Growing up in the Middle East, Ramadan was a big deal. For those unfamiliar, Ramadan is a holy month in Islam where believers fast from sunrise to sunset, and good deeds are said to be amplified in the eyes of God (Allah).
In authoritarian Muslim regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, fasting during Ramadan is mandatory. This means that for an entire month, restaurants are closed until sunset, and anyone seen eating or operating a restaurant during the day could face criminal charges or fines.
However, the harshest punishments for anti-fasters are doled out not by the government, but by peers. Religious friends, family, and stranger would belittle and report offenders who dare eat or drink. In schools, the rare non-Muslim child is bullied for not conforming to the Ramadan rules and regulations.
In Saudi Arabia, life suddenly becomes extremely difficult if you’re seen as a an anti-faster. Dating and marriage becomes a challenge, employers may fire you, friends you’ve had for years stop talking to you, and even family members may distance themselves.
Even though I’ve only fasted 1 day in Ramadan my entire life, when I lived in Saudi Arabia I pretended to fast every single day. I would start the day with a huge meal before leaving the house in the morning, go to the bathroom to drink water from the faucet while at school, and kept a snack in the car for the ride home.
Since I was never a Muslim, I felt no guilt about not fasting, but I hated lying to my friends and family.
Then about 10 years passed. Me and my high school friends were now in our 20’s and hanging out over drinks. Yes, the same “Muslim” mother fuckers who used to shame anti-fasters were drinking White Claw at 3PM on a Wednesday trying to get laid.
That night I found out that none of them actually fasted. Literally every single one of them didn’t fast, and thought everyone else fasted. But they didn’t want to be persecuted by their peers, so they lied. They didn’t want to eat in front of people who were going through an important religious experience. We all had a laugh about how we used to be silly teenagers, upholding and exacerbating a facade none of us actually bought into. (Of course if you’re a devout Muslim you should fast, but there’s no point faking it – God is all seeing right?)
Ramadan definitely had its positives even for non-Muslims. Because it’s considered a holy month, donations to charities and the poor skyrocketed. And at the end of Ramadan came Eid, a celebration where the unemployed (mostly kids) received money from family members. Kind of like a stimulus check. Some of my fondest childhood memories were going to the video game store with my younger brother to blow through our newly acquired riches.
I wonder how we’re going to talk about COVID mandates in 10 years. Will we look back and have a good laugh about times we shamed someone for not wearing a mask despite not really caring about mask-wearing deep down? Will we regret not reaching out to friends and family because we feared a government fine? Will we regret living in fear of expressing our thoughts and being judged/prosecuted by the very people we love?
I of course will never look back on COVID restrictions in a negative light. My official and unwavering opinion now and in the future will always be that I wholeheartedly participated in lockdowns and mask wearing, and shamed anyone who disagrees.