Praying and breaking the fast together are important elements of Ramadan. How do muslims experience Ramadan in times of lockdown? For the Belgian newswebsite MO*, writer and RPM volunteer Wim Peumans interviewed Onur, who migrated from Turkey to Belgium. For Onur the experience of Ramadan has become highly individualized, especially during the current anti-virus measures. Artist Mounir Eddib (@geniuschild) drew a portrait to accompany Onur’s story.
‘My earliest memory of Ramadan is actually the first time I joined the fast. I was around six years old. Of course I didn’t join the fast for a month, just for a day. My mother asked whether I was ready for it. I was in the first year of elementary school, which is pretty young to join. But I really wanted to try.’
‘My sister – who is three years older than me – used to fast back then, although I can’t remember whether she fasted the whole month. In the evening we had relatives visiting – aunts, uncles, cousins – and we had prepared a big, big dinner. It was my first fast followed by a family dinner. At one point everyone was congratulating me for doing my first fast. It was a beautiful moment where I felt connected with everyone.’
Onur, in his late twenties, hails from Turkey. Thanks to mystical workings of algorythms, Onur and I met each other on Instagram and after meeting up for a coffee last year our virtual friendship evolved into a real-life one. Onur migrated from Turkey to Belgium in 2016. ‘I moved here during Ramadan actually. It was unfortunate not being able to spend Eid with my parents. I had a temporary room in my friend’s house in Belgium. All my roommates were Muslim, which made it easier: we fast together, had iftar together, got up before dawn to have suhur. My first Eid in Belgium felt different, but I didn’t feel home-sick. I was in a Turkish mosque, which is basically the same as the mosques in Turkey. I was witnessing scenes I’d see during Eid in Turkey, so I learned there’s a small piece of Turkey in this city.’
Onur shares a flat located at the edge of the Turkish neighbourhood in the city where he lives. ‘Maybe it’s not the right comparison, but I have friends in Belgium who do a marathon each year. Ramadan is a bit like that. You have to prepare, you have to be ready, it’s not easy. At the end your body and mind feel great. I’m glad I have a special month that is different from the rest of the year. Individually and collectively, there’s a special atmosphere during Ramadan that I look forward to.’
The holy month requires all kinds of preparations, Onur explains. ‘When I was living with my parents in Turkey, we’d use to buy a lot of food to prepare for Ramadan. Dried fruits, like dates, apricots and wallnuts, special bread or desserts, such as Güllaç. These are things I have to take care of myself now that I live in Belgium.’ In other words, you have to prepare your pantry and kitchen. But there’s more to it. ‘Of course there’s a psychological preparation that is required as well. Here in Belgium the days last much longer, which is challenging. Last year I had issues with my diet, I didn’t eat enough, which gave me vertigo and nausea. So I really have to pay attention to that. Also, you have to make time for religion during that month, focus on your spiritual journey. You pay more attention to not hurting anyone or committing any sins. A few weeks beforehand I started to increase my level of exercise, like jogging. During Ramadan I just take walks. In other words, it’s a special period, from food to body and psychology.’
Practicing Ramadan in Belgium is wholly different experience. As his flatmate is not Muslim, Onur fasts by himself, making it into a highly individual journey. ‘My eating times change a lot, so we at first I thought we wouldn’t be sharing any meals together – which we usually do. This felt strange, so my flatmate suggested we should at least try to have dinner together during Ramadan. Last year I didn’t join my collagues during lunch. Whether there’s a lockdown or not, there’s no Ramadan atmosphere in the streets. The only time I get a Ramadan vibe is when my Turkish-Belgian friends invite me for iftar. In Turkey I’d be breaking the fast with a different group of people every night. Either at their place or in a restaurant. It’s very social and lively.’ The current lockdown has taken away the important social aspect of Ramadan. ‘You can’t visit anyone. I don’t go to the mosque for prayer. So it’s a very solitary experience this year for me.’
On the first day of Eid, which marks the end of the month, Onur usually goes for prayer at the mosque in the early hours of morning. ‘I see many Turkish Belgian people there, even though I don’t know any of them. At the mosque political differences are set aside, particularly during Ramadan. After prayer we shake hands or even hug. It makes me feel part of the community. My Turkish Belgian friends only have one day off for Eid – the celebrations usually take three days. Sometimes I go to them, but it’s not always the case, as they tend to celebrate with their family. In Turkey you visit people – family, friends, acquantainces – in their home and eat together. But here in Belgium that is not the case.’
Friends and colleagues are usually very supportive and respectful. ‘One colleague was so intrigued that he started looking up information about Ramadan. After reading about the health benefits, he also gave it a try, which I thought was funny.’ After Eid Onur buys special sweets – he even asks friends to bring them directly from Turkey. ‘I hand them out to friends and colleagues. It’s my way of showing them Ramadan has ended: I’m taking up my normal routine again.’
This article was originally published in Dutch on the Belgian newswebsite MO*.
Original publication: https://www.mo.be/wijzijnhier/een-hoogst-individuele-beleving-ramadan-tijdens-de-lockdown
Translation by Wim Peumans