My first two Ramadan were such different experiences, so I’d like to share them both with you.
The First With Company
My first Ramadan was in the summer of 1982 when I had been Muslim for about six months. I was a graduate student working on my thesis.
At the end of the spring semester, I moved out of the apartment where I had been living alone for two years and moved into a two-bedroom apartment with five Malaysian undergraduates.
So my first Ramadan was spent in a very close community with other Muslims, and that made all the difference.
I learned a lot from my roommates that summer. Not so much “book learning” but learning from their examples, especially about generosity.
Even before Ramadan, we got up to pray Fajr (dawn prayer) together every morning and when we were home in the evening we prayed together.
During Ramadan we got up and ate sahur (the pre-dawn meal before fasting) together and had our iftar (evening meal to break the fast).
Summers in southern Illinois are very hot—about 40°C (102°F) during the day—but we had an air-conditioner in the living room and I spent my weekdays in my air-conditioned office, so the heat did not bother me too much.
It was so convenient having other Muslims at hand to answer my questions. Towards the end of my second day of fasting, with only two hours to go, I discovered that I had started my period. “Join the club!” said my roommate Chida gleefully.
I still use “in the club” as a euphemism because of that. “Do I have to break my fast?” I asked her. It was such a disappointment to have gotten so far and know that I would have to repeat the fast later. But, yes, I had to.
At first for sahur we ate the leftovers from the iftar we had finished hours before. But then one day, Ubaidah, another roommate, discovered Honey Nut Cheerios.
I don’t know why or how, it was such an atypical food for the Malaysians. But after that, she and I ate Honey Nut Cheerios for sahur every day, and 23 years later I still think of Ubai whenever I see that cereal.
One day my roommates told me that they had invited a bunch of other Malaysian sisters over for breakfast the next day. “You’re having guests at three o’clock in the morning?” I asked incredulously. No, they said, to break the fast in the evening.
“Then call it iftar so I know what you mean,” I told them.
“Breakfast to me is in the morning.” Others would be well advised to follow suit, rather than confusing non-Muslim or new Muslim guests with invitations to “breakfast” at 8 p.m.
A few days before `Eid al-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, I spent nearly all day making some fancy cookies to serve on `eid. It was a lot of work. Imagine my disappointment when my roommates did not like them very much.
Malaysians, I learned, prefer plain cookies with little sugar, to be eaten with very sweet tea. But now my children and I make dozens of cookies before `Eid al-Fitr—though not such fancy, time-consuming ones—to serve to relatives who drop in that day.
I only went to pray Tarawih Prayers (optional night prayers during Ramadan) at the mosque once or twice that year. The imam led 20 rak`ahs and it was tiring and I found it hard to concentrate.
But as that first Ramadan drew to a close, I wondered if I had gained anything from it. The last night I went to pray `Isha’ at the mosque and spent some quiet time alone afterwards—there was no other place to do so. No other sisters were there. The imam came to me and said:
“Sister, there’s no Tarawih Prayer.”
“I know, I just need to be alone,” I replied.
Though I hadn’t spent enough time on reflection that Ramadan, overall it was a happy experience. `Eid was a happy time spent with other Muslims, in the prayers and later visiting in the homes, and I felt such an accomplishment of having completed my first month of fasting.
The Second Alone
In contrast, I remember my second Ramadan as being rather miserable. I was living alone in a large city and had not made friends. I was working long hours and going home tired to an empty apartment. Though there was a large mosque not too far from me, I did not have a car and was not comfortable going out alone at night on foot or by bus.
I did keep my fast, but it was not as easy as the previous year. Having to get up alone for sahur was unpleasant. I found the fasting itself to be much more difficult. At the time I didn’t think of it as a reason, but the difficulty may have been because I had had mononucleosis six months prior to Ramadan. I was back to working full time by then, but I didn’t feel 100 percent my old self until over a year after my infection.
So I spent Ramadan alone, even though there were many Muslims in the area. Live and learn. I would not advise such to anyone.
I did go to the mosque for `Eid al-Fitr Prayers, but I felt lonely in a sea of strange faces.
While I have many happy memories of my first Ramadan (more than I’ve shared here), I have only an unhappy blur of my second Ramadan. I would advise new Muslims to make an effort to share their Ramadan with other Muslims, even if only on the weekends. Having iftar with others helps to bond the community and raises the spirits of all.