What it’s like celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic for the second time
While I cannot meet my big groups of friends, at least I can visit my grandparents this year.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan started on Apr 12 and will end on May 12. During this time, Muslims are encouraged to practice our faith more often, abstain from certain activities and fast.
As the fasting month approaches us, I usually feel a giddy, almost child-like excitement. Growing up, this time of year is always spent with my extended family at my grandmother’s house.
However, my feelings of happiness were dimmed for the second time due to the pandemic – there would be no Geylang bazaars and no big Raya gatherings even this year.
But life still goes on.
Just like every other fasting Muslim, I start my day at 4am every morning. I help my mother prepare a pre-dawn meal, known as sahur, for my family.
While I used to hate having to wake up early, in recent years I have grown to love and appreciate the extra time in the mornings to prepare food for my family.
The radio is usually turned on for the whole household to hear the prayer call for Subuh, the first of five prayers in a day. Nostalgic Malay songs from the 90s or Quran recitations will play in the background as we set the table and wake the rest of the family up.
It makes me feel happy and satisfied when the rest of my family finishes the meal that we prepared for them early in the morning.
During Ramadan, we have a number of bad habits that we avoid doing such as smoking, drinking, swearing or gossiping. We also listen to less music, make more use of our time learning the Quran, and avoid getting upset.
It may all sound boring and tedious, but it is really fun.
This month, my siblings and I try to not argue over small things like a missing hairbrush or a misplaced phone cable. And anything I accidentally do to upset my siblings will be paid back with chips, instant noodles, or any food of their choice. This works the same the other way round.
My parents find it amusing to watch us bite our tongue and refrain from snapping at each other as we get quite temperamental when we are hungry. We also pray together during prayer times and spend more time at my grandmother’s house.
This makes my parents more at ease, and in that sense, this month makes everyone happy.
The next important meal of Ramadan is Iftar, also known as the breaking of fast. It happens at around 7.10pm, although the timing varies from day-to-day.
I rarely break my fast alone as I take this time to reconnect and rebuild bonds with my loved ones and close friends.
As my friends and I are always busy with school work or our part-time jobs, it has been hard for us to share meals together. However, Ramadan had always given us a reason to break fast and go for nightly prayers, Terawih, together.
Terawih was a huge part of my Ramadan experience for many years as it provided an opportunity for my friends and I to bond and build our faith together.
After prayers, we would sit and lepak in someone’s house or under a void deck for hours. We would sing songs (or as Malays like to say, berjiwang), share stories and snack on chips and kuihs till late night, getting home in time to get two hours of sleep before waking up for Sahur.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic however, some of these things had to change during Ramadan.
Last year, my friends and I broke our fast via video conference platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or House Party. This year, we were lucky enough to have had several opportunities to break fast together. Recently, we even managed to book our Terawih slots in a mosque online!
The biggest change in Ramadan that I experienced last year, and I expect this year too, would be CovEid.
A term affectionately coined together by Muslims celebrating Eid (Hari Raya) during the pandemic last year, CovEid is an Eid celebrated during COVID-19.
Every Raya, I look forward to the first morning of Hari Raya where I would go for Hari Raya prayers at a mosque with my friends.
Upon coming home, my siblings and I would line up to seek forgiveness from my parents for any wrong-doings in the previous year. Then we would embark on a day-long journey: visiting our elders’ houses, eating various Raya cuisines and desserts and collecting sampul Raya (commonly referred to as green packets!).
In 2020, my family and I did not get to buy new Raya clothes, visit houses, enjoy good food or collect Raya money. It was a dull and somber occasion, though we did still dress up and have video calls with our loved ones.
This year, I’m happy that CovEid is a little better than last year, though it may not be as festive as pre-pandemic times.
I did feel slight disappointment when the safe distancing rules recently changed to allow only five visitors in a house, but coped by distracting myself with work, making kuih Raya for my family, cleaning the house, and of course buying myself a new two-piece baju kurung.
Although I may not be able to celebrate the way I had hoped to, Hari Raya will still go on.
Another traditional Ramadan experience that has been missing this year and last year is the brightly-lit streets of Geylang lined with small stores, stalls and mini carnivals.
In its absence, various online bazaars and shops opened up. While convenient and safe, its digital counterpart cannot replace the experience of sights, sounds and smells of glorious foods and drinks.
However, the very nature of Ramadan prevents us from feeling too sad about the small differences. After all, having patience and being grateful for what we already have is a big part of this special month.
COVID-19 has made it challenging for some of us to endure hunger while isolated from friends and extended family. But it is during times of crisis that makes us realise how fragile life can be and how being appreciative and kind can go a long way.
So here I am, sending my friends memes on Instagram, teaching my mom how to call multiple people on WhatsApp video calls on her phone, and praying for a safer and healthier Ramadan next year.