Bustling markets, street decorations, and iftar invitations are essential parts when it comes to the holy month of Ramadan. Thirty days of fasting, dawn till sunrise, have since forever brought a mystical feel to this Muslim holiday; the latter is awaited impatiently by people of the Islamic faith year on year.
But as with everything else in life, exceptions occur. With less than a month to go before Ramadan begins on April 24, apprehension has taken over the usual excitement reserved for iftar gatherings and family get-togethers. The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has thrown its weight on the shoulders of Muslim families who eagerly count the days with every turn of the calendar before they're reunited over prayers and mouthwatering feasts.
Currently, the world is on lockdown: mosques are closed, holy Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia are emptier than ever, and flights are suspended.
Many have now accepted the reality that the core of the holy month will be affected by an outbreak that shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon. We spoke to a number of Arab Muslims, asking them about Ramadan preparations under such unprecedented circumstances, and here's what they told us.
"I am launching a prayer group online"
Faced with the reality that group prayers usually held in mosques during Ramadan won't be possible in Kuwait this year, Ahmed, a lawyer based in the country, is gearing up by launching an online prayer group.
"Prayers are a pillar of Islam all year long but in Ramadan they're even more special. We're also used to joining the taraweeh prayers after dinner during the month and the beauty of it is that you get to do that with close friends and family members," Ahmed explained to StepFeed.
Praying in unity is vital since it plays an important role in uplifting the spirits of worshippers, Ahmed believes, which is why it's important to keep a connection among those used to praying together — even if it isn't physical.
"I am launching a prayer group online. So far 14 of my relatives and friends have joined and we're thinking of opening up to more people. We'll connect via a video-call platform for one prayer each day of Ramadan. I think every group of friends and families should do the same," the lawyer added.
Ahmed and his group have already agreed that even if mosques do open for Ramadan, they will stick to their plan as they believe the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus will remain high until then.
"I always felt at peace before Ramadan, this year I am drained"
"Like everyone else in Saudi Arabia, I am just hoping coronavirus will all be over by next month but that doesn't mean I am hopeful. Infections are rising around us [...] people are overwhelmed by the lockdown," Reemas, a Saudi graphic designer, lamented over the current situation.
In Saudi Arabia, a curfew was set - 3 p.m. till 6 a.m. - to minimize the number of infections. Even though Reemas understands the need for it, she believes this curfew has already shown drastic changes to the way Saudis would normally prepare for the holy month.
"I always felt at peace before Ramadan, this year I am drained. Most of my friends feel the same too because everything is unstable right now," she added.
After fasting all day long, Muslims all around the world gather around an iftar table to break the fast together. This is also a tradition in Egypt where extended families meet on a daily basis during Ramadan.
"I live alone in Cairo so I am mentally prepping for futoor in isolation. To be honest, it's daunting to think that it has come to this but there's no other way or else I'd be putting my parents and grandparents at risk," Sarah, a 27-year-old from Egypt, told StepFeed.
This would be the first time Sarah - just like millions of Muslims - doesn't feel the spirit of Ramadan coming along in the weeks leading up to it. People are busy trying to navigate and live through the COVID-19 outbreak that "it's definitely changing the way we all plan for Ramadan."
"I am more focused on those in need this year"
"We always used to prep for Ramadan for weeks. This year, we don't even want to go buy Ramadan groceries. A trip to the supermarket is this scary and exhausting for us because of this illness," Manal, a 29-year-old graphic designer based in Dubai, told StepFeed. "I went once and could only focus on the necessities that we need to make it through this lockdown. I couldn't think or plan any further," she added.
Loolwa, a Kuwaiti physician fighting the current pandemic on the front lines, said everything is different this year.
"Personally, this crisis has reminded me of the true essence of the holy month which is really all about helping people. Instead of focusing on what to buy and where to go, I think this year we have a chance to re-experience the meaning behind Ramadan," the young medic commented.
Loolwa and many of her colleagues are hoping to use the holy month's spirit to help them in the fight against the viral illness.
"I am more focused on those in need this year and I think we all should've been all along. The fact that Ramadan is approaching during this time is a true reminder for us all to shift our focus to what really matters," she advised.
"I made my grannies, aunts and uncles Skype accounts"
Ramadan in Reem's Lebanese hometown always meant packed family gatherings; things won't be the same this year.
"It's a tradition that has been going on for decades, we all meet for iftar and by all I mean over 50 people that make up our family. This year we've already agreed we won't be doing that because we need to look out for the well being of older family members," she said.
The 26-year-old isn't about to let the virus completely ruin the family tradition and has already worked out a plan. "Fingers crossed that the internet in Lebanon won't let me down but the plan is to still have iftars together online. I made my grannies, aunts and uncles Skype accounts and we have a few weeks to practice," she explained to us.
All jokes aside, Reem believes this is the safest way to feel less isolated while taking all the precautions needed to protect everyone during a month that would usually include tens of family gatherings.