The holy month of Ramadan is now being observed as millions of Muslims around the world fast from sunrise to sunset.
In normal circumstances, celebrations during this month of fasting — which starts on April 24 this year — end each day in mosques around the country over the breaking of the evening fast. But with the Covid-19 pandemic, Ramadan this year is unlike any before. Although the Sheikhul Islam Office just announced yesterday that mosques can be opened for religious practices despite strict preventive measures, no more large public banquets are expected. With curfews and lockdowns still enforced, Muslims struggle to make sense of the new normal.
In light of Ramadan in this challenging time, Life speaks with three Muslim Rohingya people, whose families have made Thailand their home for decades, to help gauge their thoughts on how the outbreak of Covid-19 has dampened the celebrations.
Hajee Ismael, 46
Co-founder of Rohingya Peace Network of Thailand Bangkok
Hajee Ismael. Photo credit
Ismael, a father of six children, does everything in his power to create memorable experiences for his children over Ramadan in Thailand — the same way his parents left him with fond memories of celebrating the holy month during his childhood in Rakhine state, Myanmar.
While for the most part he has managed to offer his family the necessities to break their fast each year with dates and special treats, since the Covid-19 outbreak, things have just not been quite the same.
“Business has been really slow, so this year we have toned down the Ramadan celebrations. However, I feel my family is still much better off than other Rohingya families that depend on daily wages to sustain themselves,” said Ismael, who has resided in Thailand for 25 years.
He noted that 80% of the Rohingya people in Thailand earn a livelihood by selling roti, and the remaining 20%, like himself, have been fortunate to venture into small businesses to support their families.
However, Covid-19 has brought almost all businesses to their knees, including his grocery stores, which is barely surviving as public spending has lessened to a trickle.
“My woes today are nothing to compared to my Rohingya brothers and sisters who are living hand-to-mouth during the month of Ramadan. In the past, roti sellers worked from early evening to late in the night. Since the curfew, they have found themselves unable to make as much money in the day as they would at night. This has immensely impacted their daily wages.”
Having the mosques closed earlier during the pandemic worsens the situation for them because they cannot earn extra income from helping with odd jobs.
“While there is little to no income during this period, they still have to pay their rent and fill the stomachs of their children. In the past, Ramadan was a particularly good time for them as donations often poured in of food supplies.
“The Rohingya Peace Network helped to distribute rice, cooking oil and other items to Rohingya families around the country during Ramadan. However, this year there has been just a trickle. So many are breaking their fast with the minimum they can get their hands on.”
As they are only able to eat halal food, they can’t benefit from food donations that are being distributed around the city.
Shaker Mohamed, 53
Roti seller Ubon Ratchathani
Shaker Mohamed. 0505RamadanCovid-19
In his 35 years in Thailand, Mohamed has never felt so hopeless and depressed during Ramadan. This year, it has been a sombre affair.
The father of four, who once made 700-1,000 baht a day selling sweet roti in fresh markets and factories, barely scrapes together enough to feed his family since the outbreak of Covid-19.
“Business has been slow since the curfew was implemented. Roti sellers mostly work from late afternoon up till late at night. Due to people practising social distancing and working from home there are just not enough customers. Some days business is so bad that I have just 70 baht in my pocket.
“From the pittance I make today, all I can afford for a meal during the breaking of our fast is stir-fried morning glory, the cheapest of vegetables, on rice, and a mango, which due to a good harvest this year is cheap.”
Mohamed recalls the time when his earnings enabled the family to have a memorable Ramadan.
“In the past when we broke our fast as a family during the holy month, we enjoyed the choicest of dishes. There was often seafood, beef and even lamb curries. We had dates and other dry fruits that were donated by brethren from the mosque. It was a time of immense happiness for me.”
Due to widespread regulations that have been imposed where meeting relatives and friends for large iftar meals at dusk — the centrepiece of a Muslim’s month-long fast — is almost impossible, Ramadan this year is a stressful time for Mohamed’s close-knit family.
“I’m disappointed, but what can we do? The world is different now,” he said. “I know I have to accept this new normal, but it is always difficult, because we have never experienced this type of pandemic.”
Despite the odds stacked against him, he said he would keep the faith.
“I need to keep positive, even though it is hard. The Covid-19 pandemic has cast a long shadow over the rituals I am accustomed to, which today have been modified to fit public health rules on physical distancing. After having experienced this, the month of fasting and reflection will never be the same for me.”
Aryukarn Pathan, 28
Businessman Khon Kaen
Celebrating Ramadan this year has been a mixed bag of emotions for Pathan.
Born into an ethnic Rohingya family that have made Thailand their home for close to half-a-century, he remembers past Ramadan months to encapsulate times of joy, spent in social gatherings and feasts he always looked forward to experiencing after a day of abstention from food and water.
“Ramadan has been a sociable time for me when, after breaking fast, my family and friends enjoyed sumptuous meals and gatherings at dusk. But this global pandemic has cast a long and depressing shadow over these practices,” remarked Pathan, a commerce graduate.
“Any type of gatherings and the feasting we once enjoyed with friends and family has now become a more intimate affair. While I do understand the need for these precautionary moves, it is all very unfortunate. Having no one to break the fast with feels like suffering, it just feels flat.”
Pathan added it was difficult to not get emotional over the fact that the people who are most impacted by this virus are the poor.
“Apart from our Rohingya brothers there are scores of individuals at our mosque who have lost their jobs during this period. They need food for their families and the opportunity to earn some money. In normal circumstances we would have had charity meals for them.”
Pathan said that due to Covid-19, his business was in a bad state of affairs. Nevertheless, his family regularly donated dates for the less fortunate Rohingya families to break their fast. While it is customary during Ramadan to be charitable by offering food, cash and donations to those with few means to afford it, he said donations in general were low this year because many donor families had been impacted by the virus.
In the past, he recalled how Muslim communities in the province set up long tables on the streets, dishing up free hot meals for the poor at sunset to help break their fast.
“At the centre of Ramadan is the sunrise to sunset fast, which is meant to instil contemplation of Allah. But alongside the hardship of abstaining from food and drink for long periods every day, the holy month sweeps everyone up into the communal spirit.
“Of course, I miss that dearly. This year I find myself cut off from much of what makes the month special. It is always difficult to balance restrictions with traditions. When I feel disheartened thinking about this, I remind myself that it is for the good of everyone.”
While Pathan has never been to Myanmar, he said his father often shares his fondest memories of celebrating Ramadan in their native Rakhine state, where their extended family once lived happily, which was of course decades prior to the ethnic cleansing by the state which drove thousands out of Myanmar on foot only to die.
“I am told that my grandmother prepared many delicious home cooked delicacies, which she shared with our neighbours and friends. All year my dad as a young boy waited for Ramadan because the family used to have a get-together with relatives from near and far.
“His face brightens up whenever he shares these stories.”