How Muslims Break the Ramadan Fast in Quarantine
For many Muslim families, Ramadan is one of the most social months of the year.
In the United States, mosques host large meals, catered by local restaurants or prepared by members of the community. In homes, extended families come together — grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and cousins — and add all the extra leaves to expand their tables. Friends gather to pray, to share, to taste. It is a month of meals eaten with intention, ending in a joyous celebration: Eid al-Fitr, which begins the evening of May 23.
During the pandemic, the suhoor meals before sunrise and the evening iftars that break the daylong fast have taken on a new cast. Families sometimes eat together over video calls with relatives. The celebration can feel more intimate, more immediate. The 30 meals eaten night after night become opportunities to reflect privately on faith and history.
Across the country, shared food is a source of comfort and of continuity in a ruptured time. We checked in with eight people about the meals and moments that have felt especially meaningful this year.
Nieda Abbas has seen difficult Ramadans before. She fasted in her hometown, Baghdad, during the American occupation. She fasted as Iraq splintered into sectarianism.
She fasted for seven years in Syria, as an immigrant learning the new culture. After she fled that civil war, she spent four Ramadans in a refugee camp in Turkey, where she had to stretch small portions to feed her six children. When she came to New Haven as a refugee in 2014, she did not speak English.
“But this is the hardest Ramadan I have ever had,” she said, speaking in Arabic through a translator.
“The food and the schedule is all the same, but when we sit down there is a feeling of anxiety and fear.”
“Even in the worst of times, like in Syria or Turkey, we could always leave and go to a park,” she said.
“This year, there’s a fear whenever I go out. I leave in horror. When I come back, the horror is still there.”
But Ms. Abbas, 44, is working to help. Every morning, she cooks for Havenly Treats, a nonprofit organization that helps refugee chefs sell food. Drawing from her work as a baker in Iraq, she cooks about 200 meals for people in need. She makes fatayer with cheese and za’atar, elegant cucumber salads with spices, and homemade sauce.
“We want to make them feel like they are worthy of a meal like that,” she said.
“I don’t want them to be cut short of what I would cook for my own kids.”
All afternoon, she prepares her family iftar, cooking for her seven children and her husband, Tareq Al-Mashhadany. She is anxious, but does not let her fear show.
“I want to give strength to my kids,” she said. “Because of this current pandemic, I don’t feel like I can give them that courage anymore.”
But she cooks anyway. She cuts her homemade baklava into small pieces for her youngest children — bits of sweetness to get them through.
In the early days of the outbreak, Imam Amr Dabour, the director of religious and social services at the Salam Islamic Center, started streaming videos of the prayers online for the community. People could then pray along with him, rather than just listening to recitation.
“I am transforming from being an imam, which is a religious leader, into a technician-programmer,” he said wryly. He connects Zoom to Facebook, but still needs to learn how to stream to YouTube.
Imam Dabour, 40, knows how much his community misses the communal aspect of prayer, and the socializing of Ramadan. Children cannot see their friends; older people cannot see their families. He wanted to find a way to connect.
Traditionally, the center has offered food for people in need to take. This year, it has become a drive-through donation site where volunteers fill car trunks with nonperishable items.
Imam Dabour, who was born in Egypt, and the Salam team also developed drive-through iftars on Friday nights. Some are sponsored by community members, others by local churches. Families drive up, and volunteers fill their trunks with hot food, catered by local restaurants.
“It was very, very, very close to a typical drive-through,” Imam Dabour said.
“To see them work alongside me, fasting with me, it gets me motivated,” said Dr. Shamoon, 45, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan in 1973. “We're doing this together.”
This year, he is checking on both their physical and mental health. Dr. Shamoon and his colleagues have seen more than 2,000 patients with the coronavirus, about 140 of whom have died, he said. All day long, he and his team wear personal protective equipment, which is heavy, restricts movement and can be stuffy. He does not eat or drink during the day, and finds himself missing coffee more than anything.
“I’m more tired than ever,” he said. “It’s not the physical exertion of the 12-hour day. I don’t think it’s even the fasting. I think it’s the mental aspects of what we’re doing this last month or so.”
Some non-Muslim doctors help him and other fasting staff members, covering so they can break fast and pray. At the end of his shifts, Dr. Shamoon drives home to break the fast with his family.
There, he immediately removes his clothing, and showers to protect his two young children and pregnant wife, Dr. Nadia Yusaf, from any droplets that might cling to his clothes or hair. Sometimes, he checks in on his mother, who is also fasting.
One night, his 6-year-old daughter set up a special table for him, hung with a sign: Ramadan Mubarak, which roughly translates as “Happy Ramadan." She brought him dates, a Middle Eastern staple, and water — what the Prophet Muhammad consumed to break his own fasts.
“I am glad I get to do it at home,” Dr. Shamoon said. “All that stress I had that day — a patient with a heart rate of 30, eight Covid patients, intubating patients — for that one moment, I forgot about it.”
Housekeepers are not considered essential workers, but she helps support her young children and family back in Indonesia. Although her husband is employed, she can’t afford to lose her job. And she asked not to be identified in this article, for fear of losing work.
Now, three times a week, she takes the bus from her home in Alphabet City to clean an apartment on the Lower East Side. “When the bus is full, it’s very concerning to me,” she said. “I don’t want to get too close to people.”
But her family makes her smile, even when days are challenging. She has been waking at 3:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for her children. “I’m a mom,” she said, laughing. “We’re always the first person up.”
After she gets home in the afternoon and takes a shower, she soothes herself by preparing the iftar meal. The familiar smells of kentang balado, potatoes with hot red sauce, and ikan acar kuning, yellow fish, remind her of Indonesia.
Before Ramadan, she bought a 25-pound bag of tapioca to make her own bubble tea. Her three children wanted some, and delivery looked expensive. “But, oh, it’s so much work,” she said.
One night, she used some of that tapioca to make her favorite meal, bakso meatballs. She put ground beef, tapioca and egg whites in a food processor with garlic, salt and white pepper. Her children devoured it. She loves praying with them, and cherishes the meals they share.
She has not spent a Ramadan with her family in Indonesia for many years because school vacations do not always line up with the holiday. Sometimes she cries when she reads the Quran. One year, before her children are grown, she hopes they will celebrate with their grandparents again.
The New York Times