Coronavirus Hasn't Ruined Iftar But It Has Changed The Way Muslims Break Their Fasts
Editor's Note: This story was originally published in May 2020, near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are re-running it during Ramadan 2021.
This year, everything about Ramadan is different, especially iftar. The evening meal during which Muslims break their daily fast is usually a time to come together with family and friends, sometimes crowds of neighbors or fellow Muslims.
Like much of life since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Islamic holy month this year has been anything but normal. But many Muslims say they have found a profound sense of connection and spiritual renewal amid the physical isolation of the quarantine.
"There's less focus on the food and more time and focus for acts of worship," says Tia Faisal, a mother of two who lives with her husband and children in Rancho Cucamonga.
"For me, Ramadan has always been a time where you take a step back from your usual life," she said. "It's actually like a spiritual lockdown even without the pandemic. So in a way, this feels almost like a spiritual lockdown within a physical lockdown."
Normally, at this time of year, Ishraq Ali would be spending many of his evenings praying and eating with his fellow Muslims. After finishing his daily study of the Koran, the 33-year-old Southern Californian might head to the Islamic Center of Southern California. During a normal Ramadan weekday, he says the Koreatown mosque would draw 70 to 100 people, a number that can swell to 200 on weekends.
"They basically convert the whole back parking lot with picnic tables and kids running around. There's a really festive vibe in the air as we approach breaking the fast with iftar and then as it continues through the night for prayers," Ali says.
A Spiritual Marathon
Galib Rustamov, a 38-year-old who lives in Upland, describes Ramadan as a 30-day spiritual marathon.
"Fasting in the month of Ramadan is one of the most communal rituals in Islam. It's a month of spirituality and self-discipline, and iftars are the little treats during this time," Rustamov says.
Iftar starts after sunset and typically features simple foods to acclimate your stomach after a day of not eating or drinking water. "Dates, melons, fruit — whether you're at a mosque in North Hollywood or a mosque in Hawthorne, [these are] staple items for breaking the fast," Ali says.
After that, the meal might include almost any dish from any culture (well, not pork, obviously). At the mosques Ali attends, it could be pakoras and kebabs. Faisal, whose family comes from Malaysia, might prepare noodles, fried rice, empanadas or curries.
Rahmi Mowjood, a physician who lives in Alta Loma, says, "In Sri Lankan tradition, there are a few things we tend to have. One is called kanji. It's similar to Asian congee but it can be made with rice, oats or barley. It's usually a savory porridge with chicken and different spices. It's very hearty and filling."
His iftar table will also feature finger foods known as "short eats." Curried fish or tuna patties, samosas, deep-fried balls known as cutlets. "There'll be what we call a Chinese roll. It's like an egg roll but with a thicker skin around it," Mowjood says.
Rustamov and his wife, Danya Milbes-Rustamov, who is Palestinian American, enjoy plenty of Palestinian and Jordanian food. They might eat stuffed grape leaves or squash, qatayef (sweet pancakes filled with soft cheese and nuts), maqluba (a one-pot vegetable, rice and meat dish) and knafeh, a dessert of flaky dough and soft cheese topped with syrup and crushed pistachios.
"Sometimes, I make fish tacos with mango avocado salsa but mostly I make traditional Middle Eastern food," Milbes-Rustamov says.
Omar Ahmed, who lives in Pasadena with his wife and two children, says for iftar they might eat anything from egg rolls, labneh and Lebanese-style cauliflower to kibbeh, samosas and buffalo chicken pizza. The last one is a favorite of Ahmed's two children. Desserts might include coffee cake or cinnamon rolls and fruit.
Finding Community In The Age Of Social Distancing
Iftar isn't simply about the food. It's also about the experience of sharing it with others.
"Traditionally, Ramadan was when you would have more get-togethers and meetups, not just for the food but also for your overall spiritual well-being and religious education and growth. So it was something we had gotten used to when Ramadan came around," Mowjood says.
This year, instead of the potlucks and large meals that often characterize iftar, most Southern California Muslims are staying at home, quarantining with immediate family or by themselves.
They're using Zoom, FaceTime and other forms of media (including Animal Crossing) to connect with loved ones or explore the Koran, cancelling trips to visit relatives and skipping the large Eid-al-Fitr gatherings that mark the end of Ramadan.
Rustamov and his family had planned to visit his native Azerbaijan during Ramadan then stop in Turkey. Instead, they're not breaking their fasts outside of their home. It's just them and their two children.
"I like the fact that you have more time at home to worship but it feels disconnected. It's just not the same. You feel like you're disconnected from the family, the community, the poor, the needy," Milbes-Rustamov says.
While everyone who spoke to LAist said they missed being able to see the people they care about, they also feel like the isolation has allowed them to experience Ramadan on a deeper level.
Ahmed says he hadn't realized, until this year, how much quiet and solitude he had been craving. "This year, it's been interesting. I thought I would miss a lot of the social interaction but it's been more of a spiritually renewing experience because I've had a chance to reflect more," he says.
As lonely as quarantine can be, fewer distractions have allowed many Muslims to turn inward, to focus on their relationship with Allah and with their families.
Without people coming to her home for iftar, Faisal says she has spent less time spent grocery shopping and cooking, allowing her to finish reading the Koran earlier. "I'm able to savor the food and the time when I'm breaking fast with my family," she says.
"I think it's definitely helped us build better family bonds," says Ahmed, who who serves on the board of a Muslim community center in Upland. "A lot of times, because of my responsibilities, I'd have to be out a lot on on the weekends and other times. Now, it's given me more of a chance to spend Ramadan with my kids and my wife. So that's another silver lining for this year. And, of course, it's helped us improve our cooking too."
More information on observing Ramadan in the age of coronavirus:
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