What I Learned Celebrating Ramadan In Social Isolation

In the beginning I thought, "This will be easy. I don't socialize that much during Ramadan."

I'm not sheltering in place alone with my family; instead, we are all at my parents' home. Normally we'd be in our high rise apartment on the South Side of Chicago with a sliver of a lake view. Our south-facing apartment starts to get hot in March, before the building is forced by city ordinance to turn off the heat and turn on the A/C. But that feeling of heat is one that reminds me of this special month.

It seems like a lifetime ago when our friends would come over and crowd the apartment. The oven would add to the heat wave because I'd be baking spinach pies or frying up ground-beef-filled egg rolls. Many other foods I don't normally make during the rest of the year would be on the menu. My friends and I, all transplants from different places, created our own traditions. We were each other's family.

Every weekend in Ramadan we'd rotate apartments for a potluck. Whoever hosted made the main dish and everyone else brought side dishes or dessert. We're all from different cultural backgrounds and when we'd get together it would become a melding of foods.

Marwa, who lived for a time in Saudi Arabia, would make kabsa, a traditional rice and meat dish from the Gulf. Sama made her famous mango kunafa, a trend that popped up a few years ago in Egypt: heavy whipping cream on top of shredded kataifi dough, topped off with mango slices and drizzled with a sugar syrup. And I'd bring random things, from homemade chocolate cake to an attempt at dairy-free tapioca pudding. The year I made the pudding, my friends were too scared to eat it because they'd never seen anything like it. I admit, I added a little too much tapioca to the pudding and it turned more into a solid mass.

This Ramadan has been difficult. Not in the sense of fasting. I'm used to that. Sure, I might feel a little hungry, but the time passes by quickly. All of a sudden I'm looking back thinking, "Where did the day go?"

The difficulty for me is not being able to share a table with the people I love who aren't sheltering in place with us. There is nothing more heartwarming than sharing your home and a meal with others.

The excitement that usually accompanies Ramadan is not exactly here because each day blends into the next. I want time to slow down a little bit so I can actually take it all in. I feel like I'm living Groundhog Day every day.

I want to stay up till late at night prepping and stuffing grape leaves from the recipe my Lebanese grandmother taught me. I want to compare recipes with my friends and talk about what the newest food crazes are in their home countries. But above all, I want to be with other humans.

I miss the connection. I miss hugging my friends. I miss having a reason to dress up and having to quickly hide the laundry before they arrive.

Initially, I had grand plans for a Zoom meal together. But it's just not feasible. Not everyone wants to be on camera eating food. But also, by the time we eat, it seems like it's time to get ready for bed to start everything all over again the next day. Iftar, or the breaking of the fast, is around 8 p.m. and so by the time I eat, I'm exhausted and have no motivation or energy left.

I love my family, but this quarantine has tested me in so many ways. Being tired and hungry and dealing with e-learning and remote work, all while trying to figure out what to cook, depending on whether we have the ingredients, has been more than I wanted to think about.

But, at the same time I recognize that these are all trials and tribulations that are minute in the grand scheme of things. Ramadan is about testing our patience and learning to cope with less. This Ramadan I would say that the lesson is being felt on many levels. We aren't drowning ourselves in endless buffets and dinner parties. But are using this time to reflect, help others, and take time with ourselves to focus on what matters.

Instead of drooling over recipes and dreaming up what we're going to eat once we're not fasting, we're finding ways to provide food for those in need. So far, we've been able to cook food to send some to our neighbors, and we've also been contributing more to organizations that have food pantries and can reach a wider number of people. When we could be bingeing on shows, we're taking the time to practice mindfulness and thankfulness for what we have. During the day when we're tired and could easily zone out in front of a TV show while we wait for the time to pass, we'll go for a walk and take in the natural beauty around us. We also gather from time to time as a family to do some sessions on Headspace to clear our minds and be present in the moment.

As Ramadan comes to a close, I can easily look back and say that despite the difficulties, it has been a month I'll never forget. Not because we couldn't do all the things we wanted, but because we have been present.