Where the Community at?
I used to think fasting Ramadan in the USA was difficult. The summer after sophomore year, I had to fast while working at Baskin Robbins – I was really hungry and thirsty and most customers, ordering large fruit blasts and premium sundaes (with extra fudge), were oblivious to my struggle. Even praying was difficult. Around the same time every shift, I would ask Kristy or Jason to please watch the front while I disappeared into the small, smelly back storage room to lay out a tiny white prayer rug and hastily pray four disjointed, non-focused raka’as. Other than my odd, timed disappearances to that smelly little room, I looked and acted like your average 16-year-old American teenager. I would spend the vast majority of my days reflecting on how “boring” and “dull” it was to observe Ramadan in the USA, and daydreamed about how amazing it must be to be part of the festivities in a far far away land that officially observed the Holy Month.
Looking back, Ramadan was actually not that bad in the USA! I was part of a loving, tight-knit family, and a large muslim community. I would dress up every night, mom would make a special dish and we would all head to our local mosque to break fast with the rest of the community. They were potluck community iftars, so it was quite normal to see a plate of spicy samosas sitting next to a dish of mac & cheese, and a jug of Jallab by the bottles of 7UP. The variation in the dishes represented the diversity of our Northern Virginia suburban muslim population. It seemed “boring” and “dull” at the time, and I remember rolling my eyes and asking mom every 15 minutes if we were done eating and ready to go. Now, I think about these memories fondly and have finally found the truth behind the statement, “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”!
We Packed Up and Left the USA, Bound for the UAE
I moved to UAE almost four years ago with my convert husband, 3-year-old daughter, and 9-month-old baby girl. We were excited to experience Ramadan and Eid as a family in a Muslim country! I still remember how bewildered we were with the amazing Ramadan decorations all over the streets and beautiful flickering lights. I also used to stop and take photos of every single Ramadan store window displays of American brands such as Gap and Tommy Hilfiger (such a newbie, hahaha). It was so surreal. Then the reality sunk in…
For me, as an American (muslim) expat living in a Muslim country, the month of Ramadan and Eid encapsulated two opposing realities. At the macro-level we were part of a larger “ummah” community that reinforces the Ramadan spirit of fasting and connecting with spirituality, something that was lacking in the USA. But, at the micro-level without our extended family or a community to break fast with, it was a very lonely and not so festive Ramadan experience.
I was shocked at the sudden change in pace – everything came to a screeching halt. In the U.S., we were used to fasting around people eating, commuting and working long hours, and basically just going about our business like nothing is happening. Here in the UAE, Ramadan dominates the streets and ways of living. It is difficult and close to impossible to meet with moms for a quick coffee, playdate, or lunch. Also, work and school takes a backseat with shorter hours, and the streets and malls are deserted during the day. Ramadan is already a lonely and slow month for many expats, but I would say especially for muslim expats. Friends who have roots or family in the UAE have their evenings booked solid. It seems like every night is a festive holiday celebration, only without us. The closest way to describe it is that it feels like spending Christmas Eve alone in front of the TV eating cereal, but only doing that for 30 days in a row.
Of course I cannot speak for the larger expat community – everyone comes from different backgrounds, experiences, and family/friend networks . Some are part of an extremely rich community, others have no roots and are miles away from home and lonely, or maybe they are part of both, like us. We are both part of a rich larger community with new budding friendships with people who have roots in UAE, and also miles away from home.
Gotta Revive the Holiday Spirit!
At the end of the day, yes, having a community or family to break fast with is great, but lets not forget that Ramadan is really more about the inward experience of solitude to worship and reflect. It is time for spiritual upliftment, enabling our families to turn inwards, learn self-decipline and to renew our connection to our spirituality. On the other hand, Ramadan is also the time of year when we are reminded that we are not really part of an immediate family or community, and are thousands of miles away from loved ones. It kind of feels like being orphaned. So, its not our style to do nothing – we had to troubleshoot. After our first Ramadan experience I started thinking about how to make the most of these holidays and make this the most wonderful time of the year for our girls.
I love Pinterest and reading DIY articles, but I am not the crafty type. Honestly, I can’t figure out how to put a thread in a needle, don’t own a hot glue gun (had to borrow one from Emirati Mom), and don’t even know where to find a pair of scissors in our not-so-tidy house. When I had Fatima six years ago, my perception about Ramadan and Eid changed. I was suddenly taken over by an enthusiastic mind and a heart that desired magical and memorable holiday experiences for my children. Whether we were in the U.S. eating mac and cheese in a community mosque full of people, or in UAE with our nuclear family in our own dining room in the midst of Khalidiyah – I wanted it to be the most wonderful time of the year for my daughters.
In Part Two of this post, I have learned to get up and shake off the dust, and will share seven awesome traditions we have created and adopted that have done wonders in making this month magical and spiritual for our family. After all, it really is the most wonderful time of the year!
P.S. If you are a solo expat family and are looking to break fast with another family, shoot me an email! We can make it happen! And I really mean it – Esraa@MomsGuideAD.com
Sudanese-American working mom of three. Free Spirit. Idea Curator. Her brain moves faster than her body can go. A laid back chic who walks around with that stereotypical hippie vibe.She is never afraid to give you her unsolicited opinion about gentle parenting. Esraa has been actively over-sharing her motherhood and parenting stories on social media since 2008.