Experiencing Ramadan in the West
“I often say to people that what makes fasting hard for me is coffee. I don’t mind going without food or water, I just can’t get anything done without my morning coffee,” says Noran Azmy.
Azmy, living in Germany, faces the same problem we all face across the world. Fasting has always been difficult because you miss your source of energy that – in your head – is the fuel you need to kick start your day.
“The truth is, I fast wrong,” Noran explains. “Fasting is like rehab. An all-purpose annual rehab for the Muslim. You get a chance to let go of the things that weigh you down. And if you end up planning your Ramadan around those things, then you’re doing it wrong.”
While the thought of being abroad in Ramadan feels like stripping it from its key elements, some see Ramadan abroad as being an experience that helps you spiritually and empowers your relationship with God.
“Being abroad means there’s no pressure to follow a certain norm. No Ramadan spirit either, but rather a strong spirit within. It’s something between you and your God. The noise of a community’s standards fades away and like a blank sheet of paper, [it’s] completely up to me to fill, which kind of brings you back to the essence of religion.” – Mariam Al Molla, Denmark
“Being alone in Ramadan gives one the time and mental capacity to be spiritual and think about life. Over here in Germany, you have all the time in the world. No family events. Not as many outings. No Ramadan TV shows. It’s sad and useful at the same time.” – Hossam Abuzaid, Germany
This statement reminds us how little “time” we actually have in Egypt. And with Ramadan, the little time at hand somehow dissolves into thin air with all the 3azayem and Ramadan rituals leaving us a little bit envious of those not facing our time issues.
Does being abroad affect your spirituality?
“Yes, you don’t hear out loud reciting of Qur’an or you don’t join masses of half a million praying the Tahajod on the Qadr Night. However, all the daily chores that are hell in Ramadan in Egypt – associated with people being nervous and intolerant and the traffic jams – are avoided.
In Europe and on a smaller scale in Brazil, there is a large presence of Muslim community that stays together and works together on maintaining their spiritual level as well as their cultural traditions all throughout the year, and Ramadan is no exception.
In fact, it’s much nicer to surround yourself with Muslims from other nations as an Arab as you are looked at as ‘the Godfather’ of Muslims. – Karim Safty, Brazil
“The Ramadanic atmosphere that constantly surrounds one in Egypt has its spiritual uses too, sometimes. It’s a constant reminder that this is a holy month. You should be praying. Go on.
Over here, it’s all up to you. You can either use the abundance of time for prayer and spirituality, or you could end up wasting all that time doing nothing. So being alone here in Ramadan requires a certain amount of self-discipline to get anything done. But again, what doesn’t?” – Hossam Abuzaid, Germany
“In general Ramadan here is all about the 3ebada on your own, and not in a community or on the streets. It doesn’t have the social side of it. But on the other hand, no 3azayem and no going out means you have more time to focus on your spirituality. I even pray taraweeh on my own with my own Quran, which is something I had never done before.” – Salma Kabil, United Kingdom
“The good thing about being abroad in Ramadan is that there are no distractions. There are no billion 3ozoomas and daily outings and constant mosalsalaat and endless food and desserts and forced socializing, so you’re kind of forced to focus on what actually matters, and what Ramadan is really all about.” – Noha Serageldin, Australia
If we were to ask someone from the Middle East what Ramadan meant, “family gatherings” and “3azayem” would be one of the most common responses; how does that affect your Ramadan?
“In general, I’d say being alone hurts you a lot, spiritually. In Ramadan, the lack of ‘festivities’ in itself does not bother me so much as the quality of the mosque experience. Usually, there is one mosque per town and no matter its condition or the quality/content of the taraweeh prayers and lessons, you have to deal with it.” – Noran Azmy, Germany
“I feel alone at times and I feel unique at other times. My bond with God is growing since He is my only support, it sounds like that’s how it should be.” – Mariam Al Molla, Denmark
“I made lasagna on the first day of Ramadan, and that’s what I’ve had every day since. You reach a point where you are not bothered by the food, you don’t care.
Unlike in Egypt, when all you could think about was your mother’s fatta for today’s Iftar, your aunt’s amazing mahshy for the next day, your cousin’s wonderful konafa for the third. And, of course, you eat everything on the table, you have dessert, and you can’t even move from your chair!” – Salma Kabil, United Kingdom
How does it feel to be surrounded by non-Muslims in a foreign country in Ramadan?
“People are eating all around, I love that. I love the freedom of religion and practice. I love that not everyone has to be a Muslim for me to be able to be a Muslim. It doesn’t make me hungry to see someone eat as I fast.
But it gives me something, I don’t know what it is. Maybe it gives me the purpose of what fasting tries to teach, that we don’t need to conceal the desired in order to control our desires. Otherwise, it isn’t really self-control is it?” – Mariam Al Molla, Denmark
“Everyone around you is completely oblivious and most don’t even have a clue what Ramadan is! The need to go outside and scream, ‘Don’t you realize it’s Ramadan?!’ is overwhelming! – Noha Serageldin, Australia
“The spirit of Ramadan is totally lost here. We are lucky that our home countries make such a big deal of it. It’s a wonderful feeling and anyone not there know they are missing a lot.” – Salma Kabil, United Kingdom
“It’s hard to set an example for your religion, something I love so much but don’t necessarily do so well. A friend came over for lunch, they don’t know of Ramadan. People here are curious. They ask questions to inquire not to criticize.
I conceal my hunger and my lack of energy as if I’m trying to defend God rather than believe in Him and believe that He knows what’s best welli mesh 3agbo inshalla ma 3agabo.
I find traces of the Arab Egyptian in me when on the inside, I don’t like to have my God questioned, and then I remind myself that God himself asked us to question and look and that God himself criticized those who follow their predecessors blindly.” – Mariam Al Molla, Denmark
“It also makes you appreciate Muslim passers by saying Ramadan Karim as you nod back, both of you acknowledging the long day of thirst and heat. At first it was a battle and now, hamdila, it’s just a little thirst at the end.” – Salma Kabil, United Kingdom
What’s the greatest challenge you’ve faced or the biggest difference you’ve had trouble with in regards to Ramadan?
“A big thing for me is how badly I miss the sound of the Athan. Outside of Ramadan, it’s already bad enough, but you feel the void and the longing for the sound of a thousand simultaneous Athans much more during Ramadan. It really sucks having to check your phone to see if it’s time to eat or not.” – Noha Serageldin, Australia
“I feel sad every time I know my family are gathered up for Iftar, I wish I was with them.” – Salma Kabil, United Kingdom
“The responsibility. It’s scary because the responsibility is all mine yet it feels like that’s how it should be.” – Mariam Al Molla, Denmark
While the traditions and rituals may change immensely from a foreign country to a Muslim one, Kabil shows us that mothers are pretty much the same all over the world, fantasizing about their children’s food or trying to inhale the aroma while cooking in the hope that maybe, just maybe, it’ll somehow miraculously land in their stomachs and get them through the day.
“I find myself taking deep sniffs of my children’s food while feeding them! Yummmmmyyy cake or rice and potato, everything just seems so delicious! I also eye every single person walking passed me with a cold coffee!” – Salma Kabil, United Kingdom
Even though some people might be oblivious to what Ramadan really is, Safty explains that some countries not only understand, but are more considerate and lenient towards Muslims during this holy month than other non-Muslims in general.
“In Munich for example, buses alter the times of their trips to the mosque to account for the changes in Maghreb prayer time. In the Netherlands, the situation isn’t much different.
A friend was telling me that by corporate law, bosses could be subjected to serious fining and punishment if they mistreat and not account their employees that are fasting (whom are expected to under perform). Funny enough, the same law allows the employer to punish employees that under perform due to a hangover from over drinking the day before.” – Karim Safty, Brazil
WE SAID THIS: As difficult as it might seem, Ramadan abroad can be a spiritual awakening and a discovery of the true meaning of Ramadan.