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Here’s hoping my family and I won’t look like a depressed and hangry Brady Bunch this Ramadan

Muslims are bracing to start Ramadan locked inside. Given the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Eid-ul-Fitr will be a virtual one.

The author (after trying cut her own bangs) and her older sister, Samina Hussain, at an Eid celebration at McCormick Place in the 1970s.
The author (after trying cut her own bangs) and her older sister, Samina Hussain, at an Eid celebration at McCormick Place in the 1970s.

Chicago police officers would often come knocking at the door, telling us to keep it down whenever our family and friends gathered at someone’s cramped North Side apartment in the 1970s.

Our Ramadan parties were just as lively, I’m guessing, and equally offensive to ticked-off neighbors who weren’t accustomed to the smell of fried South Asian comfort food wafting through the building as the adults broke their fast at sundown.

Our parents weren’t doing anything remotely wild, except for talking a bit loudly, excited to hang out with the only other Indian Muslim immigrants in town.

The problem was us, the children, who were allowed to stay up late without the care of babysitters. We caused a real ruckus by jumping on the beds, playing tag and trying to perfect cartwheels at 1 a.m.

At the end of the holy month of Ramadan, we continued to draw attention as we rode down Lake Shore Drive toward McCormick Place for Eid-ul-Fitr — my dad behind the wheel in his three-piece suit and karakul hat, the rest of us in gold-fringed brocade and other formal wear from India or Sears.

Chicago’s culturally diverse Muslim community eventually outgrew McCormick Place, which to many of us had come to symbolize the holidays we celebrated en masse while the larger mass outside wondered what the heck we were doing and why we were wearing so much bling.

Today, McCormick Place has been transformed into a medical facility to treat those afflicted with COVID-19, and Muslims here and around the world are bracing to start Ramadan at the end of this week locked inside.

Ground beef filled samosas for this year’s Ramadan made by the author’s mother, Jahan Ara Hussain.
Ground beef filled samosas for this year’s Ramadan made by the author’s mother, Jahan Ara Hussain.

Because Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar, the beginning of the month of observance always moves up 10 or 11 days earlier from the year before. That’s why we end up fasting during all seasons, which can be confusing to non-Muslims. They watch us shove Medjool dates in our mouths while at work in a December and then, years later, hear us talk about Ramadan in the summer.

This year, we’ll be a little askew as well.

The elaborate iftar parties where we sometimes induce ourselves into a food coma will be replaced with Zoom chats, where we hope we won’t look like a depressed and hangry Brady Bunch.

The jam-packed and chaotic late-night taraweeh prayers will be moved from mosques to homes, where we’ll still follow the imam — but now online.

We’ll no longer take our sweet time at the grocery store, lingering in the aisles, fantasizing about the empty calories we’ll eat and drink when fasting is over for the day.

And because we’ll be surrounded only by loved ones familiar with the rules of Ramadan, we won’t be saying to shocked co-workers and neighbors, “No, not even water.”

Given the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s Eid-ul-Fitr most likely will be a virtual one.

No crowd-fostering camaraderie, no triple hugs after prayers.

Ramadan is about sacrifice, self-restraint and a heightened connection to God, so sheltering-in-place — as a duty and obligation if we want to stop the spread of the virus and save lives — would seem to be a natural.

We often forget that Ramadan, only recently recognized by Hallmark and mainstream America, first was observed in this country centuries ago by slaves dragged here from Africa.

And now today, of course, we have it easier.

Not to say that present-day Islamophobia, which has upended and snuffed out lives here and overseas, hasn’t dampened our collective spirit. But if the worst we can say is that Ramadan and Eid this year might be lackluster, we can consider ourselves lucky.

My mother is hoping this new normal finally will force me to learn how to cook the Indian food that I overly rely on her for. But she’s still making, for my husband and me, the potato and peas samosas, tamarind-based chutney and dark chickpeas I prefer to break my fasts with.

The rest will get her ground beef samosas.

When I asked my mom and her good friend, Fatima Aunty, about their earliest Ramadans in Chicago, they could barely remember much, except for the joy of finding mangoes at stores owned by Mexicans — then the only other group in town who seemed to know and eat the tropical fruit.

Those were Ramadans with a different feel. Everybody was trying to recreate iftars of the not-so-distant past with people they were just getting to know in a country in which they felt lost.

My parents and their family and friends did not have to find ways to observe Ramadan in a time of social distancing. But they were very much navigating the unknown.

That is what I hope to keep in mind over the next 30 days.

We may be alone, but we’re still doing this together.

Rummana Hussain is an assistant metro editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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