Note: This post was written around July 2016, but I forgot to publish it out of sheer laziness.
I never would have imagined being a Muslim in Washington, DC would be difficult given the large populous of Muslims (mainly from South Asia and parts of the Middle East) that live either in the District or in the bordering areas of Northern Virginia. However, my Ramadan experience in DC proved me otherwise. Not only is it difficult, for me, to adapt to a more Muslim lifestyle here (a.k.a: Halal eating), but I felt a loss of community that I was once a part of when I lived in Malaysia, Bangladesh, and even Indonesia (to an extent).
Let me preface by saying that I am what (I assume) many people in the Muslim community would consider a “bad Muslim,” partially because I do not adhere to the five prayers as well as the dietary restrictions. I am not going to say that my choice of not wearing a headscarf makes me a “bad Muslim,” but that is a debate saved for a later date. I think my pushback towards my religion stemmed from the fact that, in my experience, Islam has been a norm, and something that (to me) has been drilled into me since I had attained consciousness. As such, I never really cared about my religion and, for years, I would consider myself indifferent to Islam and its teachings. However, I began to reconnect with my religion partially due to my experiences in Dharamsala, India and learning the ways of Tibetan Buddhism. And yes, Tibetan Buddhism, for me, was my gateway to opening back up to Islam, but it was not the only reason why I began to view Islam more positively (that can be in another post). So just to recap: my views of my experience in Ramadan are purely from a novice Muslim who decided to try adhering to her religion fully for the first time.
This year during Ramadan (2016), I felt a need to be more religious in my practice compared to the Ramadans of the my past. Reflecting back, I think there are two reasons to this: 1) This was my first Ramadan away from home and my family – a first Ramadan without a strong support group really; and 2) I was at a time in my life where I had no direction. As such, I thought, “Well, if it is a holy month, maybe some of my questions can be answered?” So, I experimented with my self will, especially the temptation to order meat dishes. I adhered to the strict Halal dieting rules, which I had forgone during the other times of the month (and still do). Due to this restriction, I realized how limited D.C. is with its Halal option.
Okay, you might be thinking, “So, why can’t you just be ovotarian/pescetarian/vegetarian?” And to that, I say that I have a strong passion for meat dishes and, yes, even one month of no meat (i.e.: chicken or beef) is a hard limit for me because I am a weakling (haha). Due to this personal (and stupid) decision, I cooked most of the time and limited my take-out and dining out times.
One of the pros of this dietary restriction was that I learned to cook more. I think that Ramadan spurred me to be more creative with my cooking. I started to try new recipes, and especially closed to Aidilfitri, I started to make cookies that reminded me of home. So, I guess my stupidity and ornery behavior led to me level up my cooking skills.
Another pro that I felt was that I was less stressed out during my frantic need to be employed. Mainly because Ramadan is a time to attain some form of inner peace. As such, I prayed more (which is my way of meditating and clearing my mind) and I tried to see the positive side of things rather than dwell on the negative. Some days it works, other days can be hard and I spiraled back to my frantic worry of unemployment. However, I felt an odd calm that I can’t truly explain during this time of month.
Nevertheless, I think one of the biggest con that I can think of is that there is a lack of community during Ramadan in DC. I think it mainly stems from the fact that I am not in a Muslim majority area and that I never made an effort to connect with the Muslim communities in DC (or even at my university). As such, I felt miserable because I missed the Ramadan bazaars and hearing the Azan for Maghrib – these are the things that one can easily take for granted.
Another thing that I noticed is the lack of Halal food in DC itself. Despite housing the Islamic Center, DC has an appalling track record of Halal eateries, and there is only one Halal Chinese restaurant while the rest are mainly Middle Eastern or Turkish food (which is not my main preference). Being a Southeast Asian, I do miss my type of food, from your ayam masak lemak to your murtabak. These are the foods that I have also taken for granted. As such, this was the main reason why I started to cook my own food, because I can’t rely on DC to provide the food for me.
These are all petty cons that I realize were a me problem rather than the District’s problem. But these petty cons spurred my intent to connect better with Islam. So, some might say that it is a good thing (haha).
Overall, I think if I have to do Ramadan again, I learned from my mistakes and I will try to either do better at finding a community or I can suck it up and not complain. Till then, we shall see what Ramadan 2017 will entail.