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During this year’s Ramadan, many Muslims can finally gather in person

After two years of Zoom iftars and socially distanced meals, Muslims are able to break their fasts together again

Amber Bokhari, left, and Mariam Askari watch over a child while attending an iftar in Gaithersburg on April 23. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

GAITHERSBURG, Md — It was 20 minutes until sunset and Imran Shah still had 70 chicken wings to fry, watermelon to slice and a cast-iron skillet of macaroni and cheese to get on the table.

His wife, Rohma Sahibzada, arranged chicken-stuffed puff pastries next to a garlicky-herb cheese baked into a pie crust. Then she plated rows of her signature appetizer: buffalo chicken wontons.

“Ramadan is a very special time of the year,” Shah said. “We often say that we spend half the year waiting for it and then the other half of the year sad that it’s gone.” That’s even more true this year, as some families and friends gather in person for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

Shah and Sahibzada, both 31, were feeling that joy. Even the stresses of hosting a big event — four trips to the grocery store, an emergency cookie run — couldn’t put a damper on their excitement. Finally, after two years of fractured and inconsistent celebration, they were spending Ramadan as it should be: in community.

“It feels amazing,” Shah said of finally hosting a large iftar, the communal breaking of fast at sundown. It was an event he hosted every year until the pandemic disrupted the routine. “Ramadan is communal, and this idea of community is very, very ingrained into our faith,” he added.

For most adults, Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims, is marked by increased prayers along with fasting from sunup to sundown — including abstaining from water — unless you’re sick, pregnant, menstruating or traveling. It’s a time of reflection and introspection, for examining one’s relationship with God, or Allah. But it’s also spent in fellowship.

For many of America’s almost 3.5 million Muslims — a number that has almost certainly grown since last measured by the Pew Research Center in 2017 and that is expected to double by 2050 — the past two years were marked by varying degrees of isolation.

“The Ramadan vibe definitely took a hit with covid. You weren’t able to get that spiritual recharge,” said Asad Sanchez, a 30-year old friend of Shah’s who works in construction and attended the iftar with his 3-year-old son. “Islam is communal; it’s not about being by yourself.”

Shortly after Shah’s house filled with guests, the hosts called everyone together.

“Is it time yet? Everybody grab a date!” Sahibzada called out as she placed bottled water on the table. People anxiously checked their watches and phones. The crowd — mostly friends from college and Muslim community groups, along with Shah’s cousins and their families — gathered around Sahibzada’s “date bar,” honoring the food the prophet Muhammad ate to break his fast.

Sahibzada had filled dates with Nutella and topped them with crumbled hazelnuts, stuffed “Snickers dates” with caramel and chocolate, and crammed others with cream and tropical fruits. Everyone waited, date in hand, until the clock struck 7:53 p.m. — sundown.

Then everyone bit in.

Sahibzada and Shah’s daughters, ages 1 and 3, plastered Ramadan-themed window stickers to their sliding glass door: colorful lanterns symbolizing those historically used to light the way to the mosque for evening prayers, an ornate teapot for serving chai, a favored drink to keep the devout alert during prayers that can sometimes last all night, and camels and palm trees, a nod to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Muhammad and known as the cradle of Islam.

Shah held his breath as everyone filled their plates with the rest of the food — the trickiest part of hosting during Ramadan is that you can’t sample the food as you’re making it.

Despite the sacrifices, few Muslims would describe Ramadan as a month of deprivation.

“Ramadan is a cleanser of the heart,” said Shah’s cousin Sana Shah, a 24-year-old UX designer who attended the iftar with her younger sister and fiance. “I usually have some kind of personal breakthrough during Ramadan because I’m kind of forced to sit with myself and really ask what I want.”

She said that for many Muslims, Ramadan’s introspection helped them through the pandemic.

“It definitely allowed for you to find that inner peace, that inner desire to reflect with God,” said Najam Qazi, 39, who works for Southwest Airlines out of Dallas. “When I was forced to be at home and not really do much but be lost in my thoughts and prayers and meditation, I think it definitely helped me find that within myself.”

Qazi’s wife is a recent cancer survivor, so the pandemic brought raised levels of anxiety to their household, particularly in those early months.

They worked hard to maintain the feel of Ramadan, packing boxes of cupcakes with notes that read Ramadan Mubarak, or Blessed Ramadan, to drop off at friends’ houses. Boxes of dates and prayer mats arrived on their doorstep, gifts from friends. Many imams live-streamed their services and Qazi watched a different one every night.

In those same weeks, Shah said he relied on a WhatsApp group of friends who texted each other reminders to wake up in time, calling themselves “Suhoor Squad,” named for the predawn meal that’s taken before morning prayers and meant to sustain you throughout the day.

As outdoor gatherings started to seem viable toward the end of the month, Qazi and his family set tables up in his sister’s driveway, preparing the same kinds of samosas and pakoras they’ve eaten at iftars since they were children. He remembers his parents crying, finally together during a month no one should have to be alone.

“It was a cool moment, one that I won’t ever forget,” Qazi said.

Qazi said that while the halting return to normalcy is comforting, what constitutes “normal” might never be the same.

He notices how physically close he gets to other people at evening prayers and how many people are wearing masks in the mosque. For Shah’s iftar, several people dropped out because of positive coronavirus tests or exposures.

But in many ways, heaviness woven with celebration is what Ramadan is about.

Shah said that while he’s certainly joyous about in-person celebrations, he also feels a weight knowing how many Muslims around the world aren’t able to celebrate or worship as freely — whether it’s because of religious persecution, war or hunger.

“If one part of the ummah is hurting, then every part of the ummah is hurting — it’s like a human body,” said Shah, using the word the Koran uses to refer to Islam’s community of believers.

As the evening began to wind down around 10 p.m., Sahibzada encouraged everyone to pack to-go containers of food. Guests had already filtered into the basement for evening prayers, then upstairs for a second round of food: cheese pizza, a marinated salmon salad and the long-awaited smash burgers, served with coleslaw on potato buns.

Shah lined up paper cups on the counter and filled them with hot water and tea bags, containers of powdered milk and sugar on the side. Soon, people began to say their goodbyes.

“Ramadan is this guest that comes once a year to spend time with you and help you connect to God, it’s this friend that we wait for and this friend that we miss when it’s gone,” Shah said.