Going home with a significant other for the holidays can be a real mental game, especially for the first time. Will his parents like you? Will her sisters judge your every move, outfit, accidental snort? All. Eyes. On. You. Though stressful, it usually comes with a certain amount of anticipated familiarity and expectation. You can safely predict turkey will be on a Thanksgiving table. Presents will likely be exchanged at a Christmas celebration. But WTF do you wear to your first Eid al-Fitr prayer at the mosque with your boyfriend’s family?!
Bound and determined not to make a fool of myself, I googled the shit out of this question. Things were getting serious between me and my Muslim boyfriend and I recognized that bringing a non-Muslim girlfriend home for the holidays was not terribly easy or common practice. I was hellbent on not making an ignorant American out of myself, exposing my little knowledge or understanding of Ramadan and Islam to my boyfriend’s family.
I started feeling extreme anxiety the night before Eid, pulling out a million things from my closet as possible outfits. I called and texted my boyfriend every few minutes with another question or to run a possible option past him. He assured me, “Just cover your head, dress modestly – like, wear something you’d wear inside a church,” trying to assuage my nerves with a point of reference. “Jeans are totally cool,” he offered.
I didn’t find solace in any of my boyfriend’s suggestions, deciding to go rogue and prep myself in the best ways the Internet had to offer. Knowing that women wear hijab – a head covering – inside the mosque to pray, I spent the eve hours of Eid practicing wrapping the scarf, searching desperately in the mirror for confidence. I looked for hijab hacks on Pinterest. I pulled up YouTube videos to help me pronounce “As-Salaam-Alaikum,” the common Arabic greeting meaning “peace be unto you.”
We arrived early to the mosque the morning of Eid to pray the Salat-al-eid— the morning prayer that commemorates the end of Ramadan. I insisted that we arrive extra early because I was so worried that I’d miss it. As we sat in the parking lot, I observed the women entering into the mosque. Umm…no one seemed to be wearing jeans! Or pants for that matter. In fact, most of the women were dressed more traditionally and on the conservative side of the spectrum. I looked up at my boyfriend, tears welling in my eyes, embarrassment flushing my face, and whimpered, “I’m wearing a fucking 3/4 sleeved blazer. I can’t go in there.”
My boyfriend hopped on the phone while I wallowed in self-pity and before I could get over my self-consciousness, help was on the way! My sister-in-law hopped into the car, beaming with a smile, an arm full of fixer-upper-Eid-clothes, and wearing a hijab. I had never seen a veiled Rania, donning her Eid best.
“Here! Put this abaya on over your clothes and then I’ll show you how I wrap my scarf.”
Once the crisis was averted, we shuffled into the mosque as a family right as salat was about to begin. My boyfriend and the men in his family went in one direction, as I was whisked off to the women’s side of the mosque with my sister-in-law. I’m not gonna lie, I felt a little bit like E.T. dressed in girl’s clothes, unnatural and exposed as a pig in lipstick. But my ego started to subside as the women began forming their prayer lines, squishing together tightly, shoulder to shoulder and neatly tucking me into the linear mix. No one cared what I was wearing, as they turned their minds and hearts to God.
After prayer, I was totally over my embarrassment and very excited for the next portion of the Eid celebrations: breakfast at the Original Pancake House. I relaxed and got comfortable, eating pancakes was something I was very familiar with. It was cool to see the place packed with jovial Eid celebrants, emerging from a month of fasting with boisterous laughter and fancy Eid threads. As I daydreamed over a fat stack of flapjacks, I giggled at the thought of unknowing Middle Americans stumbling upon this hopping Eid scene, unaware of the big Muslim holiday festivities unfolding at this unsuspecting suburban location. For them, it was just breakfast. For the observing Muslims, it was the end of an entire month of spiritual discipline.
It was here that I came to the realization that my previous anxiety was partially rooted in the desire to make a good impression on Ahmed’s family, but mostly absorbed in fear due to lack of familiarity. I felt ignorant – I knew little to nothing about Ramadan observance or the Muslim religion in general. I was too caught up in my desire of being perceived as a nice white lady, open and affirming, totally worldly in cultural understanding, and “with it.” Silly me, had I just asked questions and for help early on, I could have avoided the anguish entirely.
This year’s holy month of Ramadan is in full swing! To spare you some of your own nervous, naive heartache, I have outlined some of the most common questions about Ramadan so that you can skip feeling like a complete dummy. From there, I encourage you to ask Muslim friends and co-workers questions for deeper, more personal understanding!
What is “Ramadan?”
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, the holiest and most sacred month of the year for Muslims. It is celebrated because they believe that it was during this month in history that the first verses of the Quran were revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.
During this month, nearly 2 billion Muslims worldwide fast each day from sun-up to sun-down in an act of spiritual discipline. Ritual fasting – known as Sawm – is one of the five pillars of Islam. Ramadan is a month of consciousness, intention, and compassion for those less fortunate. Though it centers on the individual’s contemplation about one’s relationship with God, it’s a time of great camaraderie and family time, as everyone is on the same schedule and going through the same pious acts together.
January 1. July 4. December 25. But, like, when is Ramadan?
If you’re looking at a Gregorian calendar, the dates change each year! Muslims follow a lunar calendar based on the phases of the moon, which moves backward approximately 11 days each year in relation to the standard Gregorian calendar. This means that Ramadan is experienced during all different seasons from year-to-year. For the last few years, Ramadan has fallen during summer months, meaning longer daylight hours and longer fasting times.
Ramadan commences with the sighting of the new moon – a crescent moon – in the ninth month. Lunar months last 29 to 30 days depending on when the new moon is sighted.
Do Muslims just not eat for 30 days? They can’t even drink water?!
Muslims are on a spiritual journey as humans, not robots! Of course they eat during the month! They simply fast while the sun is out – dawn to dusk – breaking the fast as the sun sets and moon appears. The meal that breaks the fast is called iftar, while many people wake up early to eat a predawn meal called suhoor to fill their bellies for the next day of fasting.
During the fasting hours, Muslims abstain from ingesting any sort of substance, even water. This also includes cigarettes and chewing gum. Oh, and married couples also abstain from sexual intercourse during daylight hours, which is unrelated to food, but a fun fact.
Does everyone fast? Even the kids?!
Participating in the fast is a rite of passage and a privilege, as it is a personal choice among those who have reached puberty. There are exemptions for fasting, including children, the sick, the elderly, and pregnant women or those menstruating.
What is “Eid?”
“Eid” translates most closely to festival or feast. There are two Eids that happen in the Islamic calendar. The first is Eid al-Fitr, “The Festival of the Breaking of the Fast,” which marks the end of the month of Ramadan. The second is associated with a different holiday later in the year. Eid al-Fitr usually includes prayer at the mosque, lots of food, donning your newest clothes, presents and sweets for the kids, and celebrating with friends and family.
What should I say to a fasting Muslim?!
Ramadan Mubarak – translation: have a blessed Ramadan
Ramadan Kareem – translation: have a generous Ramadan
Happy Ramadan – translation: I don’t want to eff up the pronunciation, but I really hope you enjoy your holy month!
Thirsty to experience a little of Ramadan? Try this Karkadé recipe. Karkadé is a delicious hibiscus beverage, a refreshing Ramadan fast-breaking staple.
Illustration by Kate Worum
BY Ashley Paguyo El Shourbagy - May 31, 2017
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.