As the seasons turned a few weeks ago, and the trees began their slow metamorphosis towards autumn, I felt a familiar thrill that I had almost forgotten during the gloom of isolation. For the past few years, the change in weather has also signalled the beginning of Ramadan – the holy month where Muslims across the world fast from dawn to dusk and reflect on community, charity and their faith.
Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, so at different times in my life it’s been held during spring, summer and winter, but the last several years Ramadan has coincided with autumn, my favourite season, and it’s been particularly joyful to spend that special time with my family.
This year, however, the holy month is very different, and not in a good way. With Covid-19 social distancing measures still in place, Ramadan has started with a more melancholy atmosphere, and it’s really highlighted to me the importance of community and gatherings to this special time in the Islamic calendar.
This year, however, the holy month is very different, and not in a good way.
Growing up, Islam was a central part of our lives, and also a key focus of our friendships and relationships with other migrants. When we first migrated to Australia, my family moved to Albury, New South Wales. We quickly became part of a growing community of fellow Muslim immigrants from numerous countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Iraq, Bosnia, India, Fiji, Lebanon and more.
Even though we were in a brand new country, with no family around us, we were immediately accepted into this eclectic Islamic community, and Ramadan was the pinnacle of our year.
For me, Ramadan was about the early mornings at the breakfast table with my siblings still bleary-eyed and grumpy, and my father (frustratingly cheerful even at 4am) trying to crack jokes and trigger some enthusiasm for the day of fasting ahead.
In the weeks leading up to Eid, the women from our community would rotate between each other’s houses to make sweets in preparation for the gatherings that would happen on the day. One of the best things about being in Albury with such a multicultural group of fellow Muslims was learning to make sweets and delicacies from different cultures.
One of the best things about being in Albury with such a multicultural group of fellow Muslims was learning to make sweets and delicacies from different cultures.
Aunty Ramiza from Bosnia taught us how to make pita, stretched the fine dough out into a stretchy, thin film that covered our entire dining table (much to our awe) before gradually folding it in over tasty potato filling and forming it into a coil, ready for the oven.
Aunty Banu, also Indian, would host us to help make margha, my favourite deep fried pastry filled with semolina filling. I would sit with my sisters and curl over the edges of each parcel my mother filled, ready for frying.
On Sundays our parents hosted our own version of Islamic School for all of us children, meeting in a local church hall to learn how to read the Quran in Arabic, our fathers taking turns to teach us various stories that illustrated the pillars of Islam, especially important during Ramadan.
We haven’t lived in Albury for some time, but even after moving to Canberra, versions of these community activities have continued for decades, with different faces but still the core principle of community at the heart of our celebrations.
This year, however, my parents are beginning and ending their days alone. My mother has a severe auto-immune condition that makes her particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, so we’ve been keeping our distance as a family. Her condition means she can’t fast as she has to take medication throughout the day. I hate thinking of my father praying alone in the morning, and facing the day ahead without food, water or company.
The mosque can’t host evening prayers, and the events and gatherings we usually looked forward to are cancelled. Our community, already small and fractured by virtue of the many diasporas that form it from across the world, is even less connected.
It’s unclear whether prayers will be allowed for Eid, let alone the large gatherings and house visits that accompany the occasion.
It’s easy to dismiss Ramadan as a month of difficult fasting and long nights at the mosque, but faced with an isolation edition, it’s hitting home how much the month is actually about community, gratitude and solidarity.
This coming together is especially important for migrant communities in countries like Australia where Muslims form a minority. Going to work surrounded by non-Muslim colleagues, and forsaking lunch and the usual morning coffee run while fasting can be hard. But it’s made easier by the evening visits to friends’ homes, and the promise of Eid ahead.
It’s the one time when the connections to our religious and cultural communities feel stronger and bigger than the sense of distance from our home countries does for the rest of the year.
Ramadan is always a time for reflection, and this year, we are practicing gratitude for our health, and for the community that we love, and miss, and that we hope to celebrate with soon. I hope that across the country, Australian Muslims are able to connect with each other in the small ways available to us until we can truly come together again.
Zoya Patel is a writer, editor and communications professional, based in Canberra. Her debut book, No Country Woman, a collection of memoir essays on race, identity and the diaspora is out now through Hachette Australia.
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