Ramadan in Cambridge: A retrospective
Finding community amidst hardships
Ramadan: it’s a time of the year that Muslims worldwide look forward to – a time of reflection, healing, prayer and – most famously – not eating or drinking (yes, not even water!). We’ve celebrated Ramadan annually for practically our entire lives (from the age of 7).
As international students who were suddenly thrown into the whirlpool that is Cambridge, this year felt… different. At first, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly why that was. We’ve gotten used to the city: the dramatic weather, the lovely people, the Hogwarts ambiance. Nothing about it had changed.
Perhaps it was the physical differences: everything that was easy, attainable and within our proximity was suddenly swept away by the distance between Cambridge and our hometowns (Malaysia & Jordan, respectively). The daylight hours in the UK are crazy difficult to adjust to! On the last day of Ramadan, we fasted from 3:45 AM (sunrise) until 20:28 PM (sunset).
Unlike back home, mosques & prayer rooms were no longer within a 5-minute walk away. Instead, we had to plan trips to Mill Road or Downing Church for Jummah (communal prayer), which raises the question: why aren’t there any prayer spaces in most colleges? Despite Cambridge’s advocacy towards diversity, inclusion and acceptance, it seems ironic that there is a significant lack of prayer spaces.
While the university has many multifaith prayer spaces available in individual departments, they are in reality inaccessible to students. This is because students must belong to a department in order to use the prayer room in a department’s building.
Cambridge seems very fond of its breathtaking chapels that most colleges have within their proximity and are considered an essential element in Cambridge’s history, yet it fails to provide minor spaces for the purposes of worship for other beliefs. With an ever-changing world, Cambridge seems to not get the hint.
In response, a university spokesperson said “as part of its commitment to welcoming and supporting students and staff of all faiths, and of none, the University provides a number of prayer and reflection spaces across the city, which are available for non-Christian worship.
These are located at, or close to, the University’s main centres of study, including at the Student Services Centre. Further details are available on the University’s website. The University’s Equality Diversity & Inclusion Section is happy to discuss the provision of prayer spaces with staff or students.”
Another issue is the scarcity of halal meat provided by college halls. While some colleges do provide halal meat, most muslim students are forced to purchase their own and cook for themselves. For example, while students at Murray Edwards, King’s and Jesus serve halal meat at least once a day, us at Lucy Cavendish have to email catering to request halal meat at least the week before – which we rarely ever do, since nobody plans their meals that far ahead.
And let’s face it, many of us do not know how to cook or simply do not have time for daily meal prep due to exam revisions, and largely don’t have immediate access to a halal supermarket due to their remote locations.
Simply having the safety net of food provided at hall would save so much time, money and stress – especially in a month where nutritious eating is essential to fuel the body while fasting. In this manner, colleges are actively restricting the options available to muslims when it comes to deciding what their single big meal of the day will be.
Supplying halal meat in colleges will not only spread a wave of appreciation, relief and nobility within the structure of Cambridge, but it will actually help Cambridge live up to its diverse and inclusive goals.
A different environment
At the same time, there were more subtle reasons behind this new ‘flavour’ of Ramadan for us. It took a grocery run at Midan for us to realise that Ramadan is much more than about abstaining from certain practices (food, water, intimate relationships).
A single glance at the most beautiful bottle of authentic Palestinian Zeit Zeitoun (olive oil) reminded us of all the things we’ve left behind: everyone being half-asleep while eating suhoor (morning meal before sunrise), the adhan (call to prayer) marking sunrise, the colors and smells of bazaars (open markets) fuelling our iftars (breaking of fast) with family, followed by group prayers at the local mosque.
In reality, the Ramadan spirit lies in forming meaningful connections & sharing with the community around you. Having our first iftars completely alone in our rooms, reminiscing about the home cooked meals we could’ve had with our families right then and there, was like a ton of bricks falling down on us.
The realisation that you’re miles away from home, from your circle of warmth, from your family, was a very daunting one to act steadfast against.
The absence of that huge close-knit community was only magnified by the newfound independence that we have. You have to be your own parent, wake yourself up for suhoor (at 3.30am!), cook your own iftar, pray 5 times a day, read the Qur’an, give sadaqah (charity) – all while catching up on lectures and coursework.
On top of that, the need to explain yourself all the time (“I have to leave to find a prayer space”, “I can’t join this event since I’m fasting”, “I can’t eat this for iftar since it’s not halal”) can be taxing. To simply have someone who understands being present on committees or college staff would make all the difference.
In that respect, colleges and societies should have the responsibility to ensure representation – or at the very least, recognise and learn about the needs and struggles of their students. Simply connecting Muslim students together would act as a simple, yet profound step forward in genuinely enjoying what this month has to offer. Perhaps colleges could facilitate iftars, meetups or formals at the beginning of Ramadan, enabling fasting students to find each other at such a crucial time.
On the other hand, this month has genuinely been lovely since we found our little community up here in the hills, even when it was up to us to find each other. Maghrib jummah (group sunset prayers) followed by joint iftars cultivated bonds across nationalities and courses.
We’ve cooked Southeast Asian cuisines like satay with members of CUMaS (the Malaysian Society) and PERFECTED shakshuka (4 days in a row). We’ve vibed to halal lofi nasheed streams. We’ve cried over movies and Jordanian TV together.
Many times, we were joined by our non-muslim friends who shared their own cultures and stories. In the end, community doesn’t have to be exclusive to a religion – inclusivity means allowing people from any background to feel comfortable being who they are.
The plethora of duties that have been bestowed upon Muslims in Ramadan can only be described as no less than beautifully overwhelming. Balancing between our earthly and spiritual duties is a never-ending challenge that all Μuslims face, and this Ramadan was the prime example of this for us.
Although not the easiest experience we went through, it was certainly the most life changing, rewarding and beautiful Ramadan we’ve experienced.
The University of Cambridge and Lucy Cavendish College were contacted for comment.
Featured image credits: Irfan Syahril