The Days That Keep Us Together
For billions of Muslims in the world with billions of differences among them, Ramadan and Eid are rare moments of shared experience.
Like all Islamic holidays, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr are determined by the lunar calendar. Two of the biggest celebrations felt around the world, the days of jubilation can be interpreted and practiced in different ways from mosque to mosque, congregation to congregation. As a person of multiple heritages and homes — a child of immigrants, Muslim, from the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, raised in the West — I grew up no stranger to fragmented identities. But the Eids provide an opportunity for respite from the ordinary fatigue that informs my complicated connection to my self, my histories, my faith.
I know better than to expect every day to be like Eid, but the allure of a genuine, reciprocally beneficial ummah still exists in me.
The multiplicity of worship at massive Eid morning turnouts is a sight to behold, and one of the few instances where Muslims temporarily leave their local masjids and neighborhoods to come together as one grand body. Some arrive dripping in shimmery fabrics, others draped in solid-colored one-piece ensembles, alone or coupled, oftentimes with children in tow. One of the first things I notice, without fail, is the different ways that prayer is performed. Feet to feet, foreheads resting on smooth stones or the lush mats lugged from home. Momentarily, we share a singular motive. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, says the imam over a loudspeaker in so many words. Everyone nods in approval, a quiet hum of devotion uttered at once. I know better than to expect every day to be like Eid, but the allure of a possible genuine, reciprocally beneficial ummah still exists in me, childlike in its aspirations.
Eids are good days only by intention and determination. They require a relinquishing of pettiness, of quick tempers and smart mouths, something that I haven’t quite gotten the hang of yet. My parents are my pillars of patience when I fall short in this respect. I think of the joy on my father’s face as we drive to Eid prayers and nasheeds, or Islamic praise songs, blare from car to car, all in their own languages and cadences. About how my mother hands out homemade Ethiopian bread — dabo or himbasha — and milky, spiced tea to the women around her, the smiles exchanged. Eid is meant to be a sigh of relief. Either the fasting is over, or Ibrahim’s diverted sacrifice inspires us to keep pushing forth in spite of our nafs, or egos, renewing our intentions of dedication to each other, to our faith.
The night before the Eids, I speak to my mother’s cousin, twice removed, or my father’s nieces and nephews, all in the same place at the same time, passing the phone from one person to the next. My family are spread across countries and continents, all with their own preoccupations, and often, the end of the holy month is the only time we touch base with one another. It can be overwhelming to think of the number of phone calls, emails, texts, and Skype calls that are expected to take place, but it’s a good kind of rush. A reminder that the bubbles we live in are not the beginning or end of our journeys. That reconnection is possible.
On a good year, Eid is one of the rare times I’ve ever felt like I truly belonged.
Like most holidays, Eid is meant to be both a lesson and a blessing. Cleanliness of the mind and body are integral to the practice of Islamic faith. That, of course, extends to cleanliness of the home, especially significant on the eve of Eid or the days leading up to Ramadan. Neglected tiles are buffed to perfection, freshly picked flowers are set out to bloom on glimmering coffee tables, new majlis sets — intricately designed elevated cushion seating — are ordered and arranged on a particularly festive year. The night before, we apply intricate henna or mehndi on our hands and on our scalps, sometimes even the forearms and feet if time allows. On the morning of, we line our eyes with dark, black kohl, from back home if we’re lucky, or from Sephora if we were caught off guard by the lunar calendar. We embody our best selves as we hurry to make it to prayer on time before mapping out the rest of the day.
On a good year, Eid is one of the rare times I’ve ever felt like I truly belonged: the anxieties of division or hierarchy in Muslim communities by way of racial or cultural differences, schools of thought, or clothing scrutiny were replaced with big hugs, greetings shouted across streets. Unsaid words or grudges were put to rest for the sake of families and friends, minuscule in the grandiose nature of the day. Eid was Eid. All peace be upon yous and quietly transferred fistfuls of bills from one hand to the next.
They — meaning my guiding light, Mama — always said that the holidays are primarily for the kids, after all. That they exist to instill a sense of self, to teach stories of their spiritual ancestors. I guess she’s right. Many of my most vivid childhood memories occurred on one of the two Eids. The time that one of the straps of my Sailor Moon backpack snapped as the masjid emptied. The front teeth I lost in an apple, proudly displaying my gummy smile in every snapshot. The loss of two family members as I grew older and learned of mortality: One when I was 15 and sat, nauseated and lightheaded, in first-period English after a teary phone call from two oceans away, and the second, when I was 21 and rushed home from the university library to a quick and sudden transcendence.
There is no rhyme or reason to death, or when or where the lungs will seize up, refusing to allow one more inhalation. It takes a few departures to know that there is so much we’ll never know about each other, even the ones we call family. There is so much that will be plainly laid with their bodies, washed and wrapped in white linen. Prayed over and eventually forgotten, only remembered when we come together once more. Maybe death cements belief in a type of faith that prioritizes the Unseen when so much is unclear. Mourning can serve as a spiritual act in and of itself. Forced congregations — weddings, baby showers, deaths, prayers — become the catch-up sessions, the glue that holds a people together, in happy times and exhausting tribulations alike.
Still, faith has never been an easy thing for me. It wasn’t that I had ever actively disbelieved, but not unlike anything else, I experienced highs and lows with its practice in real time, day in and day out. For many hailing from Muslim backgrounds — especially those of us in foreign lands — faith was taught to us with the attentiveness of a school curriculum. Parents, family, and teachers worked together to cultivate what they believed would be a model citizen, a child actualized in their future by a strong foundation. But to come into yourself as an adult is to reassess the building blocks that amount to who you are. Choosing faith then becomes a conscious decision, a thing that requires labor and self-discipline. It becomes even clearer, then, that Eids — and Ramadans, and any other religious occasion — are days that are memorable due to intention and determination alone. That’s especially true for Muslim women, for black Muslims. For queer Muslims. For the “Ramadan Muslims.” For immigrant Muslims in limbo. For Muslims grieving unspeakable intimate bonds.
The consistency of Eid and the routines that come with it bring me back home when I need it most.
Though the reasoning behind my personal cause for celebration has changed over the course of my life, the consistency of Eid and the routines that come with it bring me back home when I need it most. I’m not sure if the feeling of Eid — the togetherness of a larger Muslim collective, of empathy and gentleness — ever felt real enough, to me, to be legitimately sustainable. Maybe it’s not meant to last, but reserved for the next moon or pilgrimage. A dosage of a specific warmth saved for rejuvenating us at our weariest. A major tenet of Ramadan is du’a, or supplication between the believer and their God. Much of that involves recognizing the ailments of people across the world and in our own backyards, the violence inflicted on ourselves and on us. We reflect on our conditions, individual and communal, and hope to do more, to be better.
We shed tears, we stand until our knees give out, shedding all pretenses and judgment. Eid is an extension of that sigh. Of physical exhaustion built back up with your nearest and dearest. A reminder that everything works in cycles. To have faith is to know that relief will always find you, even if for a couple days or weeks, until it all starts again. I’ve always been more fascinated with what happens once the machine of suhoor or sehri, iftar and taraweeh stops and the worldly life picks back up, unconcerned with spiritual wellness and communal piety. By virtue of Ramadan, stillness and renewed focus can be stronger than the chaos of reality. After that, the choice is yours.