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What It Was Like Having A Ramadan in 2021

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Photo by Abdullah Arif

As the UK started to slowly awake from its COVID induced slumber, the Muslim community prepared for one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar: Ramadan. This month is poignant for its discipline, where healthy and able Muslims keep a dry fast from sunrise to sunset. Opening and closing of the fast is characterised by terms like Sehri/Sahoo – closing your fast at sunrise and Iftari/Iftar – opening your fast at sunset. Ramadan seems severe to people not aware of the significance of this month -it’s skeleton stretches further than its diet.

Ramadan is encouraged to be kept by healthy and able people only. This means for people who rely on medicine, who are pregnant, on their period, or are ill, are exempt from keeping a fast. 

It’s also a time where family in all its forms join for feasts and parties in a celebration throughout this momentous month. Ramadan is also the month the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, so like a fresh start, every Ramadan, Muslims around the world revaluate their connection to Islam and their own spirituality.

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Photo by Ali Tarhini

But during 2020 and 2021, Ramadan tightened at the hands of COVID who snatched the social aspect of this month, leaving people isolated in its wake. In April 2021, the UK government allowed a slight lift in restrictions, opening up for outdoor dining and meeting groups of six in open air spaces – this gave hope, but as many Muslims saw friends gather together for brunch and drinks, it felt like Muslims had their lockdown extended for further 30 days. 

“This year (Ramadan) feels slightly sadder because you can’t go the mosque and can’t be around family so it doesn’t have that community aspect we’re so used to” says Nida Naqvi, a 22 year old university student. “But as a student I feel luckier because I live with friends who are on the same course, and have my Muslim friends who are also fasting, so I’m always around people doing the same thing as me. I have friends who say “let’s do iftari together” and we wrap up warm and dine out later. So when we have this option we actively try to not feel isolated.” 

This year dangles the promise of some normality, spreading across to Muslims who can manage to find a restaurant opening after 8:30pm. It’s a chance to reclaim the special social connection this month offers. Sumaiyah Razzaq, a 24 year old diagnostic radiographer says for her; “last Ramadan was extremely isolating.

I moved out of home for work, and wasn’t in university with friends. But this year, lockdown is started to lift so I can arrange times for dinner with my colleagues, flatmates or friends – if they’re up for it – so I can still enjoy some social aspect. If I couldn’t I would have dreaded it a little bit, but if my friends organise a picnic I can still see them, even if I can’t eat anything. It’s less mentally challenging this way.”

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But for some people, this year is still tough when normality is usually a huge family congregation with cherished traditions. Mariam Tariq, 25, is an account manager for a chemical distribution company who has been working from home throughout all three lockdowns. 

On the topic of isolation Tariq mentions she “usually goes to her aunties or grandma’s house for iftar. We give food to the neighbours as well, so this year has been extremely isolating and lonely.” For her, it’s the hardest Ramadan yet; “I’ve been fasting since I was 13 years old and this year has been the hardest…last year’s lockdown was quite new and quite fresh so it was a good time to connect with family. It felt a lot easier too. But this year, there’s almost that sense of FOMO because you’re at home fasting and life is opening up -restaurants close at 10pm, but fasts open around 8:30-8:45pm so it’s not always great to dine out.” 

That tantalising enticement of postponed dining out is not only felt by Tariq, it’s something felt by Razzaq and Naqvi too. “It’s a natural thing to want to go out and eat, especially now since we couldn’t do so for over a year” says Naqvi, “I’m a huge foodie, and brunch would be amazing! I have eaten out during Ramadan, but we had to wrap up warm and finding a restaurant opening late was hard. But I also love Ramadan, so this month is definitely worth the wait for food.” 

Razzaq agrees saying; “ I struggled with the first few days because I walk through he city centre to go to work, and we had amazing weather the first few days (of Ramadan) so you could see everyone sat outside, and I wanted to be one of them. But by half eight, the sun is no longer there, it’s absolutely freezing, and you don’t want to ask your friends to eat so late with you.” 

Although a large part of Ramadan is restricting food and water until after sunset, what often goes underreported is the exhaustion from sleep deprivation. Razzaq says; 

“The most difficult part is not the hunger or the thirst, it’s the sleep deprivation. I just feel like a zombie… you eat until 10pm, but sleep at 12am, up again to eat at 3:30am, to sleep an hour later and then need to get up for work. It takes a while to get back to sleep after eating, and for the whole day you can feel sluggish and nauseous.” 

Razzaq is a healthcare worker who sometimes only manages “only a two to three hours of sleep before work.” Working for the NHS allows a familiarity and she can go home earlier and take it easy on the days she feels more shaken.

For Tariq it’s a similar problem. Tariq works a standard 9-5 and says “work has been the hardest thing I find with Ramadan, because sometimes I don’t sleep until Sehri, so I feel very groggy on five hour sleep. It feels like you’re fitting Ramadan around work and not the other way around – which is what you would do in a Muslim country. My work is really understanding and allows me to alter my hours pending I get my work done, but it definitely takes a toll at the end of the month, like a built up exhaustion.” 

But it’s not any easier for students either. “Because of COVID we don’t go in at all, but have to do classes and tutorials at scheduled times – 9am and 10am’s. So you open your fast at 8:45pm and I stay awake until sehri at 4am or 5am working. Then I’ll sleep, but of course that won’t work when I have a 9am, so my sleep schedule is never consistent – I’m always taking naps. After you’ve eaten a big meal, it’s so hard to stay awake too, so staying awake and working is hard – especially after sehri but I need to prep for my 9am’s.” 

Naqvi also works part time as a tutor one day a week, but the timings are intense, often leaving her tired throughout the day too. But “it’s not that bad, as long as I get to nap, but if I don’t get time to nap, then it’s really difficult because I’d get really unproductive and I’d start to get a headache before iftari”.

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Photo by Rizki Yulian

At the end of the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslim’s join together for a day of celebration, also known as Eid. “Eid is your prize, like a well done for doing this month” Tariq says. Her family normally has huge gatherings for Eid, with three generations cooking together to create a wonderful pot luck celebration. But unfortunately this year, Eid falls short of a few days of Johnson’s plans to lift lockdown which means another year without a huge family celebration: “This year will be a bit different but hopefully next Ramadan we’ll be fine.” 

For Razzaq and Naqvi, who don’t live with their families, Eid will be celebrated cautiously. 

 Razzaq has “really mixed feelings about Eid just because of all the rules. Whereas, the year before, I knew I wasn’t going to see my family but this year I’m excited to go home but I don’t know if I can stay the night. I can’t look forward to Eid like I wanted, but there is that light at the end of the tunnel and I can see them again soon.” 

Naqvi is “looking forward to it a lot just because I think I will be allowed to go back to my family home. It is a big thing when you’re at uni, you’re not around your family, you’re not around the community as much you’re around your friends. That’s really sad for students who are stuck at uni during Ramadan, so I’m just going home for Eid. Of course it can only be with my immediate family after being tested, so we can’t invite as many people but just being able to see my immediate family, dressing up, making sure we’ve got nice food, I’m looking forward to it, it’s going to be really nice.” 

It’s safe to say Ramadan in 2021 is something we will never forget.