Lockdown Ramadan: One globe-trotter’s homebound holy month

Why We Wrote This

What happens when a pandemic forces a peripatetic travel writer to spend Ramadan in isolation in her New York apartment? Lessons from a Ramadan under lockdown. 

Courtesy of Sarah Khan
Writer Sarah Khan pauses in front of one of the famous ornamented doors of Zanzibar's Stone Town as children run by, in 2019 (left). A tantalizing iftar feast awaits at the home of Nassra Nassor in Zanzibar.

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A year ago, I welcomed the month of Ramadan by following the scent of charred meat wafting through the damp tropical air of Zanzibar. One evening, I joined a maze of locals snaking through an open-air market. The adhaan, or call to prayer, rang out from nearby mosques as families drifted from stall to stall, cobbling together an iftar meal to break the fast: soul-warming bowls of urojo, Zanzibar “pizzas,” cups of freshly pressed sugarcane juice.

This year, mosques stand eerily empty and decadent iftars in Zanzibar are a faint memory. Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few months adjusting to a bizarre new normal. Gone are the thrills of exploring a seemingly limitless world, replaced by the monotony of circling every corner of my very finite New York apartment.

Yet even under these circumstances, I marvel at the unlikely sense of community that’s emerged — people messaging me out of the blue, socially distant walks in the park with masked friends, and care packages arriving every day. Weeks in solitude have had a meditative effect, giving me stretches of time to contemplate my blessings — including all the memories that have made up my Ramadans past. 

A year ago, I welcomed the month of Ramadan by following the scent of charred meat wafting through the damp tropical air of Zanzibar. Most of the residents of the tiny archipelago off the coast of Tanzania are Muslim, and with the holy month colliding with the tempestuous beginning of Zanzibar’s rainy season, historic Stone Town was sodden with heavy cloudbursts and largely devoid of tourists. 

On one particularly sticky evening, during a brief dry spell between storms, I joined a maze of locals snaking through the open-air Forodhani Market on Stone Town’s seafront. The adhaan, or call to prayer, rang out from dozens of nearby mosques as families drifted from stall to stall, cobbling together a hearty iftar meal to break the fast: soul-warming bowls of urojo from one hawker, Zanzibar “pizzas” glistening under the fluorescent lights of another, cups of freshly pressed sugarcane juice to wash it all down. A few nights later, a lovely woman named Nassra invited me to her house for iftar, where I joined her family for a bountiful Zanzibari feast. 

As a travel writer with an unpredictable schedule, out-of-town assignments occasionally send me far from home during Ramadan. But whenever possible, I try to press pause for the holy month and settle into a familiar Ramadan routine in New York: nightly iftar dinners with friends, tarawih prayers at a rotating roster of mosques, and late-night hangouts that, on weekends, often end in gatherings at someone’s apartment or a nearby diner for the pre-fast suhoor meal at dawn. When I moved to a new apartment in January, I noted its proximity to Manhattan’s 96th Street mosque, envisioning easy walks home after tarawih prayers with friends during balmy summer evenings. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But this Ramadan, mosques stand eerily empty, and there are no carefree late-night strolls with friends. Decadent iftars in Zanzibar are now a faint memory, suddenly little more accessible than iftar on the moon. 

Ramadan is a deeply spiritual time meant for reflection and rejuvenation, but it’s also a largely communal month: The promise of restorative meals with close friends and family and inspiring sermons at overflowing mosques are an eagerly awaited salve after the hardships of a long fast. When I have to travel, I do my best to soak in the month’s convivial energy in all its manifestations around the world: tracking down a mosque in Madrid to attend tarawih prayers, charming my way into delicious iftar dinners at homes in Zanzibar or Cape Town, or roaming the congested arteries surrounding the Charminar in Hyderabad, when the streets come alive after sunset with people slurping haleem or shopping for Eid clothes. 

Like everyone else, I’ve spent the last few months adjusting to a bizarre new normal. Gone are the thrills of exploring a seemingly limitless world, replaced by the monotony of circling every corner of my very finite New York apartment.

Courtesy of Sarah Khan
Reporter Sarah Khan explores the walled city of Harar in Ethiopia, often referred to as one of the holiest cities in Islam, in 2019. In the weeks leading up to Ramadan, residents repaint the city's walls in vibrant tones in anticipation of the holy month.

Part of Ramadan’s purpose is to revive a sense of appreciation for all that we’ve come to take for granted amid the inexorable rhythm of our daily lives. Living under lockdown in the pandemic’s epicenter has led me to reminisce nostalgically over each unhurried grocery run, each mediocre brunch with a familiar face, even each congested subway commute. As I’ve settled into a solitary Ramadan this year, that sense of lament is even more acute. Each Ramadan I strive to reconsider the way I live, and contemplate my aspirations for the way I want to live. This year, these epiphanies began weeks before the sighting of the new moon marking the official start of the holy month on April 23. 

While Ramadan is the most social time of the year for many Muslims, in New York, where many of us live far from our families and venture into our pint-size kitchens only to decant our takeout meals, we rely on our friends and communities that much more. My favorite Ramadan travel plan is the trip home to see my family in Boston, to overindulge on my mom’s kheema samosas at iftar and attend Eid prayers at my childhood mosque, where post-prayer doughnuts are as integral to my Eid festivities as the customary three hugs I exchange with everyone around me.

The iftar parties have gone virtual, but the allure of watching my friends scarf down pasta through a Zoom screen has run thin. Fasts feel more exhausting this year, perhaps because there no longer are evening gatherings to look forward to. I log on to lectures and prayers online, but it’s hard to focus without the collective energy and sense of purpose I find at mosques. And while quarantine has brought me back into the habit of cooking every day, the prospect of iftar in solitude night after night doesn’t inspire me to make much effort in the kitchen to re-create my favorite Ramadan staples. 

Though this may be my most challenging Ramadan yet, I marvel at the unlikely sense of community that’s emerged – unexpected people messaging me out of the blue, socially distant walks in the park with masked friends, and care packages arriving every day. I’ve also been checking in on friends I’ve made on my past travels all over the world. Conversations with Muslims in Bosnia, Tunisia, and the United Kingdom all echo similar sentiments: We’re all missing the human connections we’ve come to take for granted, and we’re all taking things one day at a time. 

As Ramadan winds down, the prospect of an isolated Eid looms quietly ahead. How does celebration translate in isolation? What is an Eid without family, hugs, and doughnuts? I suppose I’ll soon find out. In the meantime, the forced weeks in solitude have had a meditative effect, giving me boundless stretches of time to contemplate my blessings — including all the memories that have made up my Ramadans past. I know I’ll be that much more grateful the next time I’m able to share an iftar meal with strangers turned friends in far-flung lands. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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