May 16th, 2018 was a day of many firsts. First day of fasting. First day of fasting in a foreign country. First day of fasting in a foreign country without my family. I spent the day hiking the Cape of Good Hope with friends, under the South African sun, so I was exhausted to say the least. When I got back to my hostel, I sat on my bed and broke my fast with a banana and some water. I described in vivid detail to my roommate why Ramadan is my favorite month and my family’s Ramadan traditions. The Ramadan spirit was clearly missing, and just when I was about to call my mother to tell her how alone I felt, I heard the end of the adhan. South Africa is a predominantly Christian country, and I hadn’t seen any Muslims let alone a mosque in my neighborhood, so I assumed I was delusional from dehydration. I gathered my last ounce of nonexistent energy and went for a walk to try and find the mosque that the adhan came from.
I have a tradition of going on a walk around the neighborhood in each country I visit. In Iceland, it was definitely the most scenic walk I’ve taken–the type of walk you daydream about after watching travel videos on Facebook instead of studying for exams. In Chile,it was to prove to my friend that I knew enough Spanish to buy toothpaste from the corner store (I didn’t). In South Africa, it led to the most random yet impactful interaction I’ve had. Right as I turned the corner to the mosque, I saw a woman across the street wearing an abaya and a silk hijab. I’m struggling to put into words exactly why I felt pulled towards her energy, but I crossed the street, tapped her on the shoulder, and made up a question to start a conversation. Not to be dramatic, but when she turned around and smiled, I felt like I knew her from another life. She showed me where the mosque was and walked me back to my hostel. On the walk back home, she asked me everything she needed to know, from what I was doing in Cape Town, to if she could make me food to eat for suhoor. While I unlocked my gate, she told me she lived in apartment 4, and that she was expecting me for tea tomorrow after maghrib. She didn’t leave until I was inside and the door was locked behind me. Her name is Ruwayda.
The next day, I stopped at Lameez Convenience Store and bought a box of tea before walking to apartment 4. In retrospect, I probably should’ve thought twice about going to have tea with a 45 year old woman I met on the street 24 hours prior, in a city I had been in for less than a week. But there I was, knocking on her door, desperate for a sense of community during my first Ramadan alone. What I didn’t realize is this low-grade recklessness would result in a unique friendship, and open my eyes to what it means to be 1 of 1.8 billion Muslims.
After about 2 days of knowing her, she had declared herself to be my ‘South African Mother.’ She took it upon herself to pack me suhoor after our daily post-maghrib tea. She made fun of me for not taking any milk or sugar in my tea and her sons followed suit by asking if I wanted ice cubes in my tea since I hadn’t quite mastered the art of drinking scalding hot tea like them. We talked about what seemed like everything, from her student activism during apartheid, to her opinions on President Zuma, to if Afrikaans, her first language, was a colonial relic. Often times while travelling, I depend on museums to learn about the history and culture of a country. I learned more about South Africa through Ruwayda’s life story and oral history than I did from any museum; I tried to return the favor but my contributions often evolved into futile rants about American politics. Most importantly, I never broke my fast as pitifully as I did on the first day. I was either at Ruwayda’s house or at the mosque, always imagining what my Ramadan would have been like if I hadn’t decided to take that walk.
There were others who shaped my Ramadan in Cape Town as well; the shopkeeper at Lameez Convenience Store who gifted me a box of dates to break my fast with, the grandmother at the mosque who I made dua with after magrib, the Mosque Uncles who brought me extra food after learning that I was a traveler, and every person I crossed paths with while walking to the mosque who said salaam to me.
The routine of post-maghrib tea continued until the day before I departed to D.C. and by then, we had each other on Whatsapp and promised to keep in touch. She gifted me a silver bracelet before I left. It’s the coolest souvenir I own (the bottle of Patagonia sand is a close second, though) and it doubles as an excuse to tell the story of my Ramadan in Cape Town to anyone who compliments it. While good decision making is not my forte, talking to this stranger turned out to be a one of the best decisions I’ve made. My time in Cape Town showed me just what it means to be a part of the Muslim ummah, a community that transcends geography, ethnicity, nationality, language, and most importantly, the sweeping reach of divisive western individualism. The Muslims I met in Cape Town were generous on all counts: with their time, energy, food, friendship, dawah, and duas.
One of the most striking examples of the collectivist culture in Cape Town is how the mosque fed not only Muslims who were fasting, but the whole community. Many mosques around the world donate leftover food from iftaar to homeless shelters or individuals in need of a meal. Sometimes, more often in western countries, the food gets thrown away. The mosque in Cape Town purposefully prepared extra food for non-Muslims in the community who might not otherwise eat that night, and served them before sunset. Around 50 people would line up in front of the modest, pink mosque and be served exactly what the mosque-goers would eat after sunset–usually fruits, samosas, a sandwich, soup, cookies, and juice.
Spreading the spirit of Ramadan, by ensuring that everyone was fed, was an intentional act rather than an afterthought. This shift in how the mosque embraced being at the heart of not just the Muslim community, but the entire community, is one that should be emulated by every mosque that has the resources to do so. When I commented on the generosity of the mosque and the Muslims of Cape Town, Ruwayda reminded me of the following hadith: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “He is not a believer whose stomach is filled while the neighbor to his side goes hungry.” May we perpetually uphold what it means to be 1 of 1.8 billion: if you meet a Muslim or find a mosque, you are never alone, InshaAllah.
Adhan- the Islamic call to prayer, recited before the 5 daily prayers.
Abaya- a simple, loose over garment, worn by some women in parts of the Muslim world and elsewhere.
Hijab- a head covering worn by some Muslim women.
Suhoor- the meal consumed early in the morning by Muslims before fasting.
Iftaar- the meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during Ramadan.
Mosque- a Muslim place of worship.
Salaam- a common greeting in many Arabic-speaking and Muslim countries meaning ‘peace.’
Ramadan- the ninth month of the Muslim year, during which fasting is observed from sunrise to sunset.
Maghrib- one of the 5 daily prayers, prayed just after sunset.
Apartheid- (in South Africa) a policy or system of segregation or discrimination on grounds of race.
Samosa- a triangular savory pastry fried in oil, containing spiced vegetables or meat.
Ummah- the whole community of Muslims bound together by ties of religion.
Dawah- when Muslims share their faith with others, in order to teach them more about Islam.
Dua- the act of supplication.
Hadith- a collection of traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) that constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Quran.
InshaAllah- an Arabic word meaning ‘God-willing.’