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The dreadful loneliness of Ramadan during coronavirus

Every year, I await Ramadan’s colorful yet reverent atmosphere and touching spirituality. Islam’s holiest month has always been a time of kindness, self-reflection, and communal solidarity. Daytime would be filled with worship, reciting Quran, contemplation and charitable work.

But though we grieve the loss of Ramadan’s delights, we remain obliged to carry out its virtues of self-cleansing, devotion, and solidarity.

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

In my family, iftar, the breaking of fast, always meant gatherings of relatives and friends for a beautiful, multi-colored feast. Here, eating wasn’t just a matter of sustenance, but a ritualized and memorable communion.

We would all exchange hugs and handshakes. Everybody would lend a helping hand to set the table. Together, minute by minute, we would await sunset. Then, as soon as dark fell, voices and laughter would ring throughout the room. The night was passed with heartwarming conversations and hanging out, huddling around a fireplace to roast chestnuts.

Despite all the hardships we’ve endured in Gaza, we’ve maintained these traditions as part of our identity. It’s such communal moments that help us remain steadfast, help us transcend sorrows and reinvigorate our souls.

This year, however, Ramadan will be different. In times of social distancing, there can be no visitations, no hanging out or strolling around.

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Prayer services have been suspended and mosques around the globe have closed. Even Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque will be shut down to Muslim worshippers throughout Ramadan.

Public banquets, group iftars, and “Tables of the Compassionate” — charity meals offered to the poor — are banned or restricted. The very atmosphere of celebration and festivity will be hollowed out at a time when people worldwide are struggling to make ends meet during the pandemic.

Everything will have to be done in isolation. The personal interactions that bind us to one another are temporarily severed. Chairs and tables will be empty. Families and friends will be cut from one another except those holding virtual iftars over the internet. Evening Tarawih prayers will be performed individually and separately at home. Lectures and sermons will only be watched online.

Even for an introvert like myself, the claustrophobia of such confinement, uncertainty and loneliness is dreadful.

There has been no greater challenge to our identity and way of life than today’s pandemic. Even during the 2014 war in Gaza, we observed the holy month and managed to salvage some of its spirit and atmosphere. We still gathered when bombs fell.

We held onto each other and embraced our loved ones every night, reassuring them they’d be safe and well. We shielded each other from danger then.

Now, we have become the danger ourselves.

But though we grieve the loss of Ramadan’s delights, we remain obliged to carry out its virtues of self-cleansing, devotion, and solidarity. Now more than ever, we need to be at our most selfless. We need to stand with those in need and make sure we pull through this together.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward from Gaza. His work has also appeared in Haaretz and Vice. Find him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2.

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