A New Ramadan

We have arrived at the end of Ramadan, the holy month during which the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, sex and other worldly pursuits from sunrise to sunset. Ramadan is normally a time for daily self-reflection, and thirty nights of communal fast-breaking and prayers. Much of evening life takes place at the mosque, with all family members a part of masjid life, from preparing community iftars that begin with dates and yogurt laban, food that is sunnah keeping with the traditions suggested by the Prophet to break the fast, and seemingly never end. In a masjid in the US, for example, the iftar table is an elegant mix of international dishes that represent the people in that house of worship, a rich fusion of cultures, of traditional and new. After eating, the community prays nightly prayers together, taraweeh, prayed only during the holy month. 

This year’s Ramadan promised to be different before it started, with social distancing measures in place throughout Islamic and secular communities and states. Mosques are closed indefinitely; there have been no social gatherings. People are at home. 

How different would this Ramadan be for me? As someone raised to keep my religious beliefs to myself, praying five times a day in absolute solitude and fasting without anyone noticing seemed kind of ideal. I fell into Islam, though Muslims call it “reverting,” referring to those of us raised in another faith who return. I’m not sure, really, that in the beginning I felt I was returning so much as I understood that I was being presented with the opportunity to approach something. 

I was raised by a father who wanted above all for his kids to be intellectually astute and a mother who wanted us to be educated enough about religion to see that it was, in her words, “smoke and mirrors.” We therefore received a loosely Catholic education on Sundays, attending hospital church with my dad so he could simultaneously complete his rounds. There was nothing that influenced me less than those early formative years of Latin prayers and shared chalices, creaky pews and worshipping with the sick. I eventually resented that my mother got to stay at home on Sunday mornings, and after enough advocating to stay at home and do chores with my mom, my parents acquiesced, and my religious training was finished. I grew up feeling free but unrooted, believing in everything and nothing all at once, wishing for something to take hold and guide me. 

It was my daughter’s presence that did this. Her Senegalese father, before he vanished from her life completely, asked that I raise her to be knowledgeable about her roots, to be connected to her homeland, and to be Muslim. These were easy things to promise after her birth and these are things that have been sometimes challenging to fulfill.  I am trying. We speak Wolof. We do weekly homeschooling on Senegal and in French. We visit members of her family in Senegal. 

A few years back, my daughter told me the story of Easter, as seen on tv she’d evidently been watching. I realized I’d been far too hands-off in our approach to Islamic studies. I also realized I didn’t actually know much about this religion I’d promised to raise her in. I set out to learn it, to be able to give it to her. I was surprised at what really learning a faith did for me. I found answers, I found ideals, and I found a connection that I think I’d been seeking. 

One of the things I admire most about the Muslim ‘ummah or community is its empathy, rooted in the requirement that we take care of one another. It’s been reaffirming of my faith and my faith in this community to see the ways that people continue to give. Community iftar is one of my favorite parts of Ramadan, the gathering together in exhaustion and anticipation, preparing a sumptuous table of food, the laughter and fulfillment that follows the maghrib athan and prayer. The other night I mentioned this to a friend who invites my family to her home every year. She immediately offered to deliver an iftar meal to our home. 

Each week my now eight-year-old daughter and I prepare food for those in our community, Muslims and non-Muslims, who have expressed a need. We add the items to our weekly grocery orders, and when they arrive, we sanitize and then arrange them into care packages that a friend delivers to the doors of those who’ve made the requests. This weekly task is by far her favorite activity in our indoor whirlwind of Zoom school, video chats with friends, cooking, and YouTube P.E. and art and science projects. When I asked her why she likes this so much, she explained that it makes her feel really good to know that “even when we can’t meet the people because of Corona virus, we’re giving some of what we have to help people who need it.” At eight years old, she already gets something that it seems hard for many of us to learn, the Prophet’s teaching that “sadaqah, being generous through charity, does not decrease wealth.” 

When I asked friends and fellow Muslims about Ramadan in the weeks approaching its commencement, most expressed worry about it being changed, a fear about the newness of it all. 

Sahar, who lives with her family as many young unmarried Muslim women do, was apprehensive about not having any break outside of the house, concerned about “the burden of being home all day in addition to the extra cooking and cleaning required in the midnight hours of the holy month.” While families and cultures split their meals up differently, there is an evening meal, the iftar, served at dusk, and the morning meal, suhoor, which is served pre-dawn, at 3:30 am or earlier. The cooking and cleaning can be a lot. As my friend Aisha likes to sardonically joke, the 30 days of Ramadan for women are like the 30 days of Thanksgiving. 

Reem, who lives in the DC area, is used to a greater freedom, and her worries were about a different type of isolation. As she explains, her life is “how I want it to be, with the friends and the life that I want to have.” After her university closed for the semester, she was obligated to move back home and away from her girlfriend of several months and from other queer Muslim and non-Muslim friends who understand and accept her, people she sees as “her family outside her family.” Being socially quarantined with her “conservative and very traditional Muslim” family means she “can’t easily chat with anyone outside my family who really matter in my life.” 

Friends expressed a sadness at not gathering together each night in celebration of the day’s accomplishment, agonizing too over those poor amongst us who depend on our community for meals. They also pointed out the many Muslim essential workers on the frontlines, still on the frontlines this month while they have been fasting. 

I asked Mariam, a nurse in a public hospital, what this Ramadan has been like for her. She mentioned the extra hours and increased foot traffic in the hospital, the risk she feels as palpable, but what she really wanted to talk about was all the extra care and concern she’s received from her Muslim friends who are not essential workers and from her non-Muslim co-workers and neighbors. She said as well that “the pressures of being a nurse now, in this situation, helps strengthen my faith, helps me be the sort of person my faith asks me to be. I need not only to take care of myself, but to think about the most vulnerable people in my life and in my periphery, to be sure I’m taking precautions to protect and serve them.” She says that because of her job and the risks associated with COVID-19, she self-isolates in her home, praying, eating and otherwise living away from other family members. It’s difficult but feels right according to all the guidelines of both her profession and her faith. 

Over the course of these final weeks, I’ve checked back in with the same friends to ask how they’ve fared. How would they rate their new Ramadan? 

“It’s been a challenge,” said Hisham, who works at a large grocery store in the city. “But I’ve been going home each night to iftars with my family, and I’m grateful for that. There are Muslims in refugee camps, Muslims who are persecuted for being believers. They still observe Ramadan. Why can’t I have hope in this time?” 

Mohammed, the friend who delivers the care packages in our community, has recently closed his business, a fledging tourism company that couldn’t survive the times. He tells me that while he worries incessantly about his financial future, he’s grateful to be at his aging mother’s side, on lockdown with her and caring for her in a way he’s never been able to before. They take iftar together, and, he says, he’s doing much of the cooking and cleaning. He’s committed to caring for his mother, an outcome of the virus, of the circumstances of these days. 

Kay, who lives in the middle of the pandemic, in Brooklyn, told me that “if there’s a Supreme Power, then our chance to draw closer to Him exists in this month. While I love the daily reprieve from fasting and the chance to commiserate with my friends over samosas and sugary sweets, I think that a month of quiet reflection will be good for me. Right now is also a vital time to be generous in spirit and in deed, as we are called to do. Our essential workers need our support, our political parties need our voices, our vulnerable populations need our fiscal presence.”  All of the friends who were anxious seem to have found a silver lining. 

The silver lining is also a lesson: in this holy month, the observant attain taqwa, or awareness, a God-consciousness. There’s a hadith that explains how to achieve that consciousness, to worship God “as if you see Him, and if you can’t see Him you know that He sees you.” When I was a child, the idea that God could see me was harrowing, one that loomed large in the hospital chapel amongst the sick, where I was impatient and scared. When I pretended to drink from the communal chalice so as not to share germs, I just knew that God could see my hardened, individualistic heart. As a child, I felt that maybe God was smoke and mirrors, and feared that he wasn’t. Even in recent times, I’ve blocked out the notion of his omnipotence while I was up to my worst. This year, the idea that God might see us has brought me peace, steeling my will to get up each day and set an intention of acceptance, which is a kind of hope.  

This has been my daughter’s first year of fasting. She announced in the days gearing up to Ramadan that she planned to observe the month. I was surprised by her desire and assuredness; without doing so consciously, I’d fallen into my mother’s footsteps, having left all things religious open to my daughter, giving her freedom in every aspect of faith, even as the one faith whose precepts she’d learned were Islamic. She is surrounded by Muslims in her life, but I  have been so careful not to alienate her from the belief system I promised her that I have required nothing from her as a Muslim. Her affirmation took me by surprise, and I went about the task of preparing myself and our home to support this now joint endeavor. Since we were at home together, I decorated the house with Ramadan decorations of moons and stars, lanterns and other Islamic art. I made a Ramadan countdown calendar, thirty carefully wrapped chocolates she opens every night at iftar. 

My daughter has fasted for all of this month with no problem, 16-hour days with no water or food. As we round the days into Eid and her chocolate calendar gets sparer, I ask this snack-loving young girl her secret and she says, “I just tell myself I can get through this day, and then see how I feel. And when it’s time to eat I eat, and have fun, and I feel good about myself. And then I make it through the next day the same way.” Determination. Trust. Surety of self, of something greater than you having your back, of getting through the next day and the next. It’s advice to get through all of these new days, the holy month and beyond. 

Kirsten Hemmy’s first book of poetry, The Atrocity of Water, was a Tom Lombardo selection (Press 53, 2010). Hemmy is a two-time Fulbright scholar and TedX speaker (Charlotte, 2011) who teaches creative writing and poetry at Sultan Qaboos University. Her poetry has appeared recently in Glass, Compose, Panoply and elsewhere.