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Last year, Ramadan was challenging in a new way. Try as I might, I couldn’t ignore the increasing presence of Islamophobia both locally and abroad. Online, I found friends sharing the abuse that was levelled against them for the cloth adorning their heads; I saw streams of news headlines and community-safety advisories that followed violent attempts made upon mosques – the very sanctuaries that are a part of my daily routine.
I remember a phone call I had with my father, too. My father is quite reserved, so the majority of our conversations involve me speaking excitedly while he mumbles in agreement and patiently waits to interject a word or two. I brought up how shocked I was to hear about a man who’d driven a van into a crowd of Muslim worshipers as they exited night prayers at a North London mosque. What my father shared with me next surprised me: As an international student in England, he was praying in a mosque when a brick broke through the window and missed his head by a few inches. He advised me to do as he does now: to consciously position myself away from any windows when praying in the mosque. I was speechless.
Last Ramadan, I would remove my headscarf as soon as I exited the mosque, fearing I would solicit trouble on my lonely walks. One night at the mosque, I couldn’t help but note the danger that I was exposing myself to as I stood and prayed in front of an open window that looked out onto Toronto’s Yonge Street. That night, I grieved as I became conscious of my fear. I’m not proud of these feelings – this victimhood – however human they may be.
Ramadan wasn’t always like this.
I fasted for the first time when I was nine years old. I lived in Edmonton, and Ramadan fell in early December. I would eat breakfast at my usual time, but at school I’d tell my classmates that I wasn’t bothered when they scarfed down their lunches in front of me, and I reassured my teacher that I didn’t need to spend the lunch hour reading in the school library. I think I fasted half of that first Ramadan.
I don’t remember being told it was time that I start fasting; rather, I had to convince my parents to let me try. Naturally, they worried that I was too young and that I did not need another reason to stand out like a sore thumb in the sea of my blonde and blue-eyed school friends. At the time, I was the only Muslim child in my elementary school. Thankfully, I didn’t face many challenges observing Ramadan as a Grade 4 student. I even did a presentation about the meaning of the month and brought my class a massive dish of borek – an Algerian spring roll traditionally eaten at the iftar meal, when one breaks their fast. I don’t know how much of my faith’s practice was relayed during that presentation, but one thing is for certain: Within the hour, every last borek was devoured and the dish wiped clean. This was my endearingly awkward introduction to the Canadian Ramadan experience.
Since then, observing Ramadan – in the eyes of some – may have presented some challenges. As a teenager, I played back-to-back soccer games during weekend tournaments without a drop of water (”Yes, not even water!” I had to tell my teammates and coach). I’ve foregone summer music festivals with friends because they coincided with iftar and time at the mosque. I’ve also written some of the most gruelling and pivotal exams of my academic studies while fasting.
But I continue to fast and continue to look forward to this magical month. I always ache when Ramadan is over for many reasons: the tenderness and mercy that emanates from souls softened by abstention; the tranquility of speaking to my Lord in the last third of the night; the taste of sincere tears that stream down my face as I kneel in nightly prayer; and the warmth of a community that unifies and breaks bread once the sun has completely set.
You may wonder why I share this now. I hope that by explaining this practice of mine – my Ramadan – that it feels less “other” to those around me. And because I refuse to let hate tarnish my holy month.
As I prepare to welcome Ramadan this year, I read reports from the trial of Quebec mosque shooter Alexandre Bissonnette and I read the details in the same way that I watch horror movies: with both denial and a grotesque need to know, with a hungry curiosity and from behind the mask of my interlocked fingers. But I also read of Jewish community members volunteering on the eve of Passover to provide security to Muslims attending Friday congregational prayers. And my heart swells with hope.
The mosque is my sanctuary. Whether in my hometown of Fort McMurray, in Paris as a tourist or in Toronto as a medical student, the mosque has been my shelter. I will work harder to ensure that it continues serving as a sanctuary for myself and for anyone seeking refuge.
This Ramadan, when I break my fast at a table laden with borek, I will pray for the hearts of our communities. I will pray that the families who have been left to bury loved ones lost to all forms of hate find strength. I will pray that we find love, understanding and growth in our difference. I will pray that I live to see another Ramadan, one where I find sanctuary, not fear, in my mosque.
Sarah Hanafi lives in Edmonton.