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Boston Muslims to celebrate Eid at home

Nada Alturki
Boston Muslims to celebrate Eid at home
In past years Muslims have marked Eid with large gatherings in the Greater Boston area such as this 2017 celebration at Madison Park’s athletic field. BANNER FILE PHOTO

Around this time every lunar year, Sahar Abdul Rehman, 33, takes a few hours off from working as an HR Specialist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to head over to the ISBCC, Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, in Roxbury.

There, she is met with myriad fellow Muslims dressed in bright colors, children’s laughs echoing in the mosque, and a buzz filling the room as each person expresses their own version of excitement for the Eid holiday. The day has finally come after a month of fasting through the holy month of Ramadan.

This year, traditions break and plans shift worldwide for Muslim communities as a result of the global pandemic. As a stay-at-home advisory or government lockdown is set for many countries across the globe, Muslims are experiencing an overall sadness and struggle to find meaning in and reason for celebrating the holiday this year.

“The only happiness for me was being amongst the community during the prayer times, being able to hear khutba and then praying,” said Abdul Rehman. “On my way back, I would buy Blackbird doughnuts for my office colleagues as a gesture of sharing the sweetness of Eid with other people around me, because I don’t have family.”

Traditionally, the three-day holiday is spent outside among the Muslim community in the area, sharing greetings and food. Since large gatherings of over 10 people are prohibited in Massachusetts, the ISBCC, one of the biggest cultural centers in the area, is forced to cancel Eid prayer.

Gov. Baker announced Monday that places of worship will be included in the first phase of reopening in Massachusetts. Even so, Amr ElFass, ISBCC’s project management office director said that “even if the lockdown is removed, I don’t think we’ll be having Eid prayer this year.”

In previous years, many from the Muslim community would come to the ISBCC, perform prayers throughout the day, and create a spiritual and emotional bonding experience as is Ramadan tradition.

“The night prayers were huge. People come and join the prayers and help to break their fast, eat their first meal after sunset together,” ElFass said.

Now, the traditions have shifted. As a way of keeping up the Iftar meals, the first meals served after sunset, the Center is serving meals in the parking lot of the organization’s building during Ramadan.

“We celebrate Eid for our kids and children, and the joy and happiness it brings at the end of Ramadan,” he said. While in previous years, the ISBCC would celebrate with the morning Eid prayer, followed by various family celebrations, “We don’t have that luxury this year,” said ElFass.

“We’re trying at least to bring happiness to our kids, to our children, the community, so we’re trying to do some goody bags and candy bags and give them to our kids,” he said. They will be distributed from the parking lot where families can drive down in their cars and take some photos, while still maintaining a distance.

Malden resident Dalia Zeabi, 24, has always had a similar tradition with her sisters that aims to spread joy to the children of the community. They would sit around in a circle in their local masjid, or mosque, on the night before Eid and put together goody bags to pass around to the children.

“Usually we’d make like 300 to 400 and we pass it out to the kids,” she said. “Seeing them all happy in the spirit, everything, is a really, really special moment for me, personally. It’s something I’m gonna miss.”

Zeabi said that along with the physical effects of staying in, such as built-up energy, lack of sleep and feeling anxious, she misses the social traditions that complement the month of Ramadan.

“The community that we had before the whole COVID situation keeps you in check, and it motivates you to do and finish and achieve the goals that you set yourself religious-wise,” said Zeabi.

She further explained that the connections she made within the Muslim community in her area are more than just religious. She is involved with a Muslim youth group organization, ARKanum, offering trips, retreats and Islamic activities for the youth.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in an organization that I could call family like this one,” she said of her involvement in the group. “We check up on each other all the time. We tried to continue to have Zoom sessions, Zoom lectures to gain stuff like that. And that is probably one of the biggest things I will miss in Ramadan.”

While Zeabi’s family would usually start off their first day of Eid by performing Eid prayer with their community at their local masjid and then go out for breakfast with family, they have had to significantly adjust their plans.

“We’re gonna do something like get matching pajamas and do Eid prayer together as a family,” she said. “We’re just going to make our own breakfast at home, watch family movies, call our family back home.”

Although she said that the plans aren’t final, Zeabi and her community are seeking to plan an Eid drive, where people bring baked goods and offer them to the community through her masjid in Malden.

“People will come to share greetings, obviously staying apart. And you say hi, have some cookies and stuff like that and just go home,” she said. “It’s not obviously going to be the same, as much as we try, but it’s just a little thing so that we can try and boost people’s morale.”

For others who have not found themselves significantly involved in their religious communities, a much more subtle approach to Eid is more of what they had in mind.

“We always kind of lay low anyway, and we do stuff like the prayer,” said Daniel Bennette, 41, who converted to Islam in the early 2000s after living in Syria. “We’ll probably put on some Eid songs and maybe find something good for the kids to listen to.”

As the Eid holiday is a family- and friends-oriented holiday, accentuating the importance of sharing love and empathy throughout a community, many Muslims in the Greater Boston area are finding it difficult to celebrate this year. 

“We don’t feel like celebrating. Around us there are so many people dying, suffering. There’s no point in celebrating,” Farheen Surmawala, 46, of Everett said.

The fashion designer and culinary student believes that people should be more understanding of the circumstances of the pandemic and expresses that it doesn’t feel right to invest in anything new or excessive this year, as is contrary to Eid tradition.

“We are not buying any clothes and not doing anything different,” said Surmawala. “We should accommodate ourselves according to the situation where you are in.”

As Abdul Rehman, who will be spending her Eid alone this year, reminisces over Eid mornings at ISBCC and purchasing Blackbird donuts, she will also still have the sadness and tragedy of the suffering around her in her mind.

“The notion of happiness and satisfaction will not be there, because if we think about being Muslim, we need to think about people who are suffering,” she said. “Not just Muslims, but people around the world.”