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Life

What I learned from spending Ramadan under coronavirus lockdown

The pandemic taught me to look at Islam's holy month anew

An imam, joined by just two mosque employees, leads the prayer at Kuala Lumpur’s National Mosque on April 24.   © AP

GEORGE TOWN, MALAYSIA -- In any normal Ramadan, the month Muslims spend daytimes fasting as part of our religious practice, I would be anticipating the delights of iftar, the meal which breaks the fast in the evening, and looking forward to the week I spend in my hometown with my family.

Stretching across the whole ninth month of the shifting Islamic calendar, at the moment falling in spring, Ramadan requires fasting from dawn to dusk every day until Eid al-Fitr, the festival which ends the month. In Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, fasting is a national ceremony, with community outreach, annual bazaars and, for many, an entire change to the pace and routine of daily life.

But this year, instead of an outdoor iftar and the congregational tarawih nightly prayers, we have had coronavirus and lockdown, disturbing our national calm and my personal rituals. Hunger and isolation have not gone well together.

I moved away from home in Terengganu, on the east side of Malaysia, 15 years ago to pursue my studies, but each year I return to spend the week before Eid with my family, enjoying iftar. My mother is president of the house. We operate according to her rules.

I do most trips to the market while she will spend most of her evening reciting the Quran, Islam's holy book, and praying. In our religious belief, every good deed you do will be rewarded times two. Or three, I am not sure. The good deeds include sleeping and avoiding sinful acts; that first one seems easy but the latter is a different story, especially in the time of quarantine.

 A man performs tarawih evening prayers at his home in Kuala Lumpur on April 24.   © Getty Images

Ramadan comes with stillness. There is a certain air of tranquillity every time we enter this holy month; I cannot put my finger on exactly what causes it. It symbolizes our sacrifice of -- culinary -- worldly pleasures for the realm of hunger. It tests our patience and behavior for more than half of every day, where no single drop of water enters our greedy mortal body.

Always with a pair of legs heavy from hunger, most of the evening is spent browsing through a bazaar, stall after stall draped under canopy, where people are selling food and fire crackers -- during the good old days. Not now.

The scents of neon-blue drinks, local cakes arranged into colorful constellations, grilled chicken named after favorite celebrities and rice flavored with herbs linger in the air. My personal favorite is nekbat, a local pastry served with syrup boiled alongside pandan leaves.

Shoppers are sparse at this outdoor market in Kuala Lumpur on April 24, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan.   © AP

Everyone comes home with local desserts as the president of our house adds finishing touches to the dishes, and now we are ready to take the first bite of our dates as an imam recites the adhan, the call to prayer. Dusk. A day goes by in the holy month of Ramadan.

One of the reasons we fast is to test our temptations, and I fail every single time, judging by my impulsive food-buying at the bazaar and my many leftovers. "For moreh," I reply, which is a light meal after tarawih, as soon as I see my mother becoming annoyed with my spending habits.

It is always better to go to tarawih in congregation, either in our own house or a nearby community mosque. I meet most of my childhood friends here. We have a long-lost history in this place -- I was trained in the mosque to become an imam and preacher but, alas, it is a very long-lost history.

Ramadan observers break their daily fast at Merdeka Square, in Kuala Lumpur, on May 13.   © Reuters

I now live in the north part of Peninsular Malaysia, in my own journey as an author and visual artist. But it was always good to be back in this fisherman's village facing the South China Sea, connecting with my roots in the holiest month while appreciating the Lord for all His benevolence.

Ramadan comes with the scent of attar too, fragrant botanical oils distilled through wood. It lingers every time I sujood, or prostrate myself on the floor to God, as I close my eyes and pray for all the good things from God, wishing my dreams will materialize.

"You don't have to come, don't worry, we are celebrating it every year," says my mother. "There is another one coming -- stay there. I have to go. There is this show on TV," she continues, "today's episode is on the prophet Moses."

Online Ramadan bazaar trader Nur Shaheera Mohd Sabri packs spring rolls, while her family members check orders at their home in Sungai Buloh on April 11.   © Reuters

This year is different. I had become so comfortable cruising through the month of Ramadan on autopilot. Now I wake up in the small hours of morning for sahoor, the predawn meal, and go back to bed in hope of a better sleep, but sometimes I wake up again anxiously; questions about when the quarantine will be over, whether I will get any spiritual rewards live in my mind rent-free.

Nothing will ever be the same. The joy of eating between prayers, the joy of laughter among family and friends are now virtually materialized on the screen. A pack of white rice and two dishes, a cup of coffee and the ongoing video call with my mother are my new rituals. We should not try to adapt to distance.

I am president in my own space. But as the month of Ramadan approached, and my housemates and I scrambled to find rice and canned goods, instead of enjoying one final latte at the cafe and blasting out the soul songs of Aretha Franklin, it lacked the stillness of the holy month. The scent of attar is nowhere to be found. It's a different world out there, in here.

A man has his temperature checked at the entrance of the National Mosque on May 15.   © Reuters

With the government's movement controls, everyone is detached from old norms. To be in a congregation is suddenly a fatal threat. From the doorknob to our own family members and neighbors, everything and everyone is a suspect. The same air we used to breathe and were healed by has turned into a life-threatening weapon.

This holy month has been challenging for everyone. Some people are losing their jobs and some the love of their lives. But not everyone is being kind: incoming Rohingya refugees have received mostly xenophobic comments from Malaysians who, apparently, are going through the holy month of Ramadan for spiritual rewards.

In this time of crisis we have realized how fragile life always is, but COVID-19 can only attack our life. What Ramadan this year has made me realize is that our greed and selfishness attack the whole of humanity.

A family waits to enter a shop in Kuala Lumpur on May 11.   © AP

To remain calm in the face of chaos seems impossible but I believe that there must be some wisdom we can learn from a tragedy.

We always find a way, and we must find a new way now. So here I am, teaching my mother another function on Skype, laughing with my friends about memes on Twitter, writing my latest novel and painting in forced solitude, while praying for whatever blessing may come in disguise, or so I have to believe.

It's a dangerous world outside, but Ramadan this year teaches me that such fragility of life creates beautiful meaning in living. And so we must rest and survive, breathing the air of holy month behind a locked door.

Fahmi Mustaffa is a Malaysian author, visual artist and translator.

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