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Metro Detroit, Michigan, where I live, has one of the largest concentrations of Muslims in America. As Ramadan began on April 2, there wasn’t the usual uncertainty during the holy month of fasting that had become the new norm during the pandemic. This year, a lot of things are going back to the more communal pre-pandemic way of observing Ramadan.
Mosques and Attending Prayers in Person
I remember how mosques were closed, many for the first time ever, during Michigan’s lockdown in March 2020. Worshippers like my family members had to figure out how to observe Ramadan in isolation. We were home all day. We fasted together during the days, prepared meals in the afternoons, and prayed as a family by creating “mosques at home”—designating an indoor space for prayer and putting up a few decorations. Meanwhile, we kept hearing about people getting sick from COVID-19 on our mosque robocall systems.
Last year, the vaccines began to roll out. Mosques scrambled to get congregants vaccinated as they cautiously reopened houses of worship to allow people to gather at limited capacity. That entailed allowing men ages 13–65 years old to pray in person, the usual age that men are allowed to participate in congregation prayers. People who prayed in person at the mosques had to bring their own prayer rugs, wear masks, and pray socially distanced, rather than shoulder to shoulder as in normal times.
Since vaccines were not available for smaller children at that time, families with young children like ours continued to observe Ramadan largely at home, away from extended family and community. While this was frustrating for us, we knew we had to protect ourselves and others from contracting the virus. My kids were not eligible to get vaccinated until last fall.
Last year, we were praying at home as a family for Tarawih. This year, we have resumed praying as we did before the pandemic, with my husband attending the congregational prayer at the Islamic Center of Warren and my son joining him on non-school nights from 10–11:30 p.m. I stay home with my younger two, who go to bed earlier.
The mosques are packed! People are praying shoulder to shoulder, feet to feet again, something that was put on pause last year. A handful of people still wear masks. I’m worried there will be another surge. I have already been hearing about people getting sick with COVID around me.
Food and Its Centrality—Preparing It, Eating It, Not Eating It
As things are gradually returning to pre-COVID times, that includes our traditions around food, which is prepared and shared with the community during Ramadan.
During Ramadan, I cook foods I usually don’t cook throughout the year, which require extra time to prepare and cook. As a busy working mom, I do some of the food prep ahead of time to minimize cooking while fasting. Before Ramadan, I precook and package chicken and beef using biryani spice mix, placing them into quart-sized packets to freeze. I also flash-freeze samosas and chana (garbanzo beans) after they have been boiled and cooled. I cook the spiced meats, rotating between chicken or beef, with basmati rice to make fresh biryani each day, and fry the chana in caramelized onions and spices. The samosas go into the air fryer.
This makes for an easier dinner routine for iftar, the sunset ritual of breaking our fast. Some nights, we opt for Samyang ramen or burgers instead of the traditional meal—anything to bribe my kids to fast along with us.
Ramadan is a month of eating together, as much as it is fasting. In the first two years of the pandemic, we had iftar alone at home as a family. Some people made porch drop-offs. Last year, mosques opted for grab-and-go-style iftars that were available for pickup at mosques like the Muslim Center in Detroit and Masjid Al-Falah in Detroit. In some cases, volunteers dropped off meals to those who were not able to pick them up in person.
This year, community in-person iftars have reopened. We attended one in Detroit, and several family iftars. It’s something my kids, especially, have been looking forward to after feeling isolated for two years.
Restaurants have also made a comeback. Usually, Ramadan is the busiest time of year for some restaurants that stay open later or open earlier in the morning to accommodate fasting customers who can and do eat between sunset and pre-dawn. During the first year of the pandemic, restaurants that serve halal foods were either closed or were only open for takeout. In the second year, some restaurants had limited seating options. This year, Ramadan iftar boxes and buffets have made a comeback, ranging in options from South Asian meals to Middle Eastern foods.
Children and How They Are or Are Not Fasting
Some Muslim kids begin practicing fasting once they are 7 years old and regularly fast by the time they are 10. They are required to fast once they hit puberty. My oldest two kids, 12 and 9, are now fasting. My youngest, 6, practices half-day fasts on his days home from school.
During the pandemic, it was easier to fast in some ways, while it was harder in others. While they were home, the kids were able to wake up for sehri, the pre-dawn meal, and not have to worry about a rigorous day at school. However, they were also fasting by themselves away from their peer-support systems. That was especially hard for them. We created new ways to observe Ramadan and instilled hope that things would eventually get better.
This year, my 9-year-old daughter calls her cousin to check how many fasts she’s kept—it’s a competition to see who can fast more days! My oldest son is eager to break his fast, and then go pray with his dad at the mosque for Tarawih. He says it feels like Ramadan when he fasts and attends prayer in the mosque.
Back to Normal?
After two years of observing Ramadan during a pandemic—the first year through a lockdown and the second year of partial mosque openings as vaccines became available—this year is beginning to look more like the traditional pre-pandemic Ramadan where people observe the entire month in community.
Being apart taught us that community is a large part of Ramadan. However, while I enjoy the return to community, I have also grown accustomed to spending more time at home with my nuclear family, leaning in to the spiritual elements of Ramadan without the usual hustle and bustle of keeping up with others.
It feels amazing to be a part of a community again; however, it also comes with the anxiety of what’s next. My family is being careful about only attending a few things in person. We are continuing to mask publicly. Although it seems festive to do things in person, I like seeking a moderate way forward, spending time at home and occasionally with community. The pandemic taught me that keeping loved ones safe is as important as spending time with them. That’s why I’m opting out on gatherings with hundreds of people. Unlike before the pandemic, I don’t feel as guilty when I am unable to participate in communal activities.
The three years of Ramadan during the pandemic have also taught me that it’s OK to slow things down, to take a pause, and to absorb the real purpose of Ramadan: the spiritual and faith-based actions. The pandemic has shown us that people are resilient and that we can find new ways to do things. For me, that looks like spending time with my nuclear family, reading the Quran, donating to charity, and fulfilling my duties as a mom.
Nargis Rahman is a Bangladeshi-American Muslim writer and a mother of three. She is passionate about community journalism in the Greater Detroit area and about giving American Muslims and people of color a voice in today’s media. A former journalism fellow for Feet in 2 Worlds/WDET 101.9 FM, her work has appeared in Haute Hijab, Eater, Detroiter Magazine, The Muslim Observer and others.