Turning In to Turn Up During Ramadan

by Sabreen Akhter

Like many children of immigrants, it was rare that I would see my mother cry. She was made of that same earthen ore that so many recent immigrants are — setting out a path for herself, and then putting her head down and throwing every ounce into the effort of her new life in America. In the 1980s, when she was still early in her career, with two young children under her care, and a husband with an equally punishing schedule, there was little time to travel to see family, and even less opportunity to connect in the ways that we can today.  Long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, long distance flights even more so, and the intervals between seeing loved ones stretched over many years. 

I can count the number of instances when I saw my mother cry as a child — once, when we had forgotten her birthday and she felt particularly isolated, once, when a beloved aunt of hers passed away at a young age in her homeland, and a few times on the rare occasions when we would visit India to see her own mother, at the moment of departure when she knew it would be many years before she would lay eyes upon her mother again. Each time, the recovery was swift, the tears were wiped, and the sadness pushed aside as she turned back to the immense effort of building our lives in a new place.

So, it was a surprise to my five-year-old self, at the start of our long car ride back home to Chicago from Toronto where we had been visiting my mother’s nearest sibling, her sister Salma, to see her tears rolling freely down her still-young face for what seemed like an eternity, making no attempt to hide them from the children bundled in the back seat. What my father did next is something that has stayed with me, all these decades later, and something that I have come back to again and again while navigating the many waves of this pandemic.

To say this past year has required us all to turn inward to find comfort and joy in the small moments of our small lives is an understatement. I haven’t seen my parents in 17 months. Despite this, I remain immensely grateful that, despite working full time as physicians, they have weathered this pandemic without illness. Sadly, the same could not be said for my maternal grandmother, who succumbed to Covid-19 in India in September last year, without her daughters by her side. May her soul be eternally blessed.

For Muslims worldwide, this inward-facing consciousness has become more intense in these past few weeks, as many observe the holy month of Ramadan. When fasting from dawn to sunset daily, a person becomes very aware of the many vicissitudes of their bodies, their energy levels, and the desperate need for rest. At the same time, one becomes much more aware of the needs of everyone and everything around them. It feels very true to the adage about the senses — as one is cut off, another becomes amplified. Once my need for frequent nourishment is diminished, my need to be in community with and of service to others is acutely heightened.

For myself, starting Ramadan in a week that saw the conviction of Derek Chauvin and the almost simultaneous murder of Ma’khia Bryant, on the heels of a year like the last one, forces a kind of tension between the pull of my body to contract and the push of my heart and mind to expand. In a year filled with a rising outcry for justice and liberation for Black lives, for police accountability, for an end to Asian, Sikh, and other forms of xenophobic brutality, white supremacy, imperialism, and the ongoing pandemic (now ravaging my parent’s homeland), it feels imperative to lend our voices, hands, and feet to this groundswell of collective humanity. And at the same time, just as vital, is the need to protect and preserve the most quiet and still parts of ourselves, those places of reserve and compassion that will ferry us through the tumult of this time. Ramadan does this to me — it forces me in and out of myself simultaneously, like a kind of synchronous collision and explosion, both of equal magnitude. And in this way, Ramadan is in every one of us, experiencing this same push and pull in this moment and throughout this year.

As we near Eid-ul-Fitr, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, and the first time since I will have seen my (now vaccinated) family since 2019, I am left with many questions, not the least of which is this: “Mother, when I see you again, how will I ever say goodbye?”

I try to take lessons from my parents and their parents and so on, from lives lived thousands of miles apart from each other, though still with the entirety of their love and dedication to each other. 

When my father saw the tears running freely down my mother’s face, on that snowy ride back from Toronto, how they didn’t seem to stop despite each mile marker passing, he considered what was ahead of them. Ten hours of driving with two small urchins in the back, meals to prepare, laundry to be sorted, and full days of work ahead for the both of them. And then, just like that, he slowed the car and turned around. My mother was as shocked as we were, overjoyed at the surprise opportunity to spend two more days playing with our cousins. It was only two more days, two days for which my parents had to rearrange their entire schedules and alert our daycare to our continued absence, but two glorious, bonus days to spend time with each other. It was worth it.

Flights are more difficult and expensive to cancel than road trips, and I won’t be able to add on days to my visit to see my parents this Eid. But I will take every moment I can to cherish and care for them, while I try to still nourish and deepen those reservoirs meant just for me. Ramadan has taught me many lessons through the years, and as this second pandemic Ramadan ends, I am left with this thought. Despite distances that may stretch over years and geographies, there are so many ways to turn around and show up that are meaningful and true — for our families, for our communities, and for ourselves.

Sabreen Akhter is a pediatric emergency physician who lives in South Seattle with her husband and two kids. She is passionate about health equity and justice, immigrant and refugee narratives, and building community.

📸 Featured Image: Sabreen celebrating Eid in Chicago with her parents, partner, and child a few years ago (photo courtesy of Sabreen Akhter).

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