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Why the call to prayer made me cry this Ramadan

The empty Jamia Mosque in Nairobi, which was closed amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Credit…Thomas Mukoya/Reuters

By Abdi Latif Dahir

Abdi Latif Dahir is a Kenyan who was appointed the East Africa correspondent for The New York Times last year. He has fasted every day of Ramadan since he was 9 years old.

The call to prayer rang on a recent afternoon from Jamia Mosque, a landmark in downtown Nairobi with green and silver domes and multiple minarets. There should be worshipers converging there during this sacred month of Ramadan, but the mosque’s doors remained shut, its prayer halls empty since closing in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

With no congregation to join, I sat in the car, rolled down the windows and listened to the muezzin’s voice, a mellifluous sound that instantly made me cry.

This is a Ramadan like no other. The pandemic, which in Kenya has infected at least 1,109 people and killed at least 50 others, has given us the gift of loneliness. Isolated under a partial lockdown in Nairobi and a nationwide curfew that stretches from dusk to dawn, millions of Muslims in Kenya and beyond have exchanged sprawling banquets for dining alone and observing the evening taraweeh prayers from home.GLOBAL UPDATESRead live developments on the coronavirus pandemic.

I chafe at the imposed restrictions sometimes because, with 21 siblings and 17 nephews and nieces, the iftar meal to break the daily fast has always for me been a bustling family affair. We would start with dates, then gorge on spicy samosas and chicken biryani, pass around my mother’s legendary camel meat, and share cakes and sweet chai.

Many times, particularly when we were young, we would even watch an episode or two of the historical epics or weepy melodramas that are a mainstay of Arab television during Ramadan. But this year, we are getting more than enough drama from real life.

And so we stay physically apart but find unity in the rituals of fasting and feasting. Things might be falling apart, but I have come to find comfort and continuity in the small things: the paneer samosas sent by a friend’s mom, the afternoon runs at a nearby, almost-empty forest, the messages from loved ones checking in from all over the world — and the sound of the azan, the call to prayer, broadcast from the tops of minarets.

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