I am jealous of my friends and cousins back in Egypt who get to celebrate the month of Ramadan surrounded by family, who hear the call to the Maghrib prayer and the madfa of iftar announcing the end of the day’s fast, who can walk through decorated streets feeling the holiday spirit and who watch the latest Egyptian TV series without having to pirate it off of some shady website, because I grew up in countries where geographical distance kept me from experiencing any of that. I, too, want to break my fast surrounded by family, to eat my grandma’s and aunts’ cooking, to go out late at night when shops open after iftar, to stay up until morning eating and talking with my friends, to join in on conversations about who the lead actress was going to marry in the end, to pray Taraweeh in the masjid and to be awoken by the Mesaharaty for suhoor instead of by my alarm.
Ramadan had always been my favorite holiday, even more than Eid, but every year, I could not help the sour and empty feeling that surged in my heart whenever I thought how much better it would be if only I spent it in Egypt. It was not until this past year, when COVID-19 forced everyone to isolate in their homes, that I started to reflect on how we celebrate Ramadan in my house and realize how lucky I have always been to have a mother who did everything in her power to recreate the familiar Ramadan spirit so far away from home. Last year was the first time my extended family in Egypt had to celebrate the month of Ramadan alone, pray in their homes instead of the masjid and break their fast in their own homes instead of together at my grandma’s house. This was nothing new to me as I had always celebrated this way, but only when we all found ourselves in a situation of isolation did I begin to see what I had.
My mother begins preparing for Ramadan a whole month in advance — that is usually the same time her favorite Ramadan YouTube playlist makes a comeback — and her preparations constitute the following:
- Start deep-cleaning a corner of the house each day over the course of the month until the whole house sparkles.
- Put up Zeenat Ramadan (triangle decorations), the moon-shaped lights and take out the fanous.
- Prepare several bottles of Tamr Hendi (concentrated tamarind juice), my grandpa’s unique recipe.
- Bake my favorite Egyptian flatbread, aish baladi, since no one wants to eat ful medames with Wonder Bread.
- Buy food we don’t normally indulge in, like tacos or mochi, just in case someone’s craving arises during iftar or suhoor.
- Clean the entire house again a day before Ramadan begins.
- Observe the Ramadan moon sighting in case the original prediction was inaccurate.
- Start planning the Eid party.
When I spoke to my grandma the other day, she was surprised that we still do all this, especially the making of my grandfather’s tamarind juice, confessing that she buys everything from the store. I am ashamed to admit that this has sometimes felt like extra work since we usually spend our days praying or reading the Quran, and because during COVID-19, no one is going to visit us anyway. I had not considered that my mom did all that to give me and my sister a taste of what it is like to be surrounded by love and care during such an important and beautiful month. While it does not replace the warmth of being surrounded by every member of my family and does not compare to hearing the azan before iftar or hearing the streets come alive shortly after the evening prayer, I am so grateful to have been taught to uphold these traditions. I now find myself actually looking forward to my mother’s eagerness which I once rolled my eyes at and found exaggerated. It is what makes the holiday so dear to my heart, even more so than any decorations, any lights, any food or any night out I could have wished for.
As Muslims, we believe that God grants to the person who fasts during Ramadan all their prayers if He believes them to be truly beneficial to the person. I used to pray each year to finally be able to spend Ramadan in Egypt. I now pray to always be blessed with my mom’s voice waking me up for suhoor and with her smile during iftar. To my mama, I am sorry I took so long to see all the love and care you put into Ramadan preparations each year. Thank you for all the beautiful Ramadans you have given me and for the many more to come. As I write this I already know I will wake up tomorrow to “Ramadan Gaana” blasting on TV and the distinct smell of fresh bread mixed with the faint scent of the purple detergent she only uses on our hardwood floors. I am not taking it for granted again.
Columnist Mariam Alshourbagy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.