Ramadan: Abroad in Covid-times

Image description: A silhouette against an orange sky.

If you were to ask any Muslim to describe their typical Ramadan, you will soon find a theme emerging from their answers; family, food, festivities. If you were to ask for a standout feature of Ramadan, most would highlight the community spirit. The string binding all these elements together is the sense of togetherness which is fostered with each passing Ramadan. The togetherness of Suhoor (the morning meal for the day of fasting), the togetherness of Iftar (breaking of the fast), the togetherness in the prayers special to Ramadan (Taraweh).  

Having said that, Ramadan 2020 forced the Ummah (the Muslim community) to dispel notions of embracing one another, literally. Gone were the congressional prayers, the lively Iftar parties and most sadly, the community coming together to celebrate the culmination of our efforts in this Holy month of renewal on Eid al-Fitr.  

In the absence of embracing the wider community, every one of us learnt to embrace Ramadan differently. Looking back, my foremost community, the family unit, was brought into sharper focus. We couldn’t have Iftar parties, so we enjoyed over-gorging ourselves at home. At least my siblings and I wouldn’t have to pretend to sit politely with company when really, all we want is to sprawl all over the sofa, clutching our bloated stomachs. “You eat with your eyes in Ramadan, not your stomach” is not a popular expression for nothing.  

With the experience of the previous Ramadan under my belt, I felt equipped to tackle Ramadan 2021. For many, the lay of the land remains the same as that of the year before. For me, it was a Ramadan unlike any before. Here I am in Tunisia, on my year abroad, going through the motions of Ramadan for the first time in my life, alone. The romanticised image of a Ramadan in an Islamic country is what I hoped my Ramadan would look like. Some of my visions were realised; hearing the Adhaan (call to prayer) echoing in the streets and the array of beautiful new foods to sample. However, most of my conceptions remained just that, as stricter restrictions were put in place to ward off rising Covid cases. This Ramadan I was without the familiarity of my local community, without my family and even more dauntingly, in a new country.  

I tried not to think too much of this until Ramadan came around. At that point, I found I would have to motivate myself alone to make it through the challenges of the month. That included the routine challenges, the hunger, the thirst, the commitment to building a closer relationship to my religion as well as finding the motivation to maintain this journey of spiritual betterment.  

Ramadan in the Covid-era has forced me to acknowledge that the journey of personal renewal at times is a lonely one. However, it is a blessing to realise that even in your solitude there is companionship.

New challenges arose which I hadn’t anticipated for. Praying, such a routine part of my day, became sad during Ramadan as the empty spaces either side of my prayer mat reminded me of praying with my sisters. And although at first, it was exciting to introduce Ramadan traditions to my household, who were also experiencing Ramadan firsthand in an Islamic country, consistency and motivation were hard to come by and so I saw the excitement taper off.  

With so little scope to experience Ramadan with others, I had to put on a brave face and make the most of this Holy month, albeit alone. My housemates reading this may be quick to take offence – they consider themselves good company and I can’t complain. It doesn’t detract from the fact that I was solely responsible for tasks that previously were made enjoyable by nature of doing it with others, like preparing the Iftar spread. I quickly came to realise this was a much more laborious task than my mother makes it seem. My years as a salad chopping assistant to my mother’s chef, I thought, would be all the skill I needed to get by. It turns out, it wasn’t.  

When I wasn’t distracting myself with cooking, I reflected on what lessons I was being taught in the midst of such a particularly challenging Ramadan. And so, I prayed and asked.  

‘Call upon Me; I will respond to you…’ [Surat Ghafir: 60] 

And now Ramadan is drawing to a close. Seeing this holy month come to an end is sad to say the least, as the opportunity to reap blessings and rewards by tenfolds elapses. And although each Ramadan brings with it a unique set of challenges, it also brings lessons. Ramadan in the Covid-era has forced me to acknowledge that the journey of personal renewal at times is a lonely one. However, it is a blessing to realise that even in your solitude there is companionship. Companionship in spirit with your fellow Muslims, who feel as you do. And more poignantly, companionship with God who is with you as you meander further down the twisty path.

Image credits: Aziz Acharki on Unsplash