‘Without distraction, Ramadan was harder’

“Last year there were 60 people,” says Kenan Aslan, 39, from Rhoon. Including the little ones. Now this Sunday the table at his mother-in-law in Rotterdam has been set for six. His wife Sema Aslan (34) says: “It has been a lonely Ramadan, and now I feel a bit gloomy today too. I miss that there are people all over the house and in the gallery. Chat, eat, socialize.”

The annual fast for Muslims ended this Saturday evening at sunset. Sunday would then traditionally be a festive day, with lots of family, friends, neighbors and extensive food. Due to corona, it has to be done in a small circle, and at home. All public iftars (dinners when the sun has set to break the fast), joint prayers and other religious gatherings have been cancelled. “There are no large gatherings anywhere in the Netherlands,” says Muhsin Köktas, chairman of the Contact Body Muslims and Government. “Too bad, but there is no other choice. The end justifies the means, is an appropriate Dutch proverb. We also do not want the virus to spread further through mosques. We also stay at home with Sugar Feast, which has been accepted by Muslims with sadness and understanding.”

About 850,000 Muslims live in the Netherlands. According to the Social and Cultural Planning Bureau, 55 percent of the Turkish and 87 percent of the Moroccan Dutch fast on all days of Ramadan.

Extra special

Samira Marzouk (36) from Amstelveen also notices that nothing was organized this year. “Normally I am invited to lectures, dinners, cooking sessions for those less fortunate – and now nothing.” Still, this Sunday feels like a reward to her. “I am proud and happy that I kept it up. Because there was so little distraction, I heard that some people found it harder, but I didn’t have that.” Kenan Aslan, who normally has social obligations almost every evening during Ramadan due to his position as head of external relations of the Dutch-Islamic Federation, describes this year as his most beautiful Ramadan. “I was able to eat at home every day for the first time.” The fact that his 9-year-old son joined the fast for the first time made it extra special for him. “Every evening, after sunset, the three of us sat at the table. During the day you function less and you have little energy, during dinner after sunset we were there for each other.”

Ramadan is not just about fasting and cleansing the body. For many Muslims, the period is dominated by reflection and contemplation. This year, the request to stay at home provided even more time for that, says Samira Marzouk. “With two hours of video calling instead of meeting, I can also see how they are doing and I have time to read books and listen to lectures online.” Ramadan in corona time taught her to look even more consciously at people who are alone, who need help, who don’t have a large family to take care of them. “Friends of mine go to a retirement home every Saturday for a chat. I want to do the same after corona. Walking with someone who is lonely and listening to stories. We can talk about the past, about what a person has learned a lot from, what he would have liked to do differently in life. I can learn something from that.” Sema Aslan also has good intentions: “Sometimes I spend hours on Instagram and Facebook, and shopping online. Now I realize that’s not the right thing to do all day long. I have also become aware of how much food we throw away. I want to pay more attention to that.”

Five types of baklava

That’s not going to happen for a while – the table is full of food, her mother has been in the kitchen until midnight. Sema too, she’s been working on the baklava alone for four hours, rolling the dough she has muscle pain in her arms. “There are only six of us, but I think there is food for twenty,” she says. The floral rug features oven-baked chicken wings (her mother and grandmother’s specialty), fried eggs with tomato and green peppers, pastry (layers of dough with spinach and feta), dried aubergines stuffed with meat and herbs. But the showstopper is the baklava: five bowls with five different types. Kenan Aslan: „You want to taste them all. If you think about what it’s like when fifty people come to visit, I eat 3 kilos of baklava.”

The sweet is the ultimate reward, yet it is a misconception that this gathering is called ‘the Sugar Fest’. “That name is wrong, but even many Muslims don’t know that. Because we eat a lot of sweets during Ramadan, we say in Turkish Candy Day. Literally translated, that is Sugar Fest. But it is ‘the festival of Ramadan’ or Eid al-Fitr in Arabic. It is a religious feast, not a sweet baklava feast.”