This essay first appeared in the second issue of the Good Journal, which you can purchase here.
“Not even water?”
“Nope, not even water,” I reply for the dozenth time, a saying that’s become a mantra for Muslims in the West. Each year, the Islamic month of Ramadan asks us to refrain from food and drink during sunlight hours, and undergo self-control in other parts of our life too. And with the lunar calendar creeping forward around ten days each year, those fasting hours are being stretched to the limits in recent years.
As a schoolkid, fasting in the winter in Britain felt like the easiest thing imaginable, with sunset occurring as the final class bell vibrated through the walls of the tiny building. It helped that so many of my classmates were doing the same, our mothers usually having set food on the table before we arrived home. But ever since my time as an undergraduate, I’m often the only Muslim in sight, suddenly making this spiritual and communal month a lonely one. Unexpectedly, Snapchat has become an essential way for me to stay in touch with the Muslim world.
Whether it’s seeing people engage with the usual mundanity of daily life or setting the table with food with special guests lingering in the background, there’s something unique about being invited through the glowing screens of mobile phones, which act as precious portals for this strange new form of digital intimacy.
In these public ‘stories’, which is Snapchat lingo for the ephemeral, spontaneously (or shrewdly pre-planned) recorded video messages you send out to the world, you have no idea where or how you’re going to be welcomed by your temporary host, what language they’ll be speaking or what they’ll be excited to share. During the month of Ramadan, I’ve been tuning in to see these stories from the late afternoon onwards here in Britain, which is when the forgiving sight of sunset arrives in the Middle East and elsewhere. With this in mind, you’d think virtually every clip would involve someone presenting food on a dining table just before it’s scoffed down with the same elegance of a fully loaded Subway sandwich. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
There are some situations you’re almost guaranteed to find yourself in, regardless of which part of the world’s map you pinch and zoom towards with your fingers. For example, there’ll be (mostly) guys who ‘snap and drive’ with their phone placed just above the steering wheel, pretentious R&B music blaring from the tricked out soundsystem that you try to decipher before realising the lyrics are in a completely foreign language. Or the person focussing the camera on their swaying legs as they run on the treadmill at the gym, endorphins and adrenaline fusing from their bodies with frenzy. Sometimes it’s as simple as people sharing their new clothing purchases, either unboxing a pair of shoes they’ve been seeking for a while or sharing today’s outfit as they stand in front of their bedroom mirror. Or people sharing their antics in Fortnite and Minecraft as they too stare at a glowing screen, unfamiliar text plastered on their story describing how they feel in that moment in time. I can’t stress enough how much Fortnite and Minecraft feature in these stories.
We realise now how damaging it can sometimes be to gawp at other people’s unabashed happiness on social media, however unfamiliar they may be. These feelings of ‘FOMO’ can quickly make us depressed, a feeling of inadequacy that we’re not doing anything exciting or interesting in our own lives or worse, make us feel jealous of others. But that’s never the case whenever I watch these stories, particularly before Iftar, the name of the evening meal that opens the daily fast.
In places such as Singapore and East Asia, where punishing humidity adds to the duty of fasting, nightlife seems unique, as I learn people venture out to food stalls and outdoor markets deep into the night when the weather becomes more tolerable. It almost feels dreamlike, knowing life continues elsewhere across the time zones as I doze off to a recovery nap or simply put my phone down, a view from all circles of the world just behind its glass mirror.
South Asia feels the most familiar given my own Pakistani background. Phones hover above vast cooking pots being stirred with large wooden spoons, the curries becoming hard to identify thanks to the flight of never-ending steam fogging the tiny cameras. Transition to countries in the Middle East and the higher temperatures are still not enough to put people off from sharing their culinary delights, main courses and side dishes featured with equal glee. It unexpectedly provided me the opportunity to learn about the different dishes, cooking and eating styles too. For example, vermicelli is often used to create sweet dishes in South Asian cuisine, but is used almost like a garnish in different rice recipes in the Arab world. And places such as Kuwait and Oman use their prominent coastlines as the source for numerous seafood recipes. And how could I forget to mention the universal admiration of tea and coffee?
Never mind that the intimacy of dining with others reaches its peak in the Middle East, where using utensils is unnecessary as everyone dives in to large, shared trays of rice and meat with their right hands. No, hot drinks are the great unifier around the world, especially during Ramadan. My mother immediately makes Arabic coffee for the times anyone in the family is feeling unwell, but what makes it special in its rightful home in the Middle East is its presentation. Special teapots, usually narrow in size, house this revered drink, and story after story on my phone show the careful way it’s poured into tiny teacups that sit on saucers, intricate patterns decorating the items, whether they’re ceramic, metal or glass.
What’s more interesting is seeing how much more ceremonious this presentation can become. I’ve seen rooms and dining tables cleared of previous dishes and any meaningful utensil, with only coffee tables in sight, used to present a plethora of sweet dishes and pastries to accompany the coffee, endless baklava ready to be devoured. The same is for tourists and immigrants at hotels or large Iftar parties, where Western desserts such as cheesecakes and chocolate fountains accompany the after-meal drinks, such excess being the norm.
Coincidentally, an old high school friend was making a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia during Ramadan and never failed to give his friends a tour of the buffet line on Snapchat each evening. It should be noted that dining out for the evening meal during Ramadan is the most frantic expedition possible. The only experience I have is from several years ago, where food service was understandably slow and the restaurant was filled with dozens of hungry Muslims ready to pounce into their plates all at once. The only refuge was the lonely Rooh Afza fountain on the side, a rose-flavoured drink from the Indian subcontinent popular with natives, but not with the young South Asian diaspora. It’s a far cry from the quiet meals I have with my parents during the holy month, savouring each bite once the sunset prayers have been made.
But all of the food and friendly dining aren’t why these videos are so intriguing. It’s the ecstatic camaraderie often on display that feels so welcoming. It’s present even in the most solemn places, such as the holy cities of Medina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia. After I completed my own pilgrimage there last year, a cousin asked how many fellow South Asians I saw, saying we’re seen as the “help” and make up a significant proportion of the country’s working class. There were many, but also others from the Far East and elsewhere, skin tones progressing from black to white and everything in between. Snapchat opened a light during these evening meals, capturing the happiness of so many of these immigrants, instantly making their lives so similar to my own. By comparison, meals in the Ahmed household were consumed quietly with no guests, laughter and companionship being saved for the Eid celebrations at the end of the month instead.
Whenever I come across stories of huge gatherings, I forward them to my sister with humorous emojis noting some of the differences. But she’s conscious to point out, “That’s probably normal for them, because we’ve never kept fasts in a Muslim country”. It was then I understood what my high school friend had said so many years ago, that there was an undeniable ‘buzz’ during Ramadan, life continuing beyond reasonable hours. Now that the month is over, I keep trying to capture this feeling again, swiping through stories recorded near the black cube of the Kaabah, the holiest site of them all. Hundreds of people are always swirling around the structure, whatever time you choose to take a peek, stuck in a peaceful trance. I try to find a video taken from the ground level, close my eyes and join them.