Ramadan in America is the hardest and that’s what makes it the best

Waiting for the moon.
Waiting for the moon.
Image: Reuters/Mohamed Azakir
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Monied American Muslims are more and more inclined to travel eastwards for the holy month of Ramadan. Mecca and Medina are fabulous this time of year, though hotel rates are skyrocketing through some very high roofs. Some have chosen Istanbul, with its awesome Ottoman patrimony, or Malaysia, which is green, clean and—well, I don’t know. I’ve never been. I’m not even in that income bracket. But I bet I know why they go.

Two years ago, I was in Dubai when Ramadan struck. I’d never observed Islam’s holiest, hungriest month in a Muslim-majority country, and had no idea what to expect. Many things may be said about Dubai, but this we can all agree on: bling.  Even their Islam was bling. Every mosque was resplendent. Every imam had epic, iTunes worthy recitation. One mosque-hopped as others might bar-hop.

Ramadan was everywhere. My friends and I roamed religiously. We’d pray the sundown maghrib at a mosque, break the fast (iftar) with whatever kind of cuisine struck our fancy—every restaurant had a Ramadan special—and then we’d go to a mosque for taraweeh, the special Ramadan prayers, a recitation of one-thirtieth of the Qur’an every night, for 30 nights. Crowds would come out in fine Emirati kandouras, Punjabi kurtas, Indonesian sarongs, Zara skinny jeans.

Then we’d go out for coffee and shisha (it’s practically an Islamic obligation), and to a mosque again for qiyam al-layl, which is praying. At night. In a single night, we might hit up three different mosques. And I could do all this, not just because of unbelievably low gas prices and a smashing road network, but because the next morning, I could sleep in. By law, in Dubai, Muslims’ working hours are reduced during Ramadan. Everyone goes easier on everyone else and, from what I understand, that holds true in most Muslim elsewheres, too.

Someone else has built the mosques. Someone else leads the prayer. Someone else publishes the daily timings calendars. Someone else ensures you’re not tempted by food because nearly every restaurant has been shut down and at best you can order delivery. You don’t even have to think about things. You don’t have to answer tough questions. An analogy to Christmas in America wouldn’t be inappropriate.

But here in America, I don’t even know when Ramadan will start.

Tonight, around 10pm, many of us will go to makeshift mosques and wait to receive word from on high. Thursday, June 18, or Friday, June 19? Worse, many of us will receive different answers. Some Muslims believe that astronomical calculation alone can tell you when the first crescent moon which marks the start of Ramadan will appear, and so have their answer in advance. I, however, belong to a second camp that believes that the Prophet Muhammad specifically said one must combine calculation with a physical sighting of the moon.

In the Muslim world, there are entire hierarchies of religious life which make such decisions for the community. Local, and even national governments often announce when the holiday is, and voila, the holiday is. American (and Canadian) Muslims have no such unity, no such collective voice, no such mechanisms except the most incipient. You’ll find Muslims in the same city starting and ending Ramadan on different days. Some Muslims become unreasonably angry with this reality, whereas I don’t just embrace it, I want to make a holiday.

“Disorganization Day!” So we can remember our dark ages.

When I was growing up, most university Muslim student groups had a dozen members at most. They rarely had full-time staff. They were lucky to have a prayer space, and if they did, it was usually rundown, inferior, moldy, overheated and undercooled, pathetic and charming, degrading and empowering. If you wanted Islam, you had to work for it. You had to want it.

Otherwise, you’d just vanish into the melting pot that is America, that sated, hydrated, wonderful world where Ramadan is of no concern and no significance. The United States is the Muslim Wild West.

Tonight, some of us will go to the mosque at about 10pm, waiting, sometimes till very late at night, for someone on the West coast to announce that they have seen the moon (where it rises first). If it turns out the Ramadan moon hasn’t been spotted and verified (astronomers are always on hand, in case an overeager believer confuses a Delta flight to Dallas for a crescent), we go home exhausted and have to come back the next night.

But if it is Ramadan tonight? Then we hug and we cheer and pray and go back out into a city that doesn’t care. A city that doesn’t know. Nobody will be reorganizing the day for us. Nobody will expect us not to join them at work lunches. Nobody will be smoothing the way. This is not Dubai, which flies in famous Qu’ran reciters on a whim. This is not Istanbul, with mosques that fit tens of thousands. Even our nicest mosques would be laughed at in most of the Muslim world. We lack funding for the facilities we need. Accommodations for women are appalling, if they are even present. What does exist is confusing, overwhelming, alienating, and insufficient.

My local mosque, for example, presents sermons in the Arabic that no one grasps, announcements in Urdu, and nothing for the Senegalese who show up and know what to do—but have no one to talk to. And that’s inside.

Outside, we’ll spend Ramadan walking through a harried New York that doesn’t even know what time of year it is. We’ll suffocate in dank, dirty subway stations, exhaust ourselves because the elevator hasn’t been repaired, nearly dehydrate and die on oppressive July days. We’ll rush to pray late at night, shoulder-to-shoulder, and rush home to catch at least some sleep, whether in fabulous condominiums or tiny studios threatened by creeping gentrification.

Some of us will inevitably get called terrorists at school, and some of us fled terrorists to get here. We can’t even talk about our holy month without someone saying, “What about ISIS?” And we can’t teach our kids about Islam without warning them about the extremists who look to prey on them and destroy them with it.

Women in headscarves will get uncomfortable stares for what they’re wearing, and other women won’t go to the mosque because of how they get looked at for what they’re wearing.

And yet. Already, New York City is recognizing the Eid holidays, one of which celebrates the conclusion of Ramadan. We are becoming a little bit more normal. Which means we don’t have to work quite as hard.

Eventually, the frontier will fall. Just as Christmas, Easter, Halloween and Valentine’s Day conquered secular America, I believe that some day in the future, even non-Muslims will say “Ramadan Mubarak,” because that’s the thing you do. They’ll know that, come sundown, it’ll be awfully hard to find a cab, and Uber congestion pricing will algorithmically kick in.

But not yet. Tomorrow, and/or the day after, Ramadan begins in America. Everything is still messy, new, unsettled, and the story of Islam, centuries old in this land—older than this country—still feels like it’s only just beginning. Once the only Muslims here were slaves, and the Islam was beaten out of them. Then they reclaimed their faith, joined by waves from elsewhere, and here all corners of the ummah have met. Here, global Islam is reunited and forced to confront itself in all its diversity and divisiveness. There is no Ramadan quite like it, or at least there hasn’t been in a very long time.

There is promise and there is peril, and because of that, it is the most wonderful time of the year. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ramadan Mubarak. Even if you’re parched, I still hope you’re blessed.