Breaking the Ramadan fast in quarantine

Yazan Natsheh dines with his family during Ramadan in Plano, Texas, May 10, 2020. Muslims accustomed to Ramadan as a time of community are navigating the pandemic as they can. Instead of inviting his fraternity brothers to his house for iftar, Natsheh sends them videos of him cooking with his mother. (Jonathan Zizzo/The New York Times)
For many Muslim families, Ramadan is one of the most social months of the year.

In the United States, mosques host large meals, catered by local restaurants or prepared by members of the community. In homes, extended families come together — grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and cousins — and add all the extra leaves to expand their tables. Friends gather to pray, to share, to taste. It is a month of meals eaten with intention, ending in a joyous celebration: Eid al-Fitr, which begins the evening of May 23.

During the pandemic, the suhoor meals before sunrise and the evening iftars that break the daylong fast have taken on a new cast. Families sometimes eat together over video calls with relatives. The celebration can feel more intimate, more immediate. The 30 meals eaten night after night become opportunities to reflect privately on faith and history.

Across the country, shared food is a source of comfort and of continuity in a ruptured time. We checked in with seven individuals and a couple about the meals and moments that have felt especially meaningful this year.

Nieda Abbas in New Haven, Connecticut

Abbas has seen difficult Ramadans before. She fasted in her hometown, Baghdad, during the US occupation. She fasted as Iraq splintered into sectarianism.

She fasted for seven years in Syria, as an immigrant learning the new culture. After she fled that civil war, she spent four Ramadans in a refugee camp in Turkey, where she had to stretch small portions to feed her six children. When she came to New Haven as a refugee in 2014, she did not speak English.

“But this is the hardest Ramadan I have ever had,” she said, speaking in Arabic through a translator. “The food and the schedule is all the same, but when we sit down there is a feeling of anxiety and fear.”

“Even in the worst of times, like in Syria or Turkey, we could always leave and go to a park,” she said. “This year, there’s a fear whenever I go out. I leave in horror. When I come back, the horror is still there.”

But Abbas, 44, is working to help. Every morning, she cooks for Havenly Treats, a nonprofit organisation that helps refugee chefs sell food. Drawing from her work as a baker in Iraq, she cooks about 200 meals for people in need. She makes fatayer with cheese and za’atar, elegant cucumber salads with spices, and homemade sauce.

“We want to make them feel like they are worthy of a meal like that,” she said. “I don’t want them to be cut short of what I would cook for my own kids.”

All afternoon, she prepares her family iftar, cooking for her seven children and her husband, Tareq Al-Mashhadany. She is anxious, but does not let her fear show. “I want to give strength to my kids,” she said. “Because of this current pandemic, I don’t feel like I can give them that courage anymore.”

But she cooks anyway. She cuts her homemade baklava into small pieces for her youngest children — bits of sweetness to get them through.

Imam Amr Dabour in Sacramento, California

In the early days of the outbreak, Dabour, the director of religious and social services at the Salam Islamic Center, started streaming videos of the prayers online for the community. People could then pray along with him, rather than just listening to recitation.

“I am transforming from being an imam, which is a religious leader, into a technician-programmer,” he said wryly. He connects Zoom to Facebook, but still needs to learn how to stream to YouTube.

Dabour, 40, knows how much his community misses the communal aspect of prayer, and the socialising of Ramadan. Children cannot see their friends; older people cannot see their families. He wanted to find a way to connect.

Traditionally, the center has offered food for people in need to take. This year, it has become a drive-through donation site where volunteers fill car trunks with nonperishable items.

Dabour, who was born in Egypt, and the Salam team also developed drive-through iftars on Friday nights. Some are sponsored by community members, others by local churches. Families drive up, and volunteers fill their trunks with hot food, catered by local restaurants.

“It was very, very, very close to a typical drive-through,” Dabour said.

Dr Zafar Shamoon in Dearborn, Michigan

During Ramadan, Shamoon, the chief of emergency services at Beaumont Hospital, Dearborn, makes a point to check in on his staff more than usual. Many are fasting, as are some patients: The Dearborn area is home to one of the nation’s largest concentrations of Muslims and one of its biggest mosques: the Islamic Center of America.

“To see them work alongside me, fasting with me, it gets me motivated,” said Shamoon, 45, whose parents immigrated from Pakistan in 1973. “We're doing this together.”

This year, he is checking on both their physical and mental health. Shamoon and his colleagues have seen more than 2,000 patients with the coronavirus, about 140 of whom have died, he said. All day long, he and his team wear personal protective equipment, which is heavy, restricts movement and can be stuffy. He does not eat or drink during the day, and finds himself missing coffee more than anything.

“I’m more tired than ever,” he said. “It’s not the physical exertion of the 12-hour day. I don’t think it’s even the fasting. I think it’s the mental aspects of what we’re doing this last month or so.”

Some non-Muslim doctors help him and other fasting staff members, covering so they can break fast and pray. At the end of his shifts, Shamoon drives home to break the fast with his family.

There, he immediately removes his clothing, and showers to protect his two young children and pregnant wife, Dr Nadia Yusaf, from any droplets that might cling to his clothes or hair. Sometimes, he checks in on his mother, who is also fasting.

One night, his 6-year-old daughter set up a special table for him, hung with a sign: Ramadan Mubarak, which roughly translates as “Happy Ramadan." She brought him dates, a Middle Eastern staple, and water — what the Prophet Muhammad consumed to break his own fasts.

“I am glad I get to do it at home,” Shamoon said. “All that stress I had that day — a patient with a heart rate of 30, eight COVID patients, intubating patients — for that one moment, I forgot about it.”

Shawn and Samah Grant in Berlin, Connecticut

Last year, when they were newly married, Shawn Grant and his wife, Samah, tried making a different sort of video for their respective YouTube channels. They sat in front of a well-laid table, enjoying their iftar as a Ramadan mukbang, a filmed meal.

Normally they post skits, teasing each other with pranks and playful taunts. But their faith is a central part of their life, and they try to explain it to their followers during Ramadan.

Samah Grant, 25, was born in Algeria and raised in France. A month after she met Shawn Grant, 26, in a Los Angeles mall, he stopped eating pork. He converted two years ago. “I wanted to learn more, and I wanted to be right where she’s at,” he said. “I wanted to comfort her, because she’s away from her family.”

This year, they recorded another mukbang on her channel. She made North African foods special to Ramadan: harira, a savory Moroccan soup, along with a peppery dip and homemade bread. She hand-folded bourek, pastries filled with spiced ground beef, cheese and eggs.

Samah Grant eats the foods of her childhood to feel more at home, and she knows that many other people are far from their families. The mukbangs, she hopes, can make Muslims fasting in isolation feel as if they are eating with friends.

“Some people are very lonely, and just decide to eat and watch a video at the same time,” she said. “It makes me feel like we still have hope, because people are still following their religion.”

Zaheer Maskatia in Washington, DC

When Maskatia was a teenager in the Bay Area, his friends would eat suhoor at an IHOP. He looked forward to these breakfasts — the pancake houses often stay open round the clock — and his usual order: chocolate chip pancakes with whipped cream and a cherry.

Now a lawyer, Maskatia, 37, lives far from his parents. Normally, he is out almost every night of Ramadan with friends, visiting mosques and various Muslim groups.

This year, he has been cooking for himself, but one night he ordered a curry from Duke’s Grocery. The restaurant participates in the Dine After Dark initiative, which encourages restaurants in the Washington area to serve halal food after sundown during Ramadan.

“It was delicious. They marketed it as a Filipino curry, but it tasted like my mom’s goat curry,” Maskatia said. “South Asian food is one thing I don’t cook. I can’t measure up to my mom.”

She was born in India, and his father in Pakistan, where he broke the fast with fried samosas. So they bring some for Maskatia whenever they visit. His mother makes the filling, and his father folds the wrappers.

“For me, it’s part physiological — I just crave it when I’m fasting — and part sentimental,” Maskatia said. “It’s part of my childhood.”

This year, he has only 10 left from his mother’s last visit, so he is rationing them: He has some each Friday, to mark the communal Friday prayer and the end of the workweek.

Hassen Mostafa Hassen in Arlington, Virginia

Hassen, 32, grew up in Saudi Arabia with his Eritrean parents. This is the second year he has observed Ramadan from within the Arlington County Detention Facility.

Last year, he ate with other Muslim inmates. Now he eats alone, but there is an important addition to the menu: dates. “It connects me so much to my childhood memories,” he said. “I’m in a bad situation, but this is something sweet.”

Muslims make up about 9% of state prisoners, though they are only about 1% of the US population, according to a 2019 report from the civil rights organisation Muslim Advocates. Born to Muslim parents, Hassen has practiced Islam his whole life. He helps the many inmates who convert to Islam while incarcerated deal with the rigors of fasting.

“It gives you time to stop your life and your worldly matters, just to take time and worship your creator,” he said. “It’s a very spiritual thing. You have to be 100% in.”

Hassen is 16 months into an eight-year sentence for drug and weapons charges, and has been working to reflect on his life and prepare for his return to society. He is learning American Sign Language, though he has no one to practice with. He keeps a journal, and helps clean and sanitise the jail to try to protect prisoners and workers from the virus.

“The thing that’s keeping me very sane,” he said, “even through the amount of time that I have, is prayer.”

Yazan Natsheh in Plano, Texas

Natsheh, 19, was born in Hebron, in the West Bank, and brought to the United States as a baby. The family moved around for his father’s career in information technology, spending only a year or two in each city. The Palestinian flavors of his mother’s cooking were the only constant.

In his first year at the University of Texas at Dallas, he joined the founding chapter of Alpha Lambda Mu, the country’s first Muslim fraternity. It is named for three letters that start several chapters of the Quran: Alif, Laam, Meem.

His social and spiritual life grew richer. He leaned on his fraternity brothers to help him remember to pray five times a day. The fraternity does not have a house, but the brothers stay close, sharing activities and meals. Now, when Natsheh can’t invite them for iftar at his parents’ house in Plano, north of Dallas, he is sending them chat pictures of the meals he makes with his mother.

“It’s a way for me and her to bond with each other,” he said.

One night Natsheh made maqluba, a Palestinian meat and rice dish that is flipped upside-down, and he wants to learn to make idreh, a special lamb dish from Hebron.

“When I make Palestinian food, I’m very much carrying on the legacy that I’ve been given from my ancestors,” he said. “I want to teach it to my kids, here, in America. We’re the only things that carry it through. If we lose it, it’s gone.”

A housekeeper in New York City

When the pandemic worsened, a Manhattan mother of three took time off from her housecleaning job. But in April, her boss asked her to come back to work.

Housekeepers are not considered essential workers, but she helps support her young children and family back in Indonesia. Although her husband is employed, she can’t afford to lose her job. And she asked not to be identified in this article, for fear of losing work.

Now, three times a week, she takes the bus from her home in Alphabet City to clean an apartment on the Lower East Side. “When the bus is full, it’s very concerning to me,” she said. “I don’t want to get too close to people.”

But her family makes her smile, even when days are challenging. She has been waking at 3:30 a.m. to prepare breakfast for her children. “I’m a mom,” she said, laughing. “We’re always the first person up.”

After she gets home in the afternoon and takes a shower, she soothes herself by preparing the iftar meal. The familiar smells of kentang balado, potatoes with hot red sauce, and ikan acar kuning, yellow fish, remind her of Indonesia.

Before Ramadan, she bought a 25-pound bag of tapioca to make her own bubble tea. Her three children wanted some, and delivery looked expensive. “But, oh, it’s so much work,” she said.

One night, she used some of that tapioca to make her favourite meal, bakso meatballs. She put ground beef, tapioca and egg whites in a food processor with garlic, salt and white pepper. Her children devoured it. She loves praying with them, and cherishes the meals they share.

She has not spent a Ramadan with her family in Indonesia for many years because school vacations do not always line up with the holiday. Sometimes she cries when she reads the Quran. One year, before her children are grown, she hopes they will celebrate with their grandparents again.

c.2020 The New York Times Company