I was 3 years old when my family moved us from our native Egypt to Toronto, and from that young age, I sensed Ramadan was an important time. I noticed that my parents weren’t eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. The house grew still and quiet, but a certain kind of magic hung in the air. It almost felt like we had an invisible but noteworthy visitor, one that followed us across countries and cultures. By the time I was 6, I knew I wanted to be part of that magic too. So one day, as I sat down with my family to fitaar, I proudly announced that I’d only had a few chocolate chip cookies to eat that day.
“I fasted, just like you,” I beamed. The pride in my parents’ smiles made me want to try harder at fasting the next day, and for years after that.
We moved a lot while I was growing up, from Canada to Saudi Arabia and eventually Dubai. But wherever we were, Ramadan with my family felt like home. Whether I lived in Jeddah, Dhahran, or Dubai, it felt like the city fasted as one. Shops closed for the day, work and school hours were shortened, and the streets were empty until they came to life again after sunset and taraweeh prayers and stayed buzzing until the late hours of the night.
I would come home from school, fall into a comalike sleep, and wake up to the mouthwatering scent of my mother’s lentil soup, stuffed grape leaves, molokheya, stewed beef, okra, rice, and breaded chicken. I’d sit down with my family, sleepy-eyed and quiet, and eat after the athaan announced sunset prayers and signaled our ability to break fast. Afterwards, we sat down to tea, dessert, and a dizzying selection of Egyptian soap operas and dramas, custom-made for Ramadan season. With our bellies and hearts full, we’d pray and head to bed, and before dawn the next day, wake up for suhoor to fuel up to do it all again.
Ramadan has always been a kind of homecoming for me, a reminder of my roots and my faith. Unlike my parents, who never miss a prayer, I have never been the most observant Muslim. My parents’ Islam makes faith look effortless, but though I never wanted to admit it, and still don’t, I struggle with it. My dad constantly asks me if I’ve prayed today (I haven’t). So for me, Ramadan always felt like a blank slate, a chance to try harder. And so it became a test of faith and self — one I knew I never wanted to fail.
I never anticipated just how hard it would get.
When I was 17, I left my family behind in Dubai to attend university in Toronto. I was the first woman on both sides of my family to move out in search of education. I felt the weight of that as I made a new home for myself, alone, out of the place we once called home as a family. I was excited and daunted to see what life I would lead as an in-betweener, a child of the diaspora whose home was both everywhere and nowhere, already having spanned five cities in three different countries. And though my upbringing with my family in the Middle East had instilled me a strong sense of who I was, I wondered now about who I’d become on my own.
Now, for example, I had none of the support I was used to during Ramadans with my family. Instead, I was carrying a full course load during bone-chilling Canadian winters, and I’d learned none of my mom’s magic in the kitchen. I occasionally attended iftars held by the Muslim Student Association on campus, but I never felt like a part of their community. I didn’t feel like I had a place in mosques across the city. Some days, family friends invited me into their homes to break my fast with them. And for the evening, I would be surrounded by the sights, smells, and sounds that reminded me so much of when Ramadan felt like home. The evening would ring out with raucous conversations and jokes about politics. We would pray together and eat together. There was tea and packed plates. But inevitably, as the night ended and I headed back to university residence carrying generous leftovers, I was again reminded that now, Ramadan was mine alone to carry. Mostly, I found myself sitting alone to eat at sunset. And if a solo Ramadan fast was sad, sitting down to break it alone was crushing.
It was unsettling to feel crushed during Ramadan. It used to feel reaffirming and rejuvenating. An uncomfortable question followed me through those years: If those warm Ramadans spent with my family were a homecoming to my faith, what were these difficult Ramadans spent alone bringing me home to?
Because the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan begins 11 days earlier each year. So by the time I moved downtown for my master’s degree five years later, Ramadan was out of the winter months and landing in early fall, late summer. The fasts grew longer, and it got harder for me to observe the month alone. Not only was this not the Ramadan I was used to, but sometimes I wondered if it was even still Ramadan at all. I started to develop a silent sadness about the month and my faith, because I feared admitting, even to myself, that I was struggling. Beneath it, I was someone who proudly identified as Muslim, especially while living in Canada, and far away from family. So even though most days I struggled to stay on top of my prayers, it felt almost blasphemous to admit I was struggling with Ramadan, too.
Still, I kept on fasting throughout the early weeks of my master’s journalism program, when friendships and connections were forming over lunches and coffees and drinks. In the years that followed, Ramadan continued to creep back earlier and earlier, eventually landing firmly in the high summer months. At a certain point, it became not just challenging, but seemingly impossible for me. I’d been living alone and away from family for over a decade. Instead of feeling rejuvenated and renewed, Ramadan left me feeling lonely and isolated. It became exhausting to keep up, personally and publicly. I remembered how hard my dad had worked at instilling me with pride in my faith, yet I found myself struggling to keep up one of its most basic tenets, one of its five pillars. And so there came a Ramadan where instead of working harder at carrying it, I let it fall, and stopped fasting entirely.
This just wasn’t my Ramadan anymore.
The next year, I felt like I wanted to restart my relationship to Ramadan. I put out a little confession on Facebook, saying it had been a hard few years, and I needed help getting back on the bandwagon. I was nervous to admit that I had struggled and almost given up on my faith, so publicly and in writing. I asked if anybody needed some support, because I did, and maybe we could all do it together.
The response was swift and overwhelming, with comments pouring in from people from Toronto to California saying they wanted in. My dad even weighed in from Kuwait, calling it a “brilliant initiative.” I said my only rule was no judgment. And just like that, a community was born: The people who joined the group reflected the Toronto I had so grown to love. Converts. Non-Muslims who wanted to cheer us on. People who had almost turned their back on their faith completely. Muslims who never missed a prayer. The newly arrived Muslims. Muslims who needed a different kind of community. Those of us who had let Ramadan fall by the wayside, but knew we could do better. The Muslim misfits. For all of us, this was a new home.
The very first event I held for this Ramadan support group was an open invitation to come break the first fast at my house; only one person came. Since then, there have been intimate iftars sitting on blankets in backyards; sprawling potlucks in the park, where we feast on samosas and burgers and macaroni pies and Popeyes chicken after maghrib prayers performed under the shade of trees; friends and strangers and children sitting cross-legged on blankets as the sun disappeared and gave way to night. My dad’s Coptic Christian childhood neighbors from Egypt hosted dozens of us for iftars at their home on Lake Ontario, reminiscing about the days when Muslims and Christians in Egypt shared in Ramadan traditions together.
In our online support group, people post questions about what food is the best to fuel up on for suhoor, or where to pray taraweeh. Converts to Islam have asked about advice on how to navigate fasting around family members who aren’t aware of their Islam. Ramadan-themed Drake memes provide comic relief and distraction when we’re hungry or craving coffee during long workdays. Members of the group have spearheaded charity drives and volunteering initiatives, like packing and distributing food baskets to those in need over the course of the month.
Since its inception, the group has grown from a couple of dozen people, initially just my friends and their mutual friends, to over 200 across the country. It has become more a community of communities. Last year, our inaugural event was so big that we had to rent out a condo party room, as over 40 people feasted on catered Egyptian food. That night I looked around this ragtag crew of Muslims, some meeting for the first time. But they all looked like family, if just for one night.
One day I came to the group with a plea for advice. I was moderating a discussion after a film screening, which was going to be well-attended. I was worried I wouldn’t be sharp enough to do justice to a discussion about a complex, social issue while fasting for over 12 hours. I posted a question to the group: Should I skip that day and make it up later, or should I still fast and have faith that all would go well?
The generosity — and diversity! — of the advice brought me to tears. I ended up going to the event and moderating the post-film discussion while still fasting. The organizers of the event — some of whom were also Muslim — brought me dates and water when maghrib time came. If Ramadan had become a stranger to me, this felt like the reconciliation I’d been waiting for. And it was because of the support, kindness, and encouragement I’d received from a group of Muslims — from the misfits to the most observant — having my back.
It was that day that I realized the Ramadan I thought I’d lost was there the whole time. I just didn’t recognize it because it looked different now. This was not my parents’ Ramadan anymore. This was what my Ramadan looked like now. Our Ramadan. A Ramadan that belonged to a generation of young Muslims who understood that while it could be hard sometimes, we weren’t giving up on our faith — or on each other: a group of us who could share a dance floor one night and find ourselves side by side at Eid prayers the next.
The longest of summer Ramadan fasting is over now that it starts in May. But the month still feels daunting. When the Ramadan greetings and jokes started to stream in on WhatsApp from family in Egypt, I thought of how Ramadan here would feel unrecognizable to them. But I’m buoyed by the thought that even as my family is across the Atlantic, and I’m celebrating my 14th Ramadan away from them, I’ve found another version of Ramadan here, with the in-betweeners, who are making Ramadan — with all its struggles, anxieties, and rewards — feel a little more like home. ●
This essay is part of a series organized by BuzzFeed podcast See Something Say Something celebrating Ramadan with podcast episodes, posts, videos, and essays.
Pacinthe Mattar is a radio producer and writer in Toronto.
Contact Pacinthe Mattar at email@example.com.
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