HALIFAX—It has been a glorious 30 days – from July 20 to Aug. 18. As the holy month of Ramadan came to an end this Saturday, the moment was bitter sweet.
Muslims around the world spent their weekend celebrating Eid ul-Fitr, a holiday that takes place the first day of Shawwal – the first month to follow Ramadan in the Islamic lunar calendar. This holiday brings in an atmosphere of celebration and joy as well as the realization that Ramadan is over.
Many people tend to think that it is strenuous for Muslims to fast these 30 days, but the reality is that for most Muslims it is a time that is immensely enjoyed with family and friends, a time of deep spiritual reflection and self-discipline that is always hard to let go of.
I want to take a moment to lay out some facts about what is Ramadan for those who are not very familiar with it.
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is the month of fasting observed by Muslims worldwide and is considered to be the holiest month of the year. The annual observance of fasting is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, which means it is considered to be one of the five basic acts that must be observed by believers.
The month usually lasts between 29-30 days depending on the visual sightings of the crescent moon. While fasting from dawn until sunset, Muslims must refrain from drinking liquids, consuming food and having sexual relations. Ramadan is a time of spiritual and religious reflection, which includes increased offerings of charity, salat (prayers) and recitation of the Qur’an.
Ramadan is more than just a time of abstaining from food and drink; it is a time to practice self-sacrifice and self-discipline, a time to re-evaluate your life. In essence, it is a time for Muslims to forgive those who have wronged them, strengthen ties with family and friends, get rid of bad habits, help the poor, and re-focus their attention to God. Furthermore, it is a time to understand and sympathize with those who are less fortunate through the act of abstaining.
In reality, fasting in the month of Ramadan is not merely a physical act – it is a total commitment of the person’s body and soul to the spirit of sawm (fasting). It is a time to practice self-restraint as during Ramadan every part of your body is engaged in this act of restraining itself. For example, the tongue must be restrained from gossip, backbiting, swear words and fighting. The ears must abstain from listening to idle talk or raunchy words. The hand must refrain from taking things that does not belong to it. Consequently, every part of the body is observing the fast.
This was my second year spending Ramadan in Canada. Last year was my first time and I found it so difficult and lonely to do that two weeks into it I took a plane back home to spend it with my family. This year I spent all 30 days here, and I have to say it has been definitely challenging.
To start off, the days here are much longer. When Ramadan first started I was breaking my fast at 9 p.m. and fasting again at 4 a.m. You see the problem is not the long hours of fasting; it is the lack of “Ramadan related-things” to do. Most people I have run into during the past 30 days were not aware I was fasting and were wondering where I have disappeared.
Fasting here is really hard because you miss out on some things that are a characteristic of the time of Ramadan in the Middle East. While I’m fasting here during the day I tend to not do or go out much because it can be difficult if you are out in the heat for a long time with no food or water. Also, it gets kind of boring at some point just walking around as you can’t stop somewhere for a snack or coffee. Since fasting in the summer here is incredibly long, by the time I break my fast and I am ready to go out, everything is closed.
In contrast, in the Middle East, the timings of malls, restaurants, facilities, supermarkets and so on all changes during Ramadan. They are aware most people are fasting so they tend to be closed during the day and open for longer hours during the night – until midnight and 1 a.m. Furthermore, most cafes, shisha (hookah) places stay open for longer and have regular live cultural performances.
That is one thing I miss. But there is something else I miss more about Ramadan in the Middle East in contrast to here. I miss that “feeling” of Ramadan that is lacking here. I miss the Ramadan Kareem signs hanging around from every lamp post, or graffiti-ed on the walls of old buildings. I miss being told "Ramadan Kareem" from random strangers and sale clerks and waiters. I miss seeing “Ramadan tents” being set up in front of different house for those who are less fortunate to come and have a hot meal to break their fast with. I miss seeing little white charity tents being set up around certain corners available any time of the day for money, clothes, and food to be dropped off for the poor. And finally, I miss hearing the call to prayer as I sit on my parent’s veranda – it is just what makes the month feel so much more special.
These are the few of the things that give the month of Ramadan that “special” joyous atmosphere that I felt was missing this year for me. But, that is okay. At the end of the day, the special moments in your life are what you make of it, so I tried my best this year to make it feel as “Ramadan-ish” as possible. I went out and bought myself three big stars with various patterns on them that I hung around my apartment, and I bought a little lantern that I hung in my living room and kept lit with a small candle. Also, I set up the call for prayer on my laptop and kept it open all day so I could hear the call for prayers. I made sure I did all the little traditions that are customary of Ramadan – like breaking my fast with three pieces of dates and a little sip of water.
Over the past 30 days I realized that it is easier to fast in the Middle East than here – simply because most people are fasting there! So, you know what? I kind of enjoyed fasting here knowing only a few people were fasting, because it made me understand how important it is to know who you are and what are your beliefs and values and actually sticking by them – even if you are a minority. It also taught me a lot more about self-discipline and sacrifice, when I could have easily just not fasted. I mean, who would have noticed, you know?
It also seemed like no one around here noticed that this past weekend was Eid ul-Fitr – an annual three day holiday that is celebrated and cherished by Muslims across the world. This holiday is prepared for a week in advance – you start buying chocolates and candies, you bake date cookies and make desserts so when family and friends visit you can offer them something. Also, you make sure that you are wearing new clothes and new shoes, and so many women spend a couple of days at spas fixing their hair and nails and getting henna done. Finally, the holiday is marked with the exchange of gifts and precisely money from your parents and uncles and aunts and cousins. Basically, this time of the year is like your Christmas.
This year was definitely not as special for me because I was so far away from my family. It is the first time in 20 years that I did not go out looking for a new outfit to wear on the day. And it is definitely the first Eid I barely got any gifts or money.
To wrap up, the celebration this year absolutely felt less celebratory. I am not asking anybody to change their store hours or for people to not eat or drink in public. I am just asking people to acknowledge Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr ever year when it comes around. For people to simply extend warm wishes and happy holidays just as a simple act of kindness as it is the feeling of people knowing that makes it feel like a different time of the year. I lived 18 years of my life in the United Arab Emirates, and there was not a single year that passed by where Christmas was not celebrated. In 2010, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi put on a show with an extremely expensive, jewel-encrusted Christmas tree. Every year the biggest mall, Dubai Mall, has a huge Christmas tree set up to engage people in the December holiday spirit. All the supermarkets sell Christmas chocolate and pine trees and little ornaments.
So, just a little acknowledgement can go a long way in developing cultural understanding and tolerance between communities.
Maybe next year?