays and Thursdays,? he says.