Two years after the Covid-19 pandemic forced isolation on expatriate Muslims around the world, perhaps especially in the US, celebrations of the holy month of Ramadan have made a comeback this year.
Celebrating Ramadan is often different for expatriates living in non-Muslim countries, and not necessarily in a good way. It has been worse over the past two Ramadans due to the pandemic and social-distancing measures. How are expat Muslims celebrating Ramadan this year?
Islam is the third-largest religion in the US after Christianity and Judaism. There are 3.45 million Muslims in the US or 1.1 per cent of the population, according to
worldpopulationreview.com. US Muslims are an ethnically diverse religious group, without a majority race. They are divided into 25 per cent Black, 24 per cent White, 18 per cent Asian, 18 per cent Arab, seven per cent mixed, and five per cent Hispanic, according to website figures.
Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular, celebrate Ramadan overseas differently from the usual ways back home. There is no adhan (prayer call) heard beyond the doors of mosques, for example, or bright lanterns marking the joy of the holy month, or the family gatherings that are a staple back home.
“Ramadan here is very different from Ramadan back home,” said Yosra Mahmoud, an Egyptian who has lived in Virginia in the US for six years. “There are no signs of festivities in the streets or at work. But since our first Ramadan here, we have tried to invoke the spirit of the holy month in the diaspora.”
Mahmoud said she gets ready for the month by “buying Ramadan drinks and food from Arab stores, such as qamareddin (dried apricot), tamarind, and dried fruit for khoshaf. “We put up Ramadan decorations at home and bring out lanterns for the children. We always gather on the first day with Muslim friends to make up for being abroad,” she noted.
Sahar Ali, a Mauritanian in her 40s, often feels lonesome during Ramadan even though this is her fourth month of fasting in the US. “Ramadan here is very different from back home,” Ali said. “In Mauritania, it is very spiritual, and I miss that here. I felt even more lonely when mosques were closed over the last two years, and there were no gatherings because of the pandemic.”
She added that she tries to shop for Ramadan goodies that are common in Mauritania in order to recreate part of the Ramadan feeling she is used to back home.
In fact, shopping is a Ramadan ritual for many Muslim expats, and a few miles outside the US capital is Halalco, the largest Arab food store in an area that includes Washington DC, Maryland, and Virginia. The store is very popular with Arab and Muslim shoppers during Ramadan.
Mai Abdel-Azim, an Egyptian customer, said she needs to go to Arab food shops every week during Ramadan, which is unusual because normally she would only go once or twice a month. For Abdel-Azim, Ramadan gatherings give the holy month more flavour and remind her of home.
“The things we buy the most of during Ramadan are tamarind, sambousa, konafa and qatayef,” types of sweets, she said. “We usually have many gatherings during Ramadan to experience the festivities of the holy month.”
In Egypt, she would attend many family gatherings and feasts in Ramadan and host only one at her home. “But here it is different,” she said, explaining that “now I host three or four Iftar gatherings so we can feel the Ramadan atmosphere. We don’t have family here, and there is no fasting atmosphere. We try to compensate for this by watching Egyptian satellite television, going to the mosque for taraweeh [late night] prayers, and meeting other Egyptians and Muslims.”
At Jenin, a famous Arab dessert shop in the area, there is an influx of customers during Ramadan. The owner has even had to change the working hours in order to meet demand. Every year, Muslims in Virginia flock to Jenin for Ramadan treats and delights.
“We prepare for Ramadan every year with many treats, such as konafa with cream, qatayef, and othmanliya,” said Mohamed Ibrahim, the shop owner. “We extend the working hours as well. So, instead of closing at 10 at night, we stay open until midnight. And instead of starting work at ten in the morning, we begin at six so we can meet demand.”
Ibrahim said that his customers come from all Arab nationalities, especially during Ramadan when there is high demand for desserts. The Ramadan atmosphere has always been present, even during the pandemic. He added that Muslims in the US try to compensate for some of the Ramadan rituals they miss from home, such as eating Ramadan desserts every day, which is what his shop provides.
RAMADAN AS AN EXPAT: Gathering at the mosque for taraweeh prayers or community Iftars is a tradition that many Muslim expats enjoy during Ramadan.
Karim Yasser, an Egyptian who has lived in the US for 10 years, said he is used to performing the taraweeh prayers and breaking the fast at least three times at the mosque during Ramadan.
“The mosque is the only place that makes us feel that it is Ramadan,” Yasser said. “There are special rituals. We gather for a community Iftar and pray taraweeh together. The children around us play, and the mosque hosts religious competitions for young and old. We also encourage each other to complete Quran readings.”
“But outside the mosque, life is completely normal and there are no Ramadan festivities.”
In Virginia, home to the second-largest Muslim community in the US at 2,663 Muslims per 100,000 people, the large Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Centre is located in Falls Church. Along with the mosque, the centre provides services for nearly 40,000 Muslims in the area, according to its website.
Two years ago at the start of the pandemic, the Centre closed its doors, as did the mosque, in compliance with guidelines at the time and as a precautionary measure. During Ramadan 2020, expat Muslims were in total isolation. There were no Ramadan celebrations; the mosques were shuttered, community Iftars and taraweeh prayers were banned, and expats had to endure the associated hardships.
By Ramadan 2021, the vaccine rollout had begun, however, and mosques started to partially reopen and hold late night prayers. Dar Al-Hijrah and mosque officials required social-distancing during prayers, mask-wearing, hand-sanitising, and bringing one’s own prayer rug from home.
Seif Abdel-Rahman, in charge of public and government relations at the Dar Al-Hijrah mosque, said that over the past two years Ramadan activities at the Centre changed significantly. This year, however, they have made a comeback.
“During Ramadan 2020, the mosque closed its doors in compliance with health guidelines to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” Abdel-Rahman said. “It was a Ramadan without
taraweeh prayers, or Iftar gatherings.”
“During Ramadan last year, things gradually began to open up but not completely. Instead of Iftar gatherings inside the mosque, we boxed food for everyone to take home so we didn’t gather.”
“Taraweeh prayers were divided into two groups; one group would perform the isha prayers and briefly begin the taraweeh. Then worshippers left to continue them at home. The second group would follow and perform isha, taraweeh, and witr prayers.”
This year, Ramadan has returned to normal due to the high rate of vaccinations in the US, and Dar Al-Hijrah is celebrating the holy month with ease. Abdel-Rahman said there are some rules that the centre’s officials are implementing at the mosque and other buildings during Ramadan. These include 75 per cent of the Muslim congregation being vaccinated, so people can pray without social-distancing and hold community Iftars.
“We found that 77 per cent of the congregation have received three vaccine doses,” said Abdel-Rahman. “So, we are able to hold prayers and taraweeh without dividing everyone into two groups. Daily community Iftars are a ritual that Dar Al-Hijrah is keen on continuing to enhance the spirit and traditions of the holy month for expats in the area,” he said.
He added that some 600 Muslims attend Iftar at the mosque every day and 750 at weekends, which is very special after a two-year hiatus. “Some people don’t come to Iftar every day for personal reasons, so we send them food to their homes,” he said.
Dar Al-Hijrah holds a variety of activities that are also making a comeback after the pandemic. These include a weekly Iftar for Muslims incarcerated in nearby prisons, and a weekly Iftar for local officials from the police force, fire department, and emergency medical services.
There is also a weekly programme to “attract non-Muslim friends” to join Iftar at the mosque.
US ADMINISTRATIONS: On the first day of Ramadan on 2 April this year, hundreds of Muslims gathered in New York’s Times Square for taraweeh prayers, in an unprecedented event in the history of the US.
Holding the prayers in Times Square was not because there are no other places for prayer, since there are more than 250 mosques in New York alone. But the spectacle, which outraged some people, revealed the status of Muslims under the administration of US president Joe Biden, compared to his predecessor Donald Trump.
Since the start of the 2020 presidential race, various groups in the US held a critical mass of votes, including Arab-Americans, some of whom are Muslim. According to the Arab American Institute, a think tank in Washington, in the 2016 elections Arab-American support for Trump rose by ten per cent, and the Arab-American vote was split.
Even though the majority of states with a substantial number of Muslims later voted for Biden, opinion polls revealed that Muslim votes for him were only slightly higher than those for Trump.
It is difficult to explain this support, since Trump made many Islamophobic statements before the 2016 elections, saying that “we have problems with Muslims. We have problems with Muslims coming into the country.” Soon after taking office, Trump issued a travel ban on Muslims for the first time, and it was renewed three times and endorsed by the US Supreme Court in June 2018. The ban blocked nationals from seven Muslim-majority countries from travelling to the US.
Trump’s Islamophobic statements and decisions had an effect on the rate of hate crimes against Muslims in the US during his tenure. According to FBI figures, in 2019 out of the 1,715 victims of reported religiously-motivated hate crimes in the country, 13.2 per cent were anti-Muslim.
According to a 2020 survey by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a Washington think tank, some 60 per cent of Muslims in the US reported they had personally experienced religious discrimination.
Salam Al-Marayati, president and co-founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a US Muslim advocacy organisation, said in press statements that American Muslims had endured four years of Trump’s stigmatisation, tactics and intimidation under the former president as he sought to appease white nationalists during his presidency.
Al-Marayati praised Biden’s decision to repeal the “Muslim ban” as soon as he came to power, saying that “the repeal is evidence that the Biden administration considers Muslims an equal part of the country, which is a welcome change from the previous administration.”
Muslims in the US now have more space under Biden, including the right to hold taraweeh prayers in some major public squares. The Minneapolis City Council has allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast over loudspeakers from seven in the morning until 10 at night all year round, starting this Ramadan, for the first time in US history.
Some states now schedule the Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha holidays as public-school holidays. But a number of Muslims and Arabs still assert that life under the Trump administration was better for them.
Tahani Abdullah, a Saudi national, who has lived in the US for ten years, said that social practices and values were better under Trump. “As a Muslim, I agree with Trump on conservative policies on abortion and same-sex marriage and preventing the spread of these trends in society,” Abdullah said. “I’m very surprised by Muslims who support Biden and approve of abortion or gay marriage, both of which are against religion.”
Said Fadl, a Lebanese Muslim who has lived in the US for four years, agreed with “Trump’s decision to ban Muslim refugees, because they are troublemakers. Also, an influx of refugees would put a strain on the country, its resources and opportunities for residents, whether at work or life in general.”
But Nour Radi, an Egyptian who has lived in the US for seven years, described Trump’s practices as racist against certain groups. “His decisions and statements were racist and provocative against Muslims, Blacks, Arabs and others,” recalls Radi. “As the leader of the country, his statements were reflected on the street, in the attitudes of some individuals, and in transgressions at some institutions.”
“If Muslims oppose the views of the Democratic Party, whether regarding abortion or a woman’s right to control her own body, they are not obliged to adopt them. They have the freedom to make their own decisions and choices, without discrimination or racism.
“Clear evidence of this are the public prayers being held in Times Square for the first time in US history continuing without harassment,” she said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.