Bakhtawar Saeed expected this year’s Ramadan to be a quiet one — she was diagnosed with a chronic illness last year. But the 25-year-old artist living in North Carolina didn’t anticipate that a pandemic would cause other Muslims across the world to experience the same.
When Saeed was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease linked to inflammation, she started taking precautions: In anticipation of the regular flu season, she practiced self-isolation and social distancing. But then covid-19 swept the nation.
“This was going to be the first Ramadan where I probably wasn’t going to be able to participate in activities anyway, like locally,” Saeed says. “Now nobody can, so at least I don’t have FOMO. It’s very strange.”
Ramadan, a Muslim holiday that spans the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, runs April 23 to May 23 this year. The month is dedicated to worship, charity and community, and gives Muslims time to retreat from human and worldly desires and focus on strengthening and renewing their Iman, or faith. The world’s nearly 2 billion Muslims celebrate by abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, and typically join in communal prayer and post-sunset feasting. This year, with mosques closed and people practicing social distancing, things look starkly different.
As everyone adjusts to a new normal, a Twitter group chat has helped Saeed, along with dozens of other young Muslims around the United States, celebrate the holiday. The chat, called “Iftar Pics,” consists of members sharing pictures of their iftar, the meal that breaks the fast every day after sunset.
Because lupus affects what Saeed can or can’t eat, she thought it might be “triggering” to see all the foods people are eating to break their fasts. “But it’s actually the opposite,” she says. “It’s more like, ‘Oh, everybody’s making their own things, maybe I can make my own things and share it.’”
The chat started with a tweet from Zain Khazi, a 27-year-old Seattle-based photographer who was curious what others were cooking and eating for the holiday. Those who liked the tweet were added to the chat.
Khazi explains that the tweet was born from a simple idea: that he loved seeing other people’s iftars. “That’s what it started off as, but honestly within the first night, it really took off more than just that,” he says.
The chat is active all day, every day, with food pictures being sent during iftar and suhoor, the meal that starts the fast. Members debate other simple food questions — milk first or cereal first? — and take polls. They also share recipe ideas for cultural fusion dishes and more — their personal experiences, career goals and Ramadan traditions.
Khazi says that they’re all missing the communal experience of Ramadan amid social distancing, but they can get it in this virtual form. “We can’t have iftar together but we’re sharing our iftar pictures, so essentially our group is a virtual iftar spanning across all time zones,” he says. “We’re an around-the-clock iftar group.”
Members have sent iftar photos of all kinds of foods: fried chicken sandwiches, steak, elote, udon noodles, homemade pizzas. They’re getting particularly creative with desserts, including lotus cheesecake, oreo samosas, vanilla and saffron creme brulee, guava coconut bread and kheer rice krispies.
Hafsa Khan, a 29-year-old artist based in Columbus, Ohio, says the pandemic has allowed her to reconnect with her faith this holiday; she has rediscovered what she calls the “easiness and softness of Ramadan.” And the chat has not only filled the social aspect of Ramadan, but it has also connected her with other South Asian Muslims who are exploring their heritage through food — something she does with her art. Most members in the chat are young creatives who make South Asian and Muslim diaspora a focus of their art, photography, fashion designs or food creations.
“We’re all just a bunch of strangers and then every day we’re eating with each other,” Khan says. Had it not been for self-quarantine, she says, she wouldn’t be having iftar with the same 30 people 30 days in a row.
For 21-year-old Huma Sajjad, the chat has helped her cope mentally during the pandemic. Sajjad, who attends University of Texas at Tyler for marketing and Tyler Junior College for graphic design, says this year has been particularly tough on her mental health.
Taking six classes at two different campuses, experiencing multiple deaths in her family and being stuck at home due to the virus, Sajjad has been feeling mentally and spiritually disconnected. But the chat has filled that void of human interaction and helps distract her when she’s feeling down.
“Everyone’s supportive of one another and acknowledges each other. You join into the conversation and never feel left out, alhamdulillah [praise be to God],” Sajjad says. “I know it all sounds cheesy, but when you feel like you’re constantly being kicked down, it’s nice to have this wholesome interaction.”
With this new virtual family, 25-year-old fashion and lifestyle influencer Aania Aslam, who’s based in Seattle, says the chat has brought her closer to faith and provided solidarity.
“I think it does cheer me up and stay fasting, if that makes sense,” Aslam says. “Everybody here [on the West Coast] opens their fast at like 8 p.m., which is super late for East Coast and Central time. So, it’s kind of cool to see all of that, see all of our cultures come together.”
Although the chat has more men than women — 27 men and 17 women — the women say they feel respected, particularly when it comes to taboo topics like period breaks. During Ramadan, women are granted breaks from fasting due to periods, pregnancy or other health-related matters.
Gender discrimination does not exist religiously, but it does exist culturally. And for some Muslim households, the topic of menstruation is culturally taboo. But many Muslim women, particularly younger women, are trying to change that.
“The women in the chat have been talking about eating during the day when they can, and there isn’t any sort of hesitation around that and I love that,” Khan says. “I think we’re normalizing that, especially if we grew up in households where [it’s like], ‘Yeah, it’s fine that you’re not eating, and you can’t right now and you’re not supposed to, but do it quietly or do it secretly.’ And at this point, it’s like no, we should normalize these things because we were given this break because it was a gift.”
The women also feel the group is supportive of one another, that their opinions are being heard without any “mansplaining” involved. At the end of the day, everyone is simply coming together to celebrate and create new traditions as the world changes around them.
As Saeed puts it: “It’s just a very wholesome chat about food.”