CULTURE

How Filipino Muslims have celebrated Ramadan amid the pandemic

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Muslims all over the Philippines are preparing to celebrate Eid’l Fitr tomorrow in the midst of community quarantines that are enforced in response to the threat of COVID-19. Photo by JL JAVIER

Cotabato City (CNN Philippines Life)⁠ — “It’s like Christmas,” is how Muslims would often describe Eid’l Fitr to non-Muslims. This comparison is so commonplace, that it is often even used by news anchors to describe a holiday that is hardly ever a part of the Philippines’ collective memory.

When asked about what Christmas means, most Filipinos in Christian-majority Philippines have an easy answer. Jose Mari Chan — whose Christmas songs have become the soundtrack of the -ber months in malls all over the country — explains it with such ease through one of his covers: “Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ, was born on Christmas day.”

However, when asked about Eid’l Fitr, the meaning for most Filipinos leans more towards “a long weekend” than “the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan, when Muslims celebrate the end of a month-long fast commemorating the revelation of the Quran to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).”

Many look forward to the official proclamation of Eid’l Fitr as a regular holiday while they plan trips out of town, and there are those who tend to express a bit of disappointment when the declared holiday does not fall on a Friday or a Monday. The date for the Eid’l Fitr cannot be declared at the start of the year unlike most holidays, since the Islamic calendar marks the beginning of every month with a new moon and the Eid’l Fitr falls on a different date on the more commonly used Gregorian calendar every year.

In 2005, for example, Eid’l Fitr was celebrated in November.

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Three years ago, the Marawi siege began on May 23, a few days before the start of Ramadan. Now, the same date falls so close to the end of Ramadan, and Muslims all over the Philippines are preparing to celebrate Eid’l Fitr tomorrow in the midst of community quarantines that are enforced in response to the threat of COVID-19.

In Marawi City, the quarantine makes difficult circumstances all the more difficult for those who remain displaced, years after the siege in 2017. In a Facebook post, Dalomabi Lao Bula pleads with the government on behalf of residents who have been wanting to go home to what is now known as the city’s Ground Zero.

As of April 2020, more than 20,000 families are still displaced in different parts of Lanao provinces and Marawi City. About 200 families are staying in community-based evacuation camps (CBEC) while more than 2,900 displaced families are currently staying in transitory shelters — all of them in need of better access to clean and potable water, as well as health and sanitation interventions.

So far, there have been nine recorded cases of COVID-19 in Lanao del Sur, with six recoveries and three deaths.

Movement has been difficult for Marawi residents, especially for those who wish to enter the neighboring city of Iligan. A medical certificate and travel pass are the minimum requirements to travel, making it difficult to run errands in between the two cities and, in Bula’s case, join her family in grieving for their relatives who died recently.

Not that things have been easy these past three years for those whose lives have been affected by the siege. On Facebook, a picture of a child bakwit is shared with the caption, “buhay sa Maynila, natigil nang dalawang buwan. Sa Marawi, tatlong taon.”

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When asked about how the quarantine has changed their family’s observance of Ramadan and Eid’l Fitr in Cotabato City, Amina* says it has its pros and cons. “It has been easier to observe the daily prayers as a family since we’re all just inside the house, and working from home gives us a flexibility we did not have before. After the morning prayer, I could take a nap that’s longer than usual because I don’t have to worry about rushing to the office afterwards. The distance from my bed to my desk at home is far shorter than the distance between our house to the office.”

“Despite this, there is a definite downside to the quarantine,” she says. “My quarantine pass is only valid from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m., which means I only have an hour or two to finish all my errands since most establishments open at 8 or 9 a.m. The quarantine also means that we can’t be with our elders during suhoor [the early morning meal before sunrise] or iftar [the meal taken after sunset], since they live in another barangay. I’m guessing that’s how it will be for us during the Eid, too.”

The “iftar dates” that once marked the end of the everyday fast are no longer. Local, family-restaurants that used to be full of people around 6 p.m. have been closed for the most part of the quarantine, with some of them reopening recently, but only for takeout orders and delivery.

In the compound of the Bangsamoro Regional Government, the bustling crowd that comes with the annual Ramadan Fair is nowhere to be seen. Given the constraints of the quarantine, mounting the fair has become impossible this year, and has meant a loss of expected income for small businesses that have had an established presence in the said fair.

“Definitely, it’s been difficult,” says Ross Alonto, officer-in-charge for the Ministry of Trade, Investment and Tourism. She has been coordinating the Ramadan Fair in recent years, which has also served as a venue for businesses run by families that have been displaced by the Marawi Siege.

“Some of the sellers switched to online venues, but not everyone has access to reliable internet,” Alonto shares. “During the first few weeks of the quarantine which also coincided with the start of Ramadan, movement was very limited and pushed a lot of small businesses to use their capital on spending for their daily necessities instead. Daily wage workers who were supposed to man the stalls in the fair suddenly had no jobs to rely on, and the value chain of small businesses is such that when one aspect is affected, the repercussions are felt all throughout.”

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This year, Eid’l Fitr falls on a Sunday, while the national government has declared Monday as a regular holiday. This is not the first time the national government has deviated from the actual date as it declared the Eid’l Fitr as a regular holiday, mostly which has caused some Muslims to sometimes feel shortchanged since they would have to file for a leave on a different date if they wanted to celebrate the Eid with their families.

Here in Cotabato City, Sundays have been recently declared as a “no-movement day.” Hardly anybody is allowed to go out and all establishments are closed, turning the city into what seems like a ghost town. The holiday on Monday comes as a welcome development since it will allow them to go out and maybe see friends and family in passing, since quarantine rules in the city have eased. However, it doesn’t change the fact that they cannot be together on the day of the Eid’l Fitr itself.

“I’m sad that it feels like I’m getting used to compromising or adjusting during the Eid, when I know some of my non-Muslim friends barely have to compromise when it comes to Christmas or New Year,” says Meryam*. “I have family in Manila and Marawi, and it has often felt like we have to make do with the few options that we have. Real halal food is difficult to find in many restaurants in Manila; our ancestral home in Marawi is now gone,” she says.

“Ramadan is a way for us to renew our strength and to remind ourselves to trust and rely on Allah, while the Eid is a celebration of this renewal,” she shares. “We are strong because of our faith and we are descendants of generations who have struggled for years so we can live better lives, and recent years remind us of this shared history. We only hope that other Filipinos can share in our trials and triumphs, too.”