How America Has Changed The Way I Look At Ramadan

by Muslim Girl
Hasnaa Mokhtar

In June, Bustle is partnering with Muslim Girl to highlight the voices of millennial Muslim women as they observe the holy month of Ramadan. Read on as they share stories of how they personally observe this holiday, and why this year's Ramadan is especially significant.

I miss the fresh, lemony fragrance of mastic incense my grandmother used to burn in her dining room in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. On the first day of Ramadan, she would line up her gold-rim water glasses on a hand-carved wooden tray to perform the annual tradition. Each glass must be held on top of the mastic aromas upside down until a tiny white cloud forms inside the drinking vessel. The glasses then would rest back on the tray to lock in the scent until Iftar time. It’s that time of the year when Dad, Uncle, aunts, siblings, and cousins gathered to celebrate the month. At sunset, drinking cold Zamzam water in the mastic scented glasses was the sweetest treat that quenched everyone’s thirst after a long, hot, and humid fasting day.

That was one of countless, intricate customs I grew up observing and admiring during the holy month of Ramadan. Now that I reside in the United States, the month is almost unfamiliar; the days are bland, scentless, and lonely. As I go about my daily routine, I find my fasting to be more challenging not just physically, but also emotionally. Being a practicing Muslim in America today and witnessing political, xenophobic rants dehumanize, kill, and harm Muslims, minorities, and refugees is agonizing. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson allegedly declined to host a traditional Ramadan function this year — something the State Department has hosted almost annually since 1999 — and Trump’s Ramadan greeting focused on terrorism and rejecting violence instead of celebrating the blessings of the month and what it means for us. Moves like these send unwelcoming and alienating messages to Muslim Americans.

Hasnaa Mokhtar

It’s been five years since Gramma passed away and I moved to America. Despite the thorny relationship I had with her, I cherished the memories she helped create for our family, especially during Ramadan. She made every single day of the month feel homey. The spirit of abstaining from eating and drinking invited people to transcend disagreements and come together to worship God individually and collectively. Ramadan is the time to pause, detox from unhealthy, worldly pursuits, and recenter intentions on spiritual harmony. As a community, we prayed Tarawih, read Qur’an, amped up community engagement and charity outreach, counted our blessings, reevaluated the moral and ethical dimensions of our existence, and utilized the 30 days to cleanse our minds, bodies, and souls.

Yet a fasting experience on American soil meant having to explain myself over and over to non-Muslims ... that this annual obligation carries special gifts of growth and deep inward reflections no matter how “harsh” the practice might seem.

And then there were the sacred journeys to the holiest of places; performing the smaller pilgrimage, Umrah, in Mecca and visiting the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. I’d have butterflies in my stomach during the drive from where I lived to each city. Despite the hunger and thirst, I always felt a sense of exuberance walking down memory lane of the beloved prophet Muhammad. To visit Mecca, we’d all dress in white and drive in the family’s four-wheel vehicle. Umrah rituals require us to go around the Kaaba and between Mount al-Safa and al-Marwa seven times while reciting prayers and supplications. In Medina lays the grave of our prophet Muhammad and his companions Abu Bakr and Umar. We visit them to whisper our greetings and prayers. In Ramadan, people would voluntarily organize Iftar in both mosques where dates, bread, yogurt, and Zamzam water served as the essential ingredients for the feast at dusk. Yet a fasting experience on American soil meant having to explain myself over and over to non-Muslims; that I won’t die or get sick because I won’t eat or drink from dawn until dusk, that I can’t even have a sip of water, that fasting is a challenge but it’s rewarding, that this annual obligation carries special gifts of growth and deep inward reflections no matter how “harsh” the practice might seem.

Since I left Jeddah, the cozy, intimate vibes of Ramadan have been fading away year after year. The month now revolved around me, my husband, and occasional Iftar with Muslim friends we’re formally acquainted with. We reminisce daily about fasting near Mecca and Medina, and the things we yearned for: coming together at Iftar table every day of the month with friends and family, hearing the call for prayers from the mosque’s outdoor speakers, staying up late at night to pray due to flexible Ramadan working hours, buying the distinct types of dates to eat and share with others, gulping Qamar al-Din (apricot drink) and munching on cream and pistachio-stuffed Qatayef, and most importantly having the access to hop over to Mecca and Medina as we pleased.

Contemplating my journey of fasting another Ramadan, I reflected on the memories and meanings of home, community, and belonging. My heart sank into despair thinking of the people surviving violence, calamities, and wars in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Palestine, Libya, and Somalia. As my husband and I prepared to break our fast, he noticed that my emotions got the best of me. “You have a cozy home and can fly to visit Mecca and Medina. Some live in camps and can’t go back home. Others have lost their loved ones. Be grateful, forgiving, and hopeful even if things are gloomy. That’s the spirit of Ramadan,” he whispered.

I wiped my tears, broke my fast, and sat on my prayer rug. I prayed for my grandmother, humanity, and the evils of the world. May God grant us this Ramadan the strength, courage, and stamina to stand up for the marginalized, speak the truth, and be merciful and forgiving even toward those who did us wrong. Ameen.

—Hasnaa Mokhtar