Ramadan in Kuwait; A Time for Family, Prayer & Introspection
The month of Ramadan is approaching, beginning on April 1. It is a month of introspection, prayer and fasting for many of the world's almost two billion Muslims. As this Holiday of global, spiritual and religious significance is almost upon us, we here at Dennis thought it would be a perfect time to sit down with a good friend in New York, Farah Dagher, to learn more about this special month, and what it means to her and her family spread across the world. As always, we hope this Global Giving piece leaves you with an enhanced appreciation for how the cultures around us celebrate and create meaning.
To begin, can you explain the holiday of Ramadan in your own words?
Ramadan is the holiest month of the year for Muslims. It's one of Islam's main pillars, and it’s a time where all muslims celebrate across the world, regardless of their background or level of faith. Ramadan is a full month of contemplation, with an emphasis on being with family. Everything slows down through the month, and you really have time to focus on yourself. There’s a lot of space for self work, gratitude and forgiveness. It’s a very peaceful month and a very communal month.
It provides the opportunity to take a step back and evaluate. Is there anything in your character that you want to change? You are encouraged to reconnect with God, and by association it makes you want to be a better person.
As we near closer to the beginning of Ramadan, how are you feeling? What emotions does Ramadan evoke for you?
A lot of nostalgia. I don't remember the last time I was back home [in Kuwait or Lebanon] for Ramadan, where I celebrated the holiday every year for the first 18 years of my life. So I’m feeling nostalgic; excited, but sad at the same time. I talk to my family a lot during the month [who are in Lebanon while Farah is in New York], but it’s sad that I won’t get to be there with them. I’m not a religious person per se but I'm attached to the range of cultural elements that come with being Muslim. I’ll try to organize an ‘Iftar’ (meal to break the fast) with some muslim friends, which is an opportunity to break bread together.
Tell us a bit about how you and your family celebrate Ramadan each year.
My family is Muslim, and although we are not religious, we do observe and practice elements of the religion during Ramadan that we otherwise wouldn't throughout the year. For example, we would pray 5 times a day during Ramadan whereas we wouldn't pray much through the year. Growing up, I would fast every year during Ramadan. The whole country fasts, including all of your friends, so the fast is itself about creating a sense of belonging and communal experience as well.
A typical day during Ramadan might look like this: I’d come home from school exhausted (from the day's fasting) and take a nap. A large cannon is set-off as both a call to prayer and a sign that the time to eat is approaching; the firing of the cannon is televised so everyone is roughly on the same schedule. You eat one or two dates before going to prayers, after which the the family gets together to eat the evening meal.
As you can imagine, everyone rushes to the table! The meal starts with soup and salad, 'jibne' (fried cheese rolls), and pastries filled with meat. There might be a few main courses, depending on how many people you have over. We would rotate each night between our house, my grandma’s house, and our cousins’ houses.
A lot of TV shows are intentionally released during the month of Ramadan. So you eat the meal and move from the dining room to the tv room, in a food coma. You have the sweets that are only available during Ramadan, and watch back-to-back series together. As a teenager, I would meet up with friends after we'd all finished watching tv with our families. We’d stay out until 2am, smoking shisha, eating snacks and nuts or even a sandwich or small meal before the sun came up.
Can you describe the vibe and the feeling in Kuwait during the month of Ramadan?
The whole country adapts to the month of Ramadan, and it’s amazing to see. School starts later and ends earlier to accommodate for the fast. The school cafeteria closes for the month. Shops close down. You don't eat on the streets out of respect for other people’s fast. You know how when Covid first hit, it felt like the world stopped for a short time? You get that feeling each year on Ramadan; it feels like you can breathe, focus on what makes you happy; your relationship with family, friends and God.
The vibe is magical. There are lanterns on the street, so the city is lit up with colors. You’re encouraged to give to charity and those around you, so you might make a lamb and give half to your neighbor. It’s a month where everyone is working on themselves and their patience; when you fast you become impatient, so you have to make a special effort to work on your patience. Everyone’s energy changes and you can feel a sense of serenity.
What are your favorite memories from Ramadan growing up?
I have beautiful memories of my grandma, who is religious, reading the Koran (Qur’an) to me and telling me stories of the different prophets.
The end of Ramadan is celebrated with a feast known as Eid al-Fitr, which is usually spread across one or two days. My family would go to one grandma’s house one day and the grandma on the other side the next day. Growing up, we would also receive small gifts from family, such as a gold necklace or some money.
Ramadan in the Five Senses: What comes to mind with each of the five senses?
Sight: lanterns lit
Sound: call to prayer
Taste: ‘atayef’, which are deep fried pancakes that filled with cheese
Smell: the blend of different foods coming from the kitchen; a full table of fried things, soups, spices.
The global Muslim population is huge and diverse. We hope you enjoyed reading about one person and family's experience of what is a beautiful tradition of introspection and prayer. We hope this Global Giving piece has helped illuminate a tradition and custom that may be important to friends, family or colleagues around you. And if the act of reading about this tradition gives you the space for your own moment of introspection, we're here for that too.