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After 2 Years Celebrating Ramadan At Home, Muslims In The Southland Have Been Reconnecting With The Community

A crowd gathers around both sides of a buffet table lined with large trays of food.
The New Horizon School in Pasadena welcomes Eid breakfast after two years of a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Courtesy of New Horizon School )
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For the past two years, the coronavirus pandemic has made some of the more communal aspects of Ramadan risky for many Muslims across Southern California — the daily and nightly prayers at the mosque, community iftar (the meal eaten by Muslims after fasting from sunrise to sundown), the pre-dawn IHOP meals.

On the one hand, Ramadan is a time for introspection. It is about abstaining from impulses as an expression of devotion, and a mastery of your own senses in pursuing a higher spirituality, said Shaheen Nassar, the programs coordinator at the Council on American–Islamic Relations Los Angeles.

But there’s also a huge social aspect to the holiday. Young folks rekindle with friends they haven't seen in a long time and meet future spouse potentials. Different cultures intersect. Family connections run on a deeper level. You stay up really late together to eat something before the sun rises to sustain yourself throughout the day.

"I saw a meme that said, like, Islam has normalized eating pizza with my family at 4 a.m.," Nassar said.

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There's a lot of mystery surrounding Ramadan, said Nassar. For those who aren’t aware, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. This year it started on April 2, and it culminates this Sunday with the holiday Eid al-Fitr.

Ramadan is a month when the devoted — with exceptions for pregnant women, older adults, young children, those menstruating and a few others — refrain from food and water during daylight hours. This tradition of fasting is the most attention-grabbing, he said. But what people don't know is that it's a “really cool time” for Muslims.

"It's like a booster in God-consciousness," Nassar said. "And you know? A time of piety and general kindness, altruism, mutual aid [and] charity."

And the food is central. Like in the prophetic tradition, Nassar remembers iftar with friends and family from 2019. He broke his fast with a date and some milk and took part in the maghrib communal dusk prayer.

He prepared chicken tikka for close to 100 people. He made a marinade of yogurt, garlic and ginger. The aromas of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves filled the space.

Barbecue chicken tikka with onion and cilantro as garnishes
Barbecue chicken tikka prepared by Shaheen Nassar for iftar.
(Courtesy of Shaheen Nassar)

There was a wide array of dishes, from the Caucasus, from Africa, from Southeast Asia. Later that night, someone began playing an oud, a small, pear-shaped, fretless string instrument. “It was almost like a mini-festival,” Nassar said.

Then the pandemic hit. Many were forced to celebrate the traditionally social holiday in isolation.

Making Do

Daily and nightly prayers were canceled. Many mosques were closed. In emails, some instructed people to stay home and quarantine if people felt sick.

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It was the right thing to do, said Alia Aboul-Nasr, the assistant programs manager at CAIR, which is America's largest grassroots Islamic civil liberties organization. Still, it was a shock.

Going to the mosque, going to dinner with friends, or being invited to someone's home, that's important. But during quarantine, people felt isolated, and to some, it didn't feel like Ramadan, Nassar said.

"If you just fast by yourself at home and break fast by yourself, it's not going to feel that great," he said.

Some of the bigger mosques were able to shift to a virtual platform, and Aboul-Nasr used that as an opportunity to hear from women scholars in the Midwest and religious leaders in the South — these geographically distributed, virtual gatherings just weren’t as common pre-COVID. But not all houses of worship had an easy transition. Some of the smaller mosques that depended on just a few families had no choice but to temporarily close their doors.

In spite of it all, both Nassar and Aboul-Nasr said they found a silver lining.

"It was still a beautiful time and a great time to reconnect with your faith and your Muslim identity," Nassar said.

His work on CAIR took on greater importance. Along with his colleagues, they hosted food drives to address food scarcity during the most unsettling times of the pandemic. They connected with the county, hosted vaccination sites and educated folks on the importance of immunization.

Aboul-Nasr and her family started their own family rituals. They placed yoga mats on the floor and put prayer rugs on top. They adorned a small space of an unused part of their dining room area with the prayer beads. They added their Qurans, and her kids called it "the mosque in the house."

Those pandemic family rituals have carried on even though the mosque she attends has welcomed people back to prayers and community iftar.

"One of the purposes of Ramadan itself is that you are in this hyper-awareness of being grateful for what you do have," Aboul-Nasr said. "It really made you realize how those small things that you kind of used to take for granted."

Return To Normal?

Aboul-Nasr is excited to return to nightly prayers and participate in the social aspect of Ramadan.

Eating at restaurants is one of the things she has avoided the last few years, but she said she was considering going out to eat in Anaheim's Little Arabia District.

A group of men sit for Taraweeh prayers
Shaheen Nassar addresses folks gathered for Taraweed prayer.
(Courtesy of Shaheen Nassar)

Meanwhile, at the New Horizon School in Pasadena, the Muslim community is gathering on Monday, May 2 to celebrate with an Eid al-Fitr breakfast.

The school expects to have close to 400 people, the first time in two years they’ve had so many people gather together. There will be carnival rides, games, face painting, balloon animals and more to celebrate the end of the holy month.

Maryum Saleemi, the advancement director at New Horizon, said she remembers wearing matching bracelets and jewelry with her family as a child to celebrate Eid al-Fitr. The community and family would gather and give kids gifts or money in envelopes, making it a special time for everyone.

"You feel more spiritual when you're with your community; you're praying together, celebrating together," she said. "It's been kind of lonely. So we're just all really excited, and that's why we're making this Eid extra special for our community."

If you’re feeling social yourself, the event is open to the broader community. Tickets are still available for purchase and will be sold the day of the celebration.

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