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Holy lockdown: Ramadan during Covid-19

INTERVIEW! The holy month of Ramadan is the most important time of year for Muslims around the world. Many Berliners have been forced to celebrate differently this year, but how? Anna Gyulai Gaal investigates.

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Pre-corona: A 2016 Ramadan dinner for refugees in Berlin. (Photo supplied by author.)

Thousands of “Ramadan Mubarak!” messages flew across the world on April 24, marking the start of the holy month of Ramadan. But the Muslim community’s annual period of fasting looks very different this year, including in Berlin. Mosques are closed, friends and families can’t gather for the evening meal (Iftar) to break the daytime fasting and there will be no Eid, the celebration to mark the end of Ramadan  

Throughout Ramadan, always held during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. It’s a time of prayer, reflection and community. Not only food and drinks are forbidden in the daylight hours – smoking, swearing and sex are also off limits. Instead, Muslims devote themselves to prayer and charity. After sunset, they gather for prayers and meals in mosques or in the homes of friends and family. But this year, the Covid-19 restrictions mean these activities are not allowed.

“It’s a shame but at the same time it makes it easier to distance ourselves from the worldly things,” says Said Ahmad Arif, the theologist and Imam of Pankow’s Khadija Mosque. “This is the whole point of the Ramadan period, to withdraw and reflect. It could have a positive effect on people withdrawing.”

Living without the mosque is like living without water.

“But it is, of course, different than usual,” Said continues. “For some, it’s hard because there’s a strong connection to the mosque. Living without the mosque is like living without water. We share the daily readings online, of course, but for now everyone has to create their own personal mosque at home.”

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Kebba, one of the dishes typically served for Iftar (the evening meal) during Ramadan.

From May 4, religious venues are able to host up to 50 people at once. But some restrictions will remain in place. “The Quran says to pray shoulder-to-shoulder,” the Iman says. “It wouldn’t make sense for us to gather if we have to keep a 1.5-metre distance.”

Fatima and Amani, two Syrian women, have been friends since meeting five years ago at a Berlin refugee camp. They’ve faced many hardships together, but both of their families managed to join them: one in Kreuzberg, one in Zehlendorf. The families would often come together during Ramadan, where children would play and men would smoke shishas while women laid out beautiful spreads of food. After the evening prayer, they would sit and break the fast together, passing around plates to fill with meats, salads and fragrant rice. 

Due to the crowds, Fatima finds shopping difficult. The Berlin police faced the same problem last Friday. They shut down the weekly Turkish market on Maybachufer because people wouldn’t keep their distance, despite being asked to do so many times. “We had no choice but to close the market,” Polizei Berlin said on Twitter.

Fatima’s husband, Jamal, normally travels to Wilmersdorf’s Berlin Mosque on Fridays and holidays. He’s been attached to the beautiful mosque, often referred to as the “mini Taj Mahal”, since he lived in a refugee camp nearby, and kept visiting long after moving to Kreuzberg. The Berlin Mosque tries easing the lives of their members by holding online prayers in the evenings, before breaking the fast. 

“People struggle, because at Ramadan we focus on religion even more,” says Amir Aziz, the Berlin Mosque’s Imam. “We give them a bit of comfort through our online prayers between 10 – 11pm. Many people join the prayers online. Not only from Germany, but from Portugal and Italy, as well!”

The community of Aziz’s mosque, the oldest in Berlin, has been intercultural for a long time. They hold prayers in German, English and Arabic. “The spiritual part is still there,” he says. “It’s the social, communal part missing in this situation. We can’t keep the special routine Muslims follow during Ramadan, but from May 4 we’ll allow up to 50 people to join our ceremonies – with 1.5 metres between them, of course.”

I cannot eat or drink during the day and the kids are driving me crazy. So yes, I think I’m pushing my boundaries more than usual at Ramadan.

Fatima finds it difficult to have four children at home all day. They ask thousands of questions about schoolwork she can’t answer, and in between those questions she must prepare the evening meals. “I cannot eat or drink during the day and the kids are driving me crazy,” she says. “So yes, I think I’m pushing my boundaries more than usual at Ramadan.”

Without the possibility of meeting friends or her usual routine, which includes going to language school herself, Fatima admits the past few weeks have been challenging. “The only upside is that the kids are not tired,” she says. “We wake up before sunrise to eat again. Usually, we would have to start our days then, but now it’s a bit more relaxed. We can lay down together and I can deal with the washing up later.”