Iftar in Isolation

May 4, 2020

Last Friday, as the first day of Ramadan drew to a close, Rami Ismail prepared his iftar, the meal to end the day’s fast, at his apartment in Hilversum, the Netherlands: laban bil balah, an Egyptian-style fast-breaking drink of chilled milk with dates and cashews; Dutch uienkruier flatbread with cheese and onions; salmon over a bed of quinoa and spinach. The portion size suggested it was a dinner for one, but Ismail was about to host an iftar party. As he sat down to eat, he turned on his Nintendo Switch and set a virtual table in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. 

“I built a little marketplace like they have in Egypt, with a carpet, for a communal meal, and made eight seats — one for me and the seven people that would come by,” he says, describing his corner of the popular life-simulation game. Guests soon began filing in from Singapore, London, Canada, and Seattle, some bearing virtual gifts and fruit baskets. “They just wanted to make sure that a stranger wasn’t alone for iftar,” says Ismail. “It’s meant to be a communal experience; you don’t really do it alone if you can help it.”

With Ramadan arriving as social-distancing measures remain in effect across the globe, Muslims are doing what they can to foster a sense of community in quarantine. Zoom dinners and remote prayer services have been commonplace since the early weeks of the pandemic, but Ramadan poses unique challenges. For many of the world’s 2 billion Muslims, the holy month is the most social time of the year, synonymous with large gatherings, group prayers, and community service efforts. Now, as many are in isolation during Ramadan’s requisite fast from dawn to sunset, jam-packed social calendars — lively iftar parties followed by taraweeh prayer congregations at the mosque and late nights culminating in suhoor (the pre-dawn meal before the next fast) hangouts at IHOP — have been replaced by group-chat scheduling conflicts. 

While Ismail is an avid game enthusiast — he’s a developer and cofounder of the Dutch independent game studio Vlambeer — he doesn’t typically observe Ramadan virtually. His hectic travel schedule normally sees him breaking fast with large groups in Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil, or India. “It’s always a fun, communal, celebratory experience for me,” he says. “It’s strange to be home in the Netherlands all month and not be able to do that.” So he tweeted an invitation to his 167,000 followers to join him in Animal Crossing for suhoor or iftar; the response was so overwhelming that he had to make a sign-up form. Ismail isn’t the only Animal Crossing fan using the game to observe Ramadan virtually — there are even simulated congregations that read the nightly taraweeh prayer together.

The next evening, as the sun began to set in New Haven, Connecticut, Omer Bajwa, his wife, Lisa, and a few friends donned masks and gloves to operate a makeshift drive-thru in the parking lot of Masjid Al Islam, a mosque in the city’s Dwight neighborhood. They handed out prepacked iftar boxes of dates, naan, and chicken curry from Ali Baba through rolled-down windows in car after car. “We all normally love the communal aspect in Ramadan — iftars are a big part of the American Muslim experience,” says Bajwa, the director of Muslim life at the Yale chaplain’s office. “There’s been a genuine anxiety leading up to Ramadan [this year], a sense of loss, people feeling bereft.”

Since many people are reliant on mosques for the nightly iftar meal, Bajwa asked his friends to pool money to feed 130 people every Saturday. “The reality of New Haven is it can be quite poor,” he says. “And we have so many Muslim-owned businesses in the restaurant industry, which is taking a huge hit — we’re trying to buy meals from them, give them business.” This first grab-and-go iftar was such a success that more donations poured in, enabling Bajwa and his friends to serve more meals this month.

Charity is one of the key components of Ramadan, and many of these same hard-hit restaurants are stepping up to serve their communities themselves. Since mid-March, Hamza Deib, owner of Brooklyn’s popular Middle Eastern restaurant Taheni, has worked with Muslims Giving Back to pass out falafels, chicken, and hummus to the homeless once a week, despite the struggles his own business faces. Now with the onset of Ramadan, Deib has increased his efforts to daily meal deliveries, while also dropping off food to a mosque and to police officers and hospital workers. “We’re not pushing our efforts to cater toward just Muslims. We’re just trying to take care of the entire city,” says Deib.

Countless health care and essential workers happen to be practicing Muslims, and many of them are now fasting, too. For Dr. Uzma Syed, an infectious disease specialist and chair of a COVID-19 task force at a Long Island hospital, the last few weeks have “been an out-of-body experience — you’re in this constant feeling of being in a twilight zone.” But despite the added challenges she’s facing this Ramadan, she’s never considered not fasting. “It’s actually been fine, alhamdulillah,” she says of her first few fasts. “Fasting in itself is a practice of having resilience and willpower — it’s always been mind over matter. It’s a very spiritual time for me, very therapeutic.” 

The Islamic Center at New York University, which serves 10,000 people at the university and the broader New York community, is one of many mosques across the globe that’s trying to beam the sense of spirituality that congregants crave into their living rooms. They’ve lined up a robust schedule of virtual programming, from Quranic recitations to lectures with scholars to Zoom iftars led by imam Khalid Latif, who’s also planning to offer niche iftars around interests like books and sports. In London, the nonprofit Ramadan Tent Project has also gone online, bringing its inclusive, popular Open Iftar events to people’s homes with a #MyOpenIftar pack of decorations, a trivia game, and a recipe book by chef Asma Khan of London’s acclaimed Darjeeling Express. There’s also a daily Zoom iftar with a rotating roster of speakers, and Khan plans to host a live cooking lesson later this month. 

Offline, but socially distant, activities like remote potlucks — where everyone makes a dish and drops it off to other homes, letting friends enjoy the same meal at the same time — are gaining popularity. But finding the necessary ingredients to satisfy Ramadan cravings isn’t easy in the middle of a pandemic. “It’s already been like playing Tetris with your pantry — ‘We’re out of this, what can we replace that with?’ It’s been like that since the start of the pandemic,” says Brenda Abdelall, a consultant and law professor in northern Virginia, and founder of Middle Eastern food platform MidEats. Unable to go to her local Middle Eastern grocery store to stock up on her usual Ramadan supplies of lentils, fava beans, sumac, and za’atar, Abdelall has been strategizing for weeks, and in the process has become an internet-sourcing MacGyver. “It’s been tricky this Ramadan, trying to figure out how to preserve traditional foods without access to the ingredients. I had to get creative, going online to find what grocery stores sold dried fava beans — I found them on some obscure Russian website.”

Ramadan-centric, quarantine-compliant content is quickly taking over social media. You can take a fasting-friendly fitness session with a Nike trainer one day and learn how to make healthy suhoor smoothies the next on British lifestyle magazine Azeema’s Instagram feed. YouTube rounded up Ramadan content from top creators around the world, including LA-based modest-lifestyle vlogger Aysha Harun. Her “Ramadan Daily” vlogs chronicle her Ramadan decor and learning how to make the Ethiopian sambusas she grew up eating for iftar. “I do an Eid lookbook every year,” she says, referring to clothes for Eid-ul-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan. “I haven’t gotten any of those requests this year, for obvious reasons.”

But going virtual has its own challenges. “How many people actually have access to the internet and know how to use it?” asks Samira Abderahman, who founded Black Iftar in Chicago in 2018. The iftar events geared toward black Muslims and their friends took off organically and were held in 11 cities last year; now, Abderahman is trying to figure out how best to take the events online. “I think about digital literacy a lot. That’s why in-person events are so beautiful — we’ve been gathering together since the beginning of time.” 

This year, Black Iftar will offer virtual iftars centered around talks by Makkah Ali and Ikhlas Saleem, hosts of the podcast Identity Politics, and scholar and community sexual health educator Angelica Lindsey-Ali. “I just want to provide something beautiful, to not be the dominance of their Ramadan experience, but to assist it,” says Abderahman. “Ultimately, Ramadan is best experienced in person, and not through our phones.”

Just as people start to get into some semblance of a routine during this unnerving new take on the holy month, the next hurdle awaits at the end of Ramadan: how to commemorate Eid ul-Fitr in May, a holiday that’s usually marked by massive prayer congregations at mosques, sharing the traditional three hugs with strangers and friends alike, and a blur of brunch, lunch, and dinner parties. Ismail will likely host an open house-style Eid party on Animal Crossing, collecting “gifts” throughout the month and leaving them on his island for guests who pass through that day. But he isn’t sure what will be more difficult: fasting without friends and family, or marking a normally festive occasion in isolation. “Needing strength from the community while fasting [during Ramadan] and not having it is tough,” he says. “But Eid is a celebration — and celebrating alone is weird.”

Source: Iftar in Isolation - Eater