By Emerson Shams
رمضان (Ramadan) is the ninth month in the Islamic Calendar and is believed to be when ٱللَّٰه (Allah/God) revealed the Quran to Mohammed. It is also the month when billions of Muslims (health permitting) give up profanity, sex, smoking, food and drink (even water) from Sun-up to Sun-down.
During this time, they also strive to become as close to ٱللَّٰه (God) as possible, with many aiming to read the Quran multiple times and/or completing extra prayer sessions. Many attend their local mosque more often, and some also like to visit Mecca to complete Umrah during the month.
This period is normally filled with celebrations and large gatherings. Covid changed everything.
I, myself, am from the near-centre of the Islamic world. A prehistoric, heavily populated, seaside city, called جدة (Jeddah) in Saudi Arabia. We are named after ‘the grandmother’ Eve, who is presumed to be buried in the old city walls.
Quite literally, we are the road to Mecca. There is no airport in Mecca, and those who come on pilgrimage to the great holy city land in Jeddah and then continue the one to two-hour drive to reach the Muslims-only restricted lands.
In addition to the millions of visitors we have passing through our city, especially during Ramadan, the second busiest time for Mecca travellers (after Hajj), we have a population of about 5 million people. While with that many people the city is a bustling metropolis all year round, it particularly comes to life during Ramadan.
In Christian countries, every December the cities are decorated top to tail in Christmas lights and trees; we have something similar during Ramadan. While there are no evergreens, fake snow, carols or Baba Noel (as Arabic-speaking Christians call him), we do adorn the streets and stores with gorgeous lanterns of the orient and banners of vibrant reds and blues that resemble the designs on our سجادة صلاه (pronounced: Sjad Salah; translation: prayer rug).
Additionally, the city smells sweeter and spicier. Food stalls are set up on every corner selling Ramadan Iftar (break-fast) staples: سمبوسك (sambousak; fried meat pies) , شوربه (meat and grain soup), فول (foul; a fava bean dish), and لقماتa (laqma; fried dough balls in sweet syrup). While these foods are some of my favourite, and are staples here in Jeddah just as mince pies are in Christmas-time England, the foods still vary vastly from region to region, country to country.
This year, however, Covid-19 kept us inside, at home. From mid-March 2020, we were put under a strict curfew of 6am-3pm, and even then we could only go to the supermarkets and food suppliers in our boroughs. The government did this for our safety. During Ramadan many only leave at night after eating, so they knew that if they did not stop us from leaving the house we would go.
There were no banners, no lanterns, no food stalls. The roaring city stood still and silent. But, still we kept our traditions alive, just in a different manner. Many catering companies took the place of the food stalls, selling the staples a la carte instead of their usual ‘bulk buys’.
People still decorated their homes and where possible sent food and gifts during the hours we were allowed out. Many were isolated with their very large families (some sub-cultures and tribes choose to have the entire extended family in a large house or on shared land); but many were truly isolated – like my household, where it was only my father and I, who live across town from our extended family. And that is how it was, for three months, it was just us. In a culture where family is the centre of everything, it was hard for us to be apart during the celebrations of Ramadan.
But, the true celebration of the holiday is the act of becoming closer to ٱللَّٰه (God). And that we did as a society. We still fasted, we closed our mosques and prayed from home, we read the Quran, we helped raise money for those suffering from the disease. Many looked on the brightside, taking advantage of work being cancelled to pray more.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated with four days of parties and celebrations, a holiday called عيد الفطر Eid al-Fitr. For our own safety, the celebrations had to wait. The city was completely closed, only hospitals were open. We waited and on the fifth day of شوال Shawwal (the month following Ramadan) we were allowed out, we saw our families with caution and once again got to watch the gorgeous, rich sunset over the glimmering waters of the Red Sea. In a way, as a community, we became stronger for we all were in it together.
Image: freebiespic via Pixabay