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Muslim AU Students’ Ramadan Traditions Adjusted for COVID-19

Ramadan is the holy month of fasting, reflection, and peace for Muslims every year. Ramadan consists of fasting (no eating, drinking, and other regulations) from dawn to sunset for 29 or 30 days followed by a celebration of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan in celebration of completing the entire month. Through a whole day of fasting, families from different countries and all kinds of different traditions come together at the sound of the Maghrib Athan (sunset call to prayer) to initiate the Maghrib prayer and the break of their fast to eat Iftar (meal at sunset to break fast). Across the globe, millions of Muslims fast, pray daily obligatory prayers and non-obligatory prayers (like Taraweeh), eat Iftar, eat suhoor (meal before dawn to start fasting) together or alone during these humble and important days. A month full of cherished traditions, beautiful food, and close connections with God. 

Although Ramadan has always been a strong and impactful month, it is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant impacts on the observation of Ramadan by inflicting country-wide lockdowns, quarantine, and fear worldwide. Many students at AU have experienced this shift from normalcy in their momentous holiday to having their Ramadan traditions and experiences altered. I sat down with a few students at AU to discuss their Ramadan traditions and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their experiences.

Sarah Selougha, Class of 2024, Algerian Lineage:

Sarah is celebrating Ramadan in Virginia with her family. She believes that celebrating Ramadan in the U.S. has been very different than celebrating in an all-Muslim country.

"It can be isolating when you don't surround yourself with other Muslims as well," Selougha said. Sarah and her family typically decorate the house a week before Ramadan and say it is mandatory for everyone in her family to eat Iftar together and try to pray together when they can, pray Taraweeh on the weekends, and buy imported dates from Algeria every Ramadan. Every year they do a lot of things as a family together. 

"We always have Iftar together. Always wait for each other before starting to pray. Before Ramadan, we also get excited to decorate and get ready together. After Ramadan, my mom also has a large tradition of baking many traditional sweets." Selougha said.

A typical Ramadan day for her and her family consists of her parents usually waking her up at 4 am to eat suhoor. "Everyone is up and ready to eat by 4:30 am. Then after the Athan, we all pray morning prayer before I head back to sleep." Selougha said. "Then I wake up at 8 am for classes, and do everything I usually do in a day (schoolwork, hang out with my family, shop) all while restraining from eating or drinking throughout the day." 

During Ramadan, she also tries to incorporate more spiritual things, since Ramadan is such a holy month for Muslims. She says she reads more Quran when she gets the chance and tries to pray each of her prayers on time, and is more charitable. Around sunset, she starts to help set the table for Iftar, and after the Athan, her entire family gets together to break their fast with water and dates before going to pray. After praying, they eat a ton of food and desserts –– prepared by her mom –– and continue snacking throughout the night before heading to bed and respecting the cycle again. Some of her favorite Ramadan foods are Harira (Algerian soup), Knafeh dessert, Ksra (Maghreb bread), and Lentil stew. Some of her favorite Ramadan desserts include Mahalabia (her personal favorite), Basbousa, Baklava, Qatayef, and Msemen. Since the pandemic has started, Selougha says that they all play Taraweeh together at home and participate in a lot more family activities since a lot of the social parts of Ramadan have been lacking. 

Lama Mohammed, Class of 2021, North Sudanese Lineage: 

Lama is celebrating Ramadan in Bergen County, NJ with her family. "I don't think I could spend Ramadan by myself, especially right now," she said. Lama says celebrating it in the US is a lot different because of the pandemic. Still, the diaspora where she is is "pretty big, so there are always huge iftar and buffets happening within our communities – it honestly doesn't feel different if I had been in the Middle East, aside from the idea that I have to attend school and work." 

A typical Ramadan day for her usually includes spending it with her family in New Jersey, a large diaspora in North New Jersey. "Every day, a different community member will have a huge Iftar party at their house – they can end up at 6 am following suhoor. We usually don't stay that long, because after being out for Iftar, my family will go to the Masjid and pray Taraweeh prayer until about midnight or longer." She says that she usually associates Ramadan with summer, pre-pandemic. In the pandemic, she helps her family cook, "We will tune into Zoom to pray with the mosque, and end the night early in collective family prayer, or I read my Quran." 

Her family's typical Ramadan traditions include usually spending Ramadan with her community. "Before the pandemic, we would spend a lot of Ramadan in a town called Paterson – they have huge Iftar buffets, a prayer room inside the restaurant, and it's a nice place to come together with other Muslim family friends to spend dinners with." Her family also loves to spend Ramadan in Astoria – a small neighborhood in Queens, which is also like a mini Middle East. Other traditions also include praying Taraweeh at their local Masjid. 

When asked how the pandemic impacted her typical Ramadan traditions this year, 2021, and last 2020, she responded, "My mom is high-risk to COVID, so we haven't gone to buffets in Paterson or Astoria nor have we been to the Masjid. In 2020, we also didn't visit anyone or have anyone visit us to spend their Iftar with us. Now, in 2021, as the temperature warms, we have Iftar outside with family friends in our inner circle, which is nice after so long."

Lama's favorite Ramadan traditional foods/desserts include Tamiya (Sudanese style falafel), grilled Mashawi (roasted or barbecued meat); Kunafa; Basbousa; Baklava; Qatayef; Medeeda Hilba. Since the pandemic started, Lama and her family have been taking turns every weekend baking different deserts. "It's been really fun and great for me because I'm not the best cook," she said.

Aqsa Rashid, Class of 2022, Pakistani Lineage:

Aqsa currently lives in Washington D.C. while her family lives in Northern Virginia. She is currently celebrating Ramadan 2021 without her family in her apartment in D.C. and lives with a Muslim friend where they fast and pray together. When asked how celebrating Ramadan in the U.S. has been, she said that her opinion changes. 

“When you are younger, you typically feel a stronger spiritual connection because you are surrounded by Muslims and Muslim traditions. Growing up, you usually realize more of its meaning and importance.” 

Aqsa says that she reflected more about Ramadan in college, especially during quarantine. She says that her relationship with Ramadan changed as she got older, and while she fasted, it gave her time to think about other things besides food. 

"You think about the habits you want to break. You think about difficult situations like hyperconsumerism. During Ramadan, you have to slow down –– pray more, make more duas, feel more grounded." 

When asked what a typical Ramadan day for her was, she replied that growing up, she would go to a mosque called Sully in NOVA. Many of the people who went to that mosque went to her high school and were her friends. Most people in her family would fast together and break fast together with dates and a fruit salad bowl, a Pakistani tradition. Some foods they usually eat include Popoura, samosa, Rooh Afza (rose syrup concentration), and they still try to make those foods for Ramadan today. Aside from Pakistani food, they also eat halal Chinese foods, Somali foods, which made up the main demographics at her Masjid. She remembers people sleeping over at the Masjid and would play basketball until 4 am with them, and then they would eat suhoor. 

Because of the pandemic, she feels that the communal aspect of quarantine has been lost, campus life is missing, and she misses the Masjid. Through her leadership board position of AU's Muslim Student Association, Aqsa tries to provide more iftars and formal accommodations, which she said was hard to get. Now, she looks forward to socially distanced iftars on the quad. 

Yasmeen Sallam, Class of 2022, Egyptian/Vietnamese Lineage:

I have always traditionally celebrated Ramadan with my dad, who was born and raised in Egypt. Since my father came to the U.S., he has made a gracious effort to keep the Ramadan traditions alive. Typically, Egyptians decorate for Ramadan with a traditional Ramadan lantern called the Fanous. In Egypt, you can see almost every house decorated with the lanterns when you walk down the streets, and it's like a beautiful, bright, and color-filled city. 

Typically, fasting during Ramadan was difficult for me in the U.S. because it was easy to feel isolated from other Muslims outside of the Masjid or a highly Muslim-populated area. Before the pandemic, my dad and I were able to celebrate Ramadan with family and friends. Since the pandemic hit last year and affected Ramadan 2020, it was just me, my dad, and my cousin observing Ramadan under quarantine. Although we faced challenges and were scared because of everything happening so quickly, we always tried to make the most of it by taking turns cooking/taking out iftar meals (as many as possible from small business restaurants and local grocery stores–because of what they were experiencing), praying together, and trying new ways to pass the time while fasting. 

This Ramadan 2021, I'm grateful to celebrate Ramadan with my family in one of my home countries, Egypt. I made sure to take thorough safety travel and personal precautions advised by public health forums and official government announcements when traveling to Egypt. To celebrate Ramadan in Egypt is a whole other experience. People everywhere are fasting together, and it no longer becomes a minority effort, but a remarkable and memorable nationwide experience. Some of my favorite Ramadan foods are Bamyah (Tomato sauce and okras, cooked with lamb chunks), Dates, Fool (Fava bean dip), and Konafa (Traditional shredded and baked dough dessert, typically served with sweet syrup or nuts). 

It absolutely warms my heart to pass through the streets and see so many families come together and exchange hearty engagements, children playing soccer and games, and everyone coming together to break fast in so many different ways. You see absolute strangers sit together outside on the sides of roads and share water, meals, and laughter. You see people who are working at local shops and clothing stores break fast with their fellow coworkers while working. You see families gathering around popular Egyptian colorful decorations in their homes and share smiles and 14 different types of food and drink. It’s a wonderful experience.

Ramadan remains a powerful and dedicated time for Muslims everywhere, especially through these unprecedented times. Through turmoil and hardship, we have seen how resilient Muslims have persevered through the difficulties of COVID-19 and have beat the odds to cherish moments of coming together in any way they can to make the most of Ramadan. This is a reminder to everyone and anyone experiencing hardship–especially because of the pandemic–that no matter who you are, where you are, where you come from, or how you celebrate, you are not alone. We are all facing different challenges, together. I want to give a huge thank you to all the AU students who participated in this article and generously shared their beautiful stories of their Ramadan.

Ramadan Kareem!

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