Ramadan: Expectations vs. Reality

I have been looking forward to Ramadan for the last six months or so. My first two years fasting, I did not fully understand how and why people got so excited about it. Now, approaching my third Ramadan, I realize I have become a part of the crowd that eagerly awaits it. For me, I look forward to committing to my religion so deeply and powerfully for a full month. I love making a physical commitment to my faith and being reminded so constantly throughout the day the blessings I take for granted and how much God has given me. I look forward to reconnecting with Islam. I understand now how people can look forward to a month of not eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset with the same enthusiasm as I used to have toward Christmas.

The first Ramadan was an extraordinary experience, and I had many an interesting encounter living in Washington, DC and surprising people when I told them I was fasting. It being my first year, I also had to navigate telling friends about what I was doing and fit it into my social calendar. Even though I was living away from home, I still visited, and then too had to figure out how to be as minimally disruptive as possible with my family while still honoring my commitment to Ramadan. When I first started, I thought I would “try” Ramadan and only fast on the weekends. I realized after two days that it was something I felt in my heart I wanted to do for the whole month. I loved it, but it was still challenging.

Every year I struggle with what I wish Ramadan could be for me and what it actually is. My first year fasting, I was living alone in DC and it was hard – I spent a lot of my days working in my room and had no one to talk to. I would break my fast, alone, usually with a sad dinner of grilled chicken and quinoa, and then watch a lot of Netflix. I knew of ‘potluck iftars’ on the National Mall, but I always felt too awkward and anxious to go. This was before I had officially converted, and I was still in between religions; I did not know how to explain myself to people. There were some disappointing evenings as I lamented not having a stronger network of Muslim friends or family that could help me have the Ramadan that it seemed like everyone else was having – the Christmas like experience, for lack of a better phrase.

My second Ramadan, I was living at home. I am very thankful my parent were accepting of my decision to fast (I had not yet converted then, either) and were generally laissez-faire about it. I remember going to fireworks with my family – a July 4th tradition – and my mom packing a full cooler of food and drinks for me as I would not be able to break my fast until we were already out at the park. I remain deeply appreciative of their support, however tacit. I was grateful the second time around for some more human interaction too, but there was still disappointment in my heart that I was not able to spend nights at the masjid or celebrate Ramadan or Eid with a big family gathering. I was envious of my boyfriend’s family as they came together for the holidays. The extended family drove hours from Canada, they made mountains of food, only the best outfits were worn, kids ran around with their cousins…. I made my boyfriend give me detailed rundowns of his days so I could live Ramadan vicariously through someone celebrating it as I wished I could.

I was sad, ultimately, that my Ramadan was not the same – as if I was not meant to have that authentic experience yet. I wanted to go to taraweeh, but did not have my own car and did not feel like I wanted to lie to (or make up an adequate alibi for) my parents in order to be out so late. Plus, I had never been and already felt overwhelmed and panicked going to into the masjid on quiet days – how could I handle feeling out of place during the busiest time of the year? Same with Eid: I desperately wanted to experience Eid prayers, and to eat copious amounts of biryani afterward, but such was not possible for me. No car to get to prayers and no friends to carpool with, not to mention I had work. So Ramadan has always been bittersweet – it is fulfilling to me personally, despite there always being something missing.

This year, Ramadan brings even more *feelings* as it is technically my first year since converting. There are, blissfully, signs that things are going to be better than years past: I will have a car, which means I can take myself to taraweeh or the Qur’an studies class on Sundays or Eid prayers. I feel less out of place than years past – which is not to say I feel like I belong – but the anxiety has lessened. Still, I wanted to talk about some of the things I continue to worry about and fret over.

I am dismayed this year that a dear friend’s wedding out of state coincides with the beginning of Ramadan. Ironically, I will be back in New Hampshire, where a few months ago I had an epiphany while praying on my grandmother’s floor, about redoubling my efforts to be connected with Islam (and start this blog!) So it seems somewhat serendipitous, if not ordained, that I will be coming back at the start of the holy month. Still, I have been trying to figure out how to manage fasting, praying, and going to a masjid while I am away. I want to fast, but at the same time, I am not sure if doing so overtly while staying with my grandmother is the best choice for me. She lives in an assisted living facility, where meals and eating are pretty much the only things to do. Depriving us of that shared experience seems counter-intuitive. For the record, I think she would be fine with me fasting – I just would rather not disrupt her routine. Technically, too, as I will be traveling a significant distance from home, I am not obligated to fast. Call me an overachiever, but I still wanted to. It feels wrong to start of Ramadan not fasting.

As far as masjids go in New Hampshire… well, they’re very few and far between. There is one thirty minutes from where I am staying, but it is not a permanent masjid. I am not certain whether there will be any taraweeh, or if the masjid (read: rented out office space) is even open aside from Friday prayers. The other masjid is larger, but an hour away. It means if I just to sneak off and visit, I am looking at at least a three-hour trip away from my grandmother. I designed this wedding trip so that I would be able to spend time with her, so again it seems counter-intuitive to forgo that in favor of driving around trying to find a masjid. God knows best. Perhaps I will be able to make a trip out to it on Saturday night for taraweeh – but even as I consider that, the same feelings of being out of place and alone creep up. Certainly, the Muslim community in southern New Hampshire is small, and surely everyone knows everyone. I hate the idea of walking in somewhere and being the only person not welcome. Plus, I have never been to taraweeh and have no idea how it works. It is a lot of ‘out of place’ feelings for me to come to grips with.

That element of Ramadan is hard: being a revert who does not quite ‘fit the picture’ always leaves me feeling some degree of excluded. My boyfriend does not understand: his brown skin and beard means he could walk into any masjid and immediately expect to receive handshakes, hugs, and salaams. I, on the other hand, have frequently been ignored. I would like to think of myself as a person with the capacity to be extroverted, but I find myself at a loss in those situations. It hurts my feelings, to be honest. It is like being the new kid at school and having nowhere to sit at lunch. The exclusion is compounded by groups that stay insulated among themselves based on ethnicity or nationality. Ramadan exacerbates how left out I feel.

So every year as Ramadan approaches I have these grand visions of spending my weekends and nights at the masjid, making friends, having family around to spend time with, getting closer to Islam, and coming home to delicious iftars and cute decorations. Inshallah one year soon I will get that. But for now, things are a little bit more austere, and while it can be disappointing and upsetting sometimes, I realize that is not the point of Ramadan. Ultimately, Ramadan is still about your personal relationship with God and Islam. I am in a better place than I was last year ago – Alhamdulilah, I am Muslim now – and even better than two years ago. Here again, I need my sabr. I do have faith that in the near future, inshallah, Ramadan will be like the idea I have in my head, with friends and family celebrating together and time spent at the mosque with as little anxiety and awkwardness as possible. Like all good things, it takes time and effort to really appreciate Ramadan. Ramadan’s very nature – fasting for a month – is designed to make you slow down and count your blessings. So that is what I am going to do.

Ramadan Mubarak, all. I hope your month is blessed!  ❤

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