by Earl Carlo Guevarra

I wake up to my old Android smartphone’s harsh alarm.

The time showed 3:40 a.m. The room was dark, yet I knew I had to wake up my wife for sahur, or she would have headaches throughout the day due to thirst. Besides, we needed the energy from the pre-dawn meal, especially in the merciless April heat of the metropolis.

It’s Ramadan once again, and this time around, it carries a special meaning, for it’s the first time it happens under the new normal. Considering that many of us are unaware of why millions of Muslims in the Philippines and abroad fast during Ramadan, I thought it would be good to embark on a modest attempt to help people visualize what it is all about.

Basically, Ramadan is the Muslim version of Lenten, Advent, and Thanksgiving rolled up into one holy month- it’s a rough gauge of its importance to Muslims worldwide. People abstain from drinking food and drink from dawn to dusk, and they could only eat when the sun was down. Also, before the rise of the corona, people used to invite friends, acquaintances, and neighbors to fast-breaking dinners called iftar. These occasions provide excellent excuses for people to catch up with each other and socialize; as a result, these dinners could be considered one of the best parts of Ramadan – besides, there’s a lot of delicious food and drink!

However, the pandemic locked everyone inside their homes and apartments. Visitors were not allowed at all, especially back in April 2020. It was lonely; we could only hear the faint steps of people walking in and out of neighboring apartment doors. Sometimes, my wife and I wondered whether the cursed coronavirus pandemic would end at all. Times are better now, though.

During the day, we try to go on with our lives. My wife works from eight in the morning to two in the afternoon. Meanwhile, I work from nine to four; on Mondays, I also have graduate classes from five to eight-thirty in the evening. At least we don’t have to think about lunch on most days during Ramadan.

Then, it’s just a few hours before sunset. It was time to prepare iftar, which is the fast-breaking dinner. Most of the time, it’s rice, chicken and fish (or beef, depending on the day of the week), salad, and tea. Also, my wife had to prepare lots of dishes and desserts for visitors who come at least once a week. At the same time, I help with the preparations by cooking dishes such as chicken adobo and kare-kare. It was tiring because we were running on fumes all day long. However, the satisfaction of being able to cook and eat delicious food at the end of a long day of fasting is always worth the toil. In other instances, we got invited by our friends to dinner, which meant that we did not have to cook for the day!

During this month, Muslims are not just required to abstain from drinking and eating from dawn to sunset. The days of the month serve as a period where they try to expunge away bad habits such as lying and backbiting and improve one’s self in general through acquiring mental and emotional fortitude. One can think of it as the Muslim version of the mental detox routine. Besides, through fasting, Muslims learn to empathize with the plight of the less fortunate in society. After all, we do not really understand the harsh realities of hunger unless we get to experience it personally, right?

Furthermore, it is also a time to give back to the community, as all Muslims who have the means to do so are required (both as a form of religious and social responsibility) to give something called sadaqa al-fitr (loosely translated as the “charity for fast-breaking”) to those who are in need, which is basically the cost of two and a half kilos of rice – equivalent to around P150 for this year. Many people even go beyond that amount when they do their respective social responsibility duties, knowing that there are many of their compatriots out there who suffer from hunger, especially during the pandemic.

Ramadan ends with a three-day-long celebration called Eid’l Fitr (literally meaning “Fast-Breaking Festival” in Arabic. People pray the customary yearly Eid prayers and have festivities with the rest of the community, inviting everyone to their respective homes; there are games for the children such as palo sebo and tug-of-war, with prizes to boot! This year, it will end on May 2 or 3, though the official date remains to be seen; I’m personally excited because it’s an opportunity to meet up with friends I haven’t seen for two years now! I’ll be honest, this year’s Ramadan – right smack in the middle of the hot season – isn’t easy in terms of not having food and drink. Yet, I look forward to every single night, knowing that I would finally be able to have a good time with the people I cherish after two years of seclusion! On a side note, this year’s Ramadan also happens to coincide with the Lenten and Passover seasons, which should serve as a great bridge to learning more about our respective cultures and faiths.

In a world where everyone tends to distrust the “Other,” I think we must promote the richness of our traditions and promote a culture of multiculturalism. Otherwise, how will we live together in harmony in this increasingly interconnected world? How will we start learning to live together as one if we do not even strive to understand the people around us?

This is why we need to learn and embrace the variety of cultures we have in this country. Understanding what Ramadan is all about allows us to strengthen our collective identity as Filipinos.