No two experiences are ever the same. So though 1.9 billion of us partake in Ramadan, our journeys vary greatly, and a lot of it boils down to geography.
If you’re lucky, you might spend the thirty holy days in any one of the fifty-two Muslim countries. All vastly different in terms of race and culture, but they share one thing in Ramadan; festive spirit – just like Christmas spirit, except a Muslim version.
Having had the privilege of growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to this day it amazes me that when the start of Ramadan is announced after Isha, an unseen shift occurs. Staying out late at night has always been condemned in our culture. It’s associated with being up to no good and they say nothing good ever happens under the cover of darkness. However, an exception is granted for just this month, where the nights are lit up by energy and unity. No one is discouraged from staying up or staying out till the crack of dawn. Whereas usually, your parents will tell you to be back before a certain time, during Ramadan, your parents will be out later than you. It’s the month where you waste no time on WhatsApp groups trying to organize a time when everyone is free, because it’s just a given. Everyone is out, and out till (just before) the sun reappears.
The world you know becomes nocturnal. The streets are deserted during the day, shutters firmly down, and offices and schools run on half capacity for the two weeks of the month they remain operational, before Ramadan and Eid holidays are provided as a platform for escape and celebration. Nowhere else in the world does it happen where an entire country shuts down and shifts in unison, as one. Without any words being exchanged, the country comes together. To fast, to pray, to eat and to celebrate. It doesn’t happen anywhere else, not like this. It’s a rarity and blessing to be a part of.
If for some absurd reason I’m up and out during the day, I see the city from a whole new perspective; a ghost town. It’s still Jeddah… just without its people. As Maghrib draws nearer you catch a glimpse of what’s to come. In the last hour, there’s a burst of activity. Impatience at its highest, everyone trying to get to where they need to be; either a dinner they’ve been invited to or their own dinner table at home. There is mayhem on the streets. All you hear is horns blaring, red lights being run and you hope to get to your destination on time, in one piece, and without cursing.
Maghrib Azaan rings out, the moment everyone is waiting for, and another wave of stillness befalls the city. Roads empty, shutters back down. There is an uncomfortable peace, which you sense won’t last. In a blur, Maghrib, Isha and Taraweeh pass. Your body refuels and re-energises, and like a catapult drawn back to its limits, the city is finally released.
Pandemonium strikes. People pour out onto the streets. Every shop, restaurant, walkway is full. You see the excitement of children being let out to play together whilst shishas are lit, qahwa (Arabic coffee) is poured and smiles on the faces of all who revel in this unique celebration, which takes place every night, for thirty nights. It’s like a carnival that sets the city ablaze right up until the crack of dawn, before being deserted again.
In all the back and forth of chaos and inertia, there are moments where you see true Islam during the month of Ramadan. I don’t just mean the Masjids being at full capacity for every prayer and watching generosity in the form of money and meals being distributed to the city’s poorest.
I remember being stuck in one of Jeddah’s notorious traffic jams, glancing at the clock and realizing there would be no way I would make it home in time for Iftar – I started panicking momentarily, before seeing a Minaret in the distance. Everyone in Saudi knows that even if you don’t have a riyal in your pocket or a slice of bread at home to break your fast with, you can go to any Masjid and feast like a king. Every masjid, for Iftar and Suhoor, lays out sheets of plastic as makeshift tablecloths, and leaves the rest to the community. Daily food contributions come in fresh, plentiful and without fail, and everyone in attendance eats for free.
I remember sitting on the floor outside the Masjid next to a clearly wealthy Saudi, who I assume was in the same situation as me, and a Pakistani mazdoor (laborer), sharing the same food before praying side by side, shaking hands and watching as the Saudi got in his Mercedes S500 and the Pakistani rode off on his bicycle. For whatever we are in the world, in Islam, we are all equal.
Ramadan in a non-Muslim country, on the other hand, is just another Gregorian month. I remember feeling a massive void when I moved from Jeddah to Leicester (UK) and had my first Ramadan there. Not a thing changes. Your routine and responsibilities remain the same, just your day-to-day life becomes a little bit more difficult. Not eating or drinking till sunset is your choice at the end of the day, so you just have to get on with it. It’s cold, and every Ramadan I have spent in a non-Muslim country has been an isolating one.
Having also spent Ramadans alone in China and Australia, I remember waking up in darkness, making Suhoor and eating in total silence, without the usual feeling of community I felt in Saudi.
After a long day at work you return home without an ounce of energy left, yet still have to delve into the reserves to prepare Iftar before finally breaking fast. The most challenging thing for me is breaking fast alone. For how celebratory a moment it is, you learn that sharing that moment with other Muslims is a privilege. You can relate with one another to the feeling of relief and gratefulness that you have completed another fast of Ramadan. My iftars in isolation have always been bittersweet; happiness for the food and water, but sadness there is no one to share it with.
You just about finish Isha and Taraweeh before your alarm rings and the cycle repeats. Its demands are not just of your mind and body, but of your faith. The temptations to excuse yourself are tenfold, reasons for not fasting in abundance; “the days are too long, I won’t have the energy to be at my most productive, I can’t carry out my responsibilities when running on empty.” Solid excuses, ones which can be used as means of justification, but excuses nonetheless.
Having experienced Ramadan in various cultures I have mostly loved being around Muslims, where everyone understands each other without having to explain. Where we make it easier for one another and the values of Islam like kindness, generosity and unity are not just preached but actually applied. You feel it in the warmth of the greetings you exchange with total strangers.
The pride of performing Ramadan in a non-Muslim environment, however, is unparalleled. There is a natural curiosity from outsiders due to the media narrative and attention which is placed on us.
The pride of performing Ramadan in a non-Muslim environment, however, is unparalleled. There is a natural curiosity from outsiders due to the media narrative and attention which is placed on us. The principles of Ramadan usually aren’t known or understood until they see it take place in front of their own eyes. They observe intently. They watch the toil, the commitment and above all the calming effect. At one point or another, be it at the start of the month or the end, whoever I am with on a daily basis will eventually always comment on the change they have witnessed in my demeanor. How I seem calmer and more composed as the month has gone on, and eventually, this curiosity turns to wonder.
It’s a proud moment when a non-Muslim asks you question after question about Ramadan and Islam with an open mind, in order to genuinely learn about what we believe in. Why we do what we do, and then begin to understand. In answering and educating, you realise that you are a representative of Islam, you’re the Muslim that opens their eyes to Islam, simply through your actions and through practising your religion.
Like with anything, there are always two sides; for as dynamic and exciting as Ramadan is in a Muslim country, it lacks the adversity and therefore reward of experiencing it in a non-Muslim country. Regardless of where you are though, once you have been brought back to your sense of self and made to appreciate everything we have, by first appreciating our most primal needs – and blessed gifts – of food and water, Ramadan brings you closer to Allah.
Your concerns with work deadlines, mortgage payments, dinner at your in-law’s, all dissipate and you remember that you are just a creation of Allah. It’s humbling and vital to be reminded of it. That is the feeling we all share, regardless of who or where we are. We are bound by our limitations, our design and our creator.