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Ramadan, A Holiday Of Nightly Togetherness, Falls Under A Time Of Staying Apart


Ramadan begins this week. It's the month when Muslims fast from dawn till dusk. Typically, it's a time of gathering to eat, to pray, to give to others. In the days of social distancing, NPR's Leila Fadel reports Muslims are planning to adapt their traditions to be together while they're apart.

SARAH ALFAHAM: Yes, where your hand is. OK. Pull it up. You see?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: That's Sarah Alfaham directing her husband Mohamed to hold up the gold curtain she picked up at Walmart to make a canopy.

ALFAHAM: I like it.

FADEL: Voila - it's their at-home prayer space for the month of Ramadan. It's in the corner across from her makeshift office in a tiny apartment they live in outside Minneapolis.

ALFAHAM: So, like, it's just really creating, like, a mosque feel inside your house, in a sense. I don't know how else to do it.

FADEL: She thinks virtual iftars will be awkward. Iftar is breakfast, the meal to break your fast. So instead, she's trying to create that festive Ramadan feel at home. A friend started an Afghan food blog with a family recipe for Kabuli palau (ph), a rice dish with meat broth that she loves.

ALFAHAM: I'm planning to buy a lamb this weekend, and I want to make that and share photos. Like, that's going to be, like, my special, like, feeling it's Ramadan. Mohamed is Somali, and I'm Syrian. So he knows it's Ramadan when it's, like, time to make sambusa.

FADEL: So they'll make those fried dumplings and the Damascene milk soup that she learned from her mother and her mother learned from her grandmother. Instead of an iftar potluck, she and other families are exchanging cards in the mail. She'll do her prayers at home but will really miss the communal Taraweeh prayers many Muslims do at the mosque during Ramadan.

ALFAHAM: You stay up all night with your friends, and then you read Quran. And then you hang out, and you read Quran, you know? And then you do some more prayers.

FADEL: She'll also have to forego the occasional predawn IHOP visit that has become tradition for so many U.S. Muslims.

Meanwhile, in New York City, about 60 people from the community that Imam Khalid Latif leads at the Islamic Center at NYU have died or lost loved ones because of COVID-19. Others are sick, and so many have lost their means of income, so the focus during Ramadan will be to help with a fundraising campaign.

KHALID LATIF: As a community, we're coming together, you know, on what our religion asks us to - real principles, I think, of ethics and social equity and to just simply do what we can to help others in their time of need.

FADEL: People will do their ritual prayers at home on their own. The Islamic Center is doing online lectures, invocations, Quran readings and virtual iftars. Already, Latif says, New York is a lonely city.

LATIF: There's so many people right now who are stuck in places where they're alone or they might've been in the solitude for the last few weeks with somebody who's abusive. You know, that, to me, becomes a concern 'cause the entire premise of our community is that, you know, we seek to build it in a way where nobody has to feel as if they're by themselves or they have to go through anything on their own.

FADEL: So he and his colleagues are reaching out to people individually to check on them.

Many mosques are doing drive-through iftars for those who depend on them for daily meals. Sapelo Square, an online resource for and about black Muslims, is producing daily Ramadan reflections and plans to commemorate Malcolm X's birthday and the site's anniversary next month with performers and speakers on a Zoom call. Many are worried about the loss of community. Ben Johnston, though, just converted and lives in a small town in Minnesota.

BEN JOHNSTON: I was very nervous about the community aspect because I'm doing all this on my own, so I'm looking forward to that having to be online for everyone now.

FADEL: He hopes as others try to take their in-real-life communities virtual, he can spend his first Ramadan as a Muslim with them.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.