personal essay

In the Midst of a Global Pandemic, My Family and I Found New Traditions for Ramadan

published Apr 9, 2022
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Last year was unlike any Ramadan my family has ever observed. It was the second year of the pandemic, and vaccines were slowly rolling out in communities, but much of the lockdown procedures were still in place. For our family that meant virtual school for the kids while I worked from home.  

Typically during Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn until dusk for about 29 to 30 days. But because COVID-19 was keeping us all at home last year, we took the opportunity to create new traditions, like fasting together with our nuclear family rather than with our Muslim communities and extended relatives.

Last year my kids — then 11, 8, and 5 — got to practice fasting without the daily hustle and bustle of in-person school. On weekdays they could roll out of bed a few minutes before class and sign in instead of getting ready to leave for school in the mornings. I didn’t have to rush home from work to pick up the kids from daycare, to then come home to prepare iftar, the meal to break our fast. I was already home.

Many Muslim kids practice fasting — by abstaining from food and drink for part of the day — beginning at the age of 7; by the time they’re 10, most are fasting a full day, and it becomes mandatory when they hit puberty. During our fast Muslims perform more good deeds, like praying, reading Quran, and giving to charity, than we usually do.

For sehri, I would prepare hearty meals that I often grew up eating, rotating among pan-fried fish sautéed in a melody of onions and spices, chicken and potato curry, or beef and potato curry. Occasionally my older son would make a date and banana milk smoothie. 

It was unusual to have them home with us for all the intimate moments of Ramadan — eating together in the wee hours of the morning, fasting throughout the day, and praying together as a family.

But there was one dish that stole the show every time: biron baath, a meal of sticky rice with ripe bananas or mangoes, served with heated milk. If you haven’t had biron baath before, imagine eating a dish that is naturally sweet, leaves you with a cozy feeling, and is fun to stick your fingers into (we eat Bangladeshi food with our hands). When I was a kid I didn’t like eating curry-heavy breakfasts, opting for cereal or ramen if I could muster up the energy to make it. However, if I ate rice and curry, I’d layer that with an additional serving of sticky rice, a complex carbohydrate, and with fruit. My parents would say, “If you didn’t eat rice, did you even eat at all?” It was one of the ways they held onto and passed on culture to their kids, who were growing up in the United States. That’s something I care about, too. 

Credit: Sara Ali

Get the recipe: Sticky Rice with Mango

My then-8-year-old daughter, who began practicing fasting last year, took a liking to biron baath, much to my surprise. I always imagined my kids wanting to eat oatmeal or bagels for sehri by the time they were fasting, however, I was pleasantly surprised that my second-generation Bangladeshi American kids enjoy foods that have been passed along generationally. Hopefully, they will pass them on to their families someday too.

My daughter was excited to be “a big girl” participating in a big responsibility — forgoing food and drink. She was thrilled to wake up and join us for sehri, especially on the weekends. She’d tiptoe down the flight of stairs, rubbing her eyes just as you could hear the chirping of birds outside. Some school days she’d wake up a little later and eat biron baath — her newly found favorite Ramadan sehri meal — instead of breakfast. Then she’d fast the rest of the day — ending around 8:30 p.m. last year. During the evenings she would make desserts like a batch of brownies, help me stir the khichuri, and chop the tomato, cucumber, and cilantro salad.

Her favorite iftar tradition was setting the table. She would take out our rose and pink china set from the showcase, placing the plates down one by one, adding rolled-up napkins and silverware. Then she’d carry plates of steaming fyaazi (lentil fritters) and samosas to the table.

In pre-pandemic times, my older son would fast during the school day, usually eating a meal for breakfast and fasting until 5 p.m. Some days he’d fast the whole day until iftar. School days were strenuous, especially when he had gym or long exams. He’d have to sit through lunch while other students ate. While it didn’t bother him, he would feel out of place when he was younger. He’d come home from school exhausted and ready to take a long nap. We’d wake him up right before it was time to break fast.

During the pandemic, the school days weren’t as rigorous. He began waking up for sehri, the pre-dawn meal. He would sit at the table, wrapped in a blanket, and scarf down his food before going back to sleep for a few hours before class started. During the day he would occasionally take naps. Sometimes we’d take short walks around the neighborhood in the afternoon. His favorite part was breaking fast when he could stuff his face with khichuri, biryani, and salad. One thing he did miss out on while fasting at home was the spirit of community. He wasn’t able to see his Muslim friends at school or his cousins at the mosque to share stories and experiences with them.  

My younger son was 5. He would pretend to fast for “half days.” He would eat breakfast and “break his fast” during lunch break. For him, Ramadan meant doing something new, different, and enjoying meals together as a family. We spent evenings reading books like “Who Will Help Me Make Iftar?” by Asmaa Hussein, “Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors,” by Hena Khan, and, his favorite, “It’s Ramadan, Curious George,” by H. A. Rey and Hena Khan.

His favorite assignment was placing prayer mats out across the living room floor for family prayer. We decorated the house with string lights and handmade “Ramadan Mubarak!” signs. The boys would wear their thobes, an ankle-length long-sleeved garment worn by men, and my daughter wore an abaya, a floor-length dress that covers her body, adorned with a golden hijab for prayer. My youngest would have his Spiderman toy praying next to him. Prayer began with my older son reciting adhan, the call to prayer, and my husband leading prayer.

There is a verse in the Quran that I reflect upon, which teaches us to hold onto hope even when things get rough. “So, surely with hardship comes ease” (Quran 94:5), meaning that hardship is followed by ease.

It was unusual to have my children home with us for all the intimate moments of Ramadan — eating together in the wee hours of the morning, fasting throughout the day, and praying together as a family. It was challenging to tend to the kids during school, sitting alone and working while my son attended kindergarten online, then transitioning into the afternoon to prepare meals. We were always together. As a working mom, it was different to now be a stay-at-home mom, all hands on deck. Sometimes I would find it difficult to keep up with the responsibilities, keeping them entertained and answering all the heartbreaking questions about when things would be “normal” again. I had to set a good example for my kids to hold onto hope, and find new ways to keep them busy, happy, and healthy. It was tough with things being closed down. 

On the other hand, I was grateful for a less rigorous schedule and for the way things slowed down. Without the community or extended-family iftars I could focus more on the things I care about, like my spirituality and sharing some of the more intimate parts of Ramadan with my kids. There wasn’t the expectation to show up at the mosque, kids in row, as I anxiously tried to keep up with them as I stood in prayer. There were no pangs of longing to pray at the mosque during the nightly prayers, which I started to experience once I became a mother. I could forgo the social anxiety of hosting an iftar after fasting for hours during the day. 

Growing up, I spent most of my Ramadan with my parents and siblings. We would break fast together, then pray at the mosque at night with my community. My kids, on the other hand, usually spend much of Ramadan with our extended family. Last year forced us to redefine family and community. I found myself learning a lot about my kids. During the day, I witnessed their learning styles, and began to understand how some of them really need social environments to thrive. I found out the things my kids truly enjoyed eating and helped them prepare those dishes for iftar as a motivation to keep going. My older son learned how to make sushi last year, while my daughter made desserts. 

As a social person, it was strange to have the same mundane schedule, day after day, night after night. It was also humbling to know that everyone was going through the same experiences, in their own ways, and that somehow we were going to get through it. 

There is a verse in the Quran that I reflect upon, which teaches us to hold onto hope even when things get rough. “So, surely with hardship comes ease” (Quran 94:5), meaning that hardship is followed by ease. 

I was surprised that COVID created an opportunity to take a step back and focus on what Ramadan really stands for: practicing how to become a better version of yourself; engaging in meditation, prayer, and reflection; and making your home a sanctuary. It also provided me the opportunity to give my kids a more hands-on approach to building their faith. 

Last year’s lessons are something I carry forward: Take a step to do the basics, go at your own pace, and do the best you can. This year, the first dish my daughter asked about was sticky rice, something I’ll be serving for the rest of Ramadan to encourage her to fast. Many of the foods I prepare during Ramadan are dishes I make only during the holy month, so I want to make them as special as possible. Sharing a meal together as a family before dawn does just that. It’s a sweet way to carry on the new customs I am creating with my family as we learn how to ease into a more communal Ramadan this year.