Tuesday, May 26, 2020

THE HOLY RAMADAN IN THE TIME OF COVID-19: WHEN LONELINESS IS YOUR ONLY COMPANY


By Lily Hikam*)

If you’re lonely when you’re alone, you’re in bad company.” (Jean Paul Sartre)

The Holy month of Ramadan has come and gone. For my American readers who are unfamiliar, during Ramadan we, the Moslems, observe it by refraining from eating and drinking during the day and instead devote our attention to other tasks such as praying or doing services for others in the community. And as always, for the nth time, I’m observing Ramadan all by myself in the near empty University’s grad school dorm here in Irvine, California. Truth be told, I can hardly tell you how many Ramadans I have observed far from home since I left Indonesia to study here in the land of the free. Rather, I can count on one hand the number of times I manage to observe Ramadan at home in Jakarta.

You’d think I would be used to it, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. To this day there’s still nothing better than observing Ramadan with family and friends. And this year, we have the added “bonus” of observing Ramadan during a pandemic that necessitates isolation from one another.

As you can imagine, having the backdrop of a pandemic changes everything. But, when you’re already observing Ramadan alone, it doesn’t really change much. For one, the Tarhim call that waking me up for sahur (pre-dawn meal) or telling me that it’s time to have iftar (break the fast) still come from a smartphone app rather than a loudspeaker. Everything I do in association with preparing both iftar and sahur here, I do by myself. And, to make my solitude complete, this time around I don’t even have the company of a bakwan-stealing roommate (LOL just kidding, Chang), since she’s off social distancing in San Diego with her husband.

All in all. I still have sahur by myself, waking up in the early mornings to heat up the leftovers I cook the night before. And I still pray tarawih by myself at home. While before my reasons for praying tarawih by myself was due to my mosque being far away and “escaping“ from their 21 rakaat long tarawih, this year mosques, along with other religious services are closed to prevent large gatherings to prevent the transmission of the SARS-CoV2 (Covid-19) virus.

And this is the moment I realize that for a lot of people like me, international students living alone in another country where your religion and culture are not part of the mainstream culture of the country you’re currently living in, Ramadan has always been something you’ve done in isolation or loneliness to say the least. And while I’m not one for homesickness, as I’ve been living abroad by myself on and off for the last 15 years, fasting for upwards of 16 hours by yourself is a sure fire way to make you miss the company and the support of family and community who are observing the same ritual as you.

Yesterday, on May 24, we had the good fortune to welcome Eid once again into our midst. This is a time for celebration where we mark the end of a month long of fasting by traditionally feasting to our heart’s content. Or at least that was the way I would have celebrated Eid had I been at home with my family. Alas this year, as it was the case last year, I had to celebrate Eid far from home, all by my lonesome in Irvine since Eid fell in the middle of the school year and I wasn’t able to take time off from school/work, and also due to travel restrictions brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This year, however, it could be said that everyone’s celebration was a little lackluster. Just take one peek at your social media timeline and you’ll see the obligatory posting of Zoom screenshots of families doing their halal bihalal ceremonies since they’re unable to gather physically. My family back in Indonesia, for example, had a good time celebrating with our neighbors. Since the local mosque was unable to organize the usual public Eid prayer, I was told that our small musholla at home became the site of Eid prayer with our neighbors (with proper social and physical distancing protocols observed, of course).

I was quite happy in that I managed to spend some time on Zoom calls with my parents and my extended families both paternal and maternal, and performing the tradition of asking for forgiveness. In that short period of time when we were on the video call, it felt a lot like I was there with them and I wasn’t missing too much because of the existing company. It also highlighted how we’re in the midst of making a new tradition of virtual silaturahmi in the middle of this pandemic. It was good to see their happy faces and to be reminded of that despite our self-imposed isolations, we’re all in this together.

And in a short while, I wasn’t feeling lonely. EID MUBARAK, everyone!

*) PhD candidate
Department of Biological Chemistry
School of Medicine, the University of California, Irvine, CA, USA
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