Ramadan is a time of piety and prayers, fasting and feasting, and spending time with family and friends. Last year, the holy month was a surreal experience, with all mosques closed, most shops shuttered, a 16-hour curfew and people confined at home. This year the situation is much better, as mosques are open for prayers, but a 10-hour curfew is in place.
The coronavirus outbreak and the resulting lockdowns and curfews disrupted many of Kuwait’s unique Ramadan traditions that have been observed by generations of citizens and residents of this country as a source of comfort and belonging. These traditions all involve gathering in some form, especially during the night, but a ban on gatherings has put paid to these customs. Even the mainstay of Kuwait’s social life – gathering in diwaniyas – is banned.
The first victim of social distancing has been graish – the traditional pre-Ramadan feast when family members and even neighbors gather before the onset of the fasting month. In the olden days, the women of the house would empty the larders of their homes of foods that are not usually eaten in Ramadan, and extended families would gather to partake in the potluck. In recent years, the food was usually ordered from restaurants and the gatherings were smaller.
Another Ramadan tradition – Girgian – will likely not take place this year too. Girgian is marked on the 13th, 14th and 15th nights of Ramadan, when children go ‘trick or treating’ to collect candies and nuts around the neighborhood. Lately, the simple confectionery of yore was replaced by gourmet chocolates and exotic nuts housed in brand-name bags and pouches that were often more expensive than their contents. But with children not even going to school and parents fearful of exposing them to any infection, kids going door to door seems to be a remote possibility.
Like Girgian, the ghabqa – a gathering of family and friends in the evenings of Ramadan – had become a lavish corporate affair, where companies invited clients and employees along with their families for a night of fun and feasting, with the media in attendance too. With a nighttime curfew in place and the ban on gatherings, one can be sure ghabqas are out of fashion this year too.
The firing of the iftar cannon – signaling to the faithful it is time to break the fast – takes place every day of Ramadan at the beautifully restored Naif Palace in Kuwait City and is broadcast live on Kuwait TV and radio. The firing of the cannon by uniformed guards in red livery used to attract dozens of families daily in the open yard of the palace, which is set up to resemble pre-oil Kuwait, complete with vintage cars, artisans and children in traditional garb. The firing still takes place, but without the crowds.
Though not a social tradition, congregation tahajjud prayers during the last 10 nights of Ramadan are observed in most mosques across the state. The popularity of qiyam al-layl prayers has skyrocketed in the past two decades, especially at the Grand Mosque. Thousands every year attend the nightly prayers, with well over 100,000 worshippers converging on Kuwait’s largest mosque on the night of the 27th of Ramadan.
Last year, mosques in Kuwait were shut, but this year, congregating for supererogatory prayers like taraweeh and tahajjud and Eid prayers has been permitted, although health measures have to be followed. These include maintaining a distance between worshippers, wearing a mask and bringing one’s own prayer rug. Women, however, will not be allowed to visit the mosques for prayers.
Of course, all of the abovementioned traditions and rituals are not essential to observe the Ramadan fast. One can remain at home, eat simply and spend time with the family. Iftar may not be served in tents outside mosques this year too, so seeking out and helping those in need with prepared meals in the neighborhood is a must.
Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic has been a blessing in disguise, stripping away the rampant commercialization of Ramadan witnessed in recent years and returning the holy month to what it actually is – an act of worship, empathizing with the less-fortunate and exercising self-discipline.