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Ramadan in a time of lockdown

Fahiem Stellenboom

Ramadan in Cape Town – home to a large, tight-knit Muslim community – usually combines fasting and deep reflection with kindness to the less fortunate and connection with kin and community. This year is different. Midway through the holy month, Fahiem Stellenboom takes us on a journey from his early Ramadan experiences in District Six in the Sixties to today’s Lockdown, when the global health crisis ‘seems to be asking to be kinder and gentler with ourselves, each other and our world’

Ramadan 2020 marked its midpoint on Friday, 8 May, when Muslims throughout the Western Cape congratulated each other for being “oppie berg” (having reached the top of the mountain), as it is fondly referred to in the Cape vernacular. That means that the first 15 days was a climb to the summit and the remaining 14 days (depending on the birth of the new moon, which will announce the new month of Shawwal) will be a downhill breeze.

Dates and boeber, a Cape Malay sweet milk drink, to herald the sweet success of arrival ‘oppie berg’ on Day 15

The 15th day of Ramadan is usually celebrated with the making and sharing of traditional boeber, a Cape Malay sweet milk drink, made with vermicelli, sago, almonds, sultanas, sugar and flavoured with cardamom, stick cinnamon and rose water. Think of it as a heralding of a sweet arrival or proud achievement.

But this year it is different. This year all our lives are different. We have had to become used to what is now referred to as ‘a new normal.’

Ramadan, as I have come to know and love throughout my life, is nothing like before, nothing like we have become accustomed to. Beautiful traditions, inherent and unique to Cape Town’s rich tapestry – upheld and celebrated for so many years – are sadly and sorely muted, or absent.

Customs which have been passed on for generations, from one household to another, from family to family, and lived daily by communities, have been tamed or curtailed. Customs, with various influences from the East Indies (countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, Java) and even India, deeply rooted in South Africa’s slave history, dating back to the 1600s.

“Lucky to have lived in District Six, where we were taught so many valuable lessons”

I often think of how lucky I am that I was born in District Six in the early 60s, where I spent my early childhood before we were uprooted by the evils of the apartheid government. A rich and diverse mix of cultures which integrated effortlessly, steeped in respect of the other.

Growing up in such an environment meant that I became used to the many traditions practiced by the community. In our case, the Cape Malay community. It was filled with a spirit of kindness, generosity and sharing. People took care of each other and respected the different religions, cultures and beliefs which coexisted seamlessly. It was truly a community, in the best possible sense of the word.

Fahiem spent his early years in District Six before the apartheid removals

It was here that we were taught many valuable lessons, beliefs and traditions. As these communities were forced out of District Six and scattered to faraway flat lands all over Cape Town, they took along with them these beautiful traditions. And that includes those practised and shared during the auspicious month of Ramadan.

Who would have thought just a few months ago, when planning the year ahead, that we would find ourselves in this situation? Never would I (and I’m sure most of us) have imagined a world that is our current reality. And one that could be with us for a while to come. How an invisible enemy would change our lives so suddenly, so radically and so globally.

Well now it’s Ramadan, the ninth month on the Islamic calendar, observed for about 29 to 30 days, by Muslims all over the world. It is the holy month dedicated to fasting, praise and worship of the Almighty, through regular prayers, reflection and spirituality. It is month which favours humility and kindness, abstaining from bad, ugly or vulgar activities and behaviour, of sharing and giving generously to others and especially those in need and less fortunate. It is one of the five pillars upon which Islam is based.

Yet now, in a time of lockdown and living with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, we are required to do things differently. Understandably and quite rightly so.

One of my Facebook friends summed it up perfectly: “No congregational prayers in the mosque. No communal breaking of the fast at sunset with friends, extended family and neighbours. No setting of tables in the streets for those who are fasting. Of course, the foundational values remain intact … fasting, charity, prayer, reflection and change for the better, but the strong and vibrant social and community connections are going to be absent.”

District Six: ‘Truly a community, in the best possible sense of the word’

All things that I miss. All traditions which I cherish and look forward to, many of them not possible this year.

I miss seeing children walk the streets, just before boeka (iftaar or breaking of the fast at sunset). Little girls in their hijabs and boys in their salaah tops, taking little plates of delicacies to the neighbours and returning home with reciprocated kindness from said neighbours.

Little plates with either samoosas, daltjies (chilli bites), cocktail pies, koesiesters, donuts, pancakes, pumpkin fritters or whatever was prepared on the night.

As we wait for the athaan (call to prayer) to signal that it was time to eat, in union  –  whether with family, friends or communities  –  we would tuck in with Bismillah (an invocation of God’s name). Usually with a date, a hearty bowl of soup, accompanied by any of the delicacies mentioned above, a glass of water and often some boeber or falooda (a cold sweet drink of milk, rose syrup, seeds and ice cream).

I miss scurrying around in the kitchen with either family or close friends as we prepare our meals just in time for iftaar (boeka).

Fahiem (back left) , his Mum and Dad his brother and his niece at Eid in 2019

I miss being able to engage in evening prayers with my family. I miss my mom (79) and dad (82), yet am deeply grateful, and I give thanks every single day, that they are still with us. A telephone or video call will have to suffice for now.

When the holy month comes to an end around 23 May, at the birth of the new moon, we will celebrate Eid-al-Fitr, usually filled with engagement, spirit and blessings. It will also have to be different. My head constantly swirls with thoughts and panic of how that will be. Unimaginable.

Perhaps what the current world health crisis is asking of us is to be kinder, gentler, more caring and compassionate, with ourselves, each other and our world. Yes, Ramadan and Eid-al-Fitr will always be a beautiful time, but it really isn’t the same.

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