Ramadan in Bahrain: A Muslim-American Indo-Pakistani’s Experience
Though the title of this article may be a mouthful, it reflects the complex issue of identity that thousands of Muslims minorities living in the West face; few understand the identity crisis that occurs. While in the West one becomes too foreign and alien, in Muslim-majority countries the same person becomes not ethnic/cultural enough to fit in. When I tell Muslim brothers or sisters I’m from America their faces light up. They ask more questions about how Muslims are doing in the US. Yet when I explain the challenges Muslims in the West have to deal with, I am faced with confusion at times. I don’t think words do justice to the struggle.
It’s understandable that living in a Muslim-majority country (like here in Bahrain) people may not understand what it means to be a Muslim minority in a non-Muslim secular country. Hence, I try my best to clarify and demystify misconceptions not only about Muslims living in the West, but also of non-Muslim Americans. At times I feel like a diplomat or ambassador both for America and Muslim-Americans — but alhamdullilah though draining, it is a great opportunity to act as an ambassador, promote understanding, respect and tolerance between cultures, countries and faiths.
When Ramadan began in Bahrain I was excited to experience my first Ramadan in a Muslim-majority country. However, as the days of Ramadan went by I realized more and more that I, as a “Muslim-American Indo-Pakistani” expatriate, really didn’t have a community to be a part of. Yes, there are masaajid (mosques) everywhere and Muslims everywhere, yet the community-feeling didn’t exist for me. Nor were there many Muslim American expatriates I could talk to or become friends with.
In Bahrain there are four demographics: American or European non-Muslim Expats, Arab-Muslims, Southeast Asian, and Far-East Asian expatriates. Unfortunately, I fit into neither demographic, thus the very unique dilemma of being stuck between being too American to be considered either Indian or Pakistani and too foreign to be considered as part of the American-expatriate community. This aspect alone made my Ramadan here by far the most difficult. The fasting was easy but not having a community or family close by made my first Ramadan in a Muslim-majority country one of my most difficult ones of my life — ironically so.
On the positive side — Ramadan went well as I witnessed the respect and reverence given to the month by businesses and restaurants. It was truly a blessing. Seeing “Ramadan Mubarak” in all advertisements, billboards, magazines and newspapers was really interesting. In addition to the fasting, the taraweeh prayers, and Quran recitations it was also amazing to see the generosity of individuals opening their homes, hearts and wallets to those less fortunate than themselves. I was also able to meet some amazing Muslims converts from various parts of the world; hearing their conversion stories was amazing and humbling. Most of the Muslim converts mentioned how they would work in Muslim-majority countries and observe the family dynamics of Muslim families. The character, peace, and tranquility they witnessed played a huge role in their decision to become Muslim.
What was really fascinating to witness was Bahrain “pre-Ramadan” and how it changed during Ramadan. Alcohol was banned from being sold, and restaurants closed down during the day and opened at night. Work timings were made shorter for employees and staff so they had more time to spend in worship and spend time with family. What was also interesting was just how quiet the streets became and how peaceful the atmosphere felt. Usually, pre-Ramadan you’d hear honking, loud noises, and see people on the streets — yet during Ramadan there was a tranquility and peace that really was beautiful to witness.
Now this isn’t meant to say that Bahrain is a perfect country by any means and as with any country it has its challenges. Non-Arab expatriates (like Southeast Asian and Far East Asian working class individuals) are sometimes treated badly and paid poorly, prostitution does exist, drivers can be ill-mannered and be inconsiderate, and an overall sense of Arab entitlement and selfishness exists as a part of the societal fabric in Bahrain. But despite these challenges I met so many beautiful brothers and sisters who I spoke to about these issues; they recognized them and were working to rectify the problems in their own ways. So as much as Muslims living in the West may think how “backwards” or “uneducated” our brothers and sisters may be in Muslim-majority countries, there are individuals here putting in time, energy and effort into addressing local issues facing their communities here.
Lastly, one of the biggest reflections and realizations I had living as a Muslim-American Indo-Pakistani expatriate in Bahrain was just how blessed I was to be a Muslim-American and be a part of the Western activist community. I realized just how amazing our North-American community is and how advanced we are in terms of addressing our community’s unique challenges as well.
As I reflect on my time here in Ramadan I’m reminded of how as an ummah we may be geographically far, but we are inherently one ummah, one community and united in our love for Allah and His Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). While we may have our challenges, we have hope and we have well-intentioned brothers and sisters working towards changing the world for the better. I pray that Allah accepts our fasts, ibadah (worship) and gives us all opportunities to meet brothers and sisters in different parts of the world to exchange ideas, thoughts, and solutions to common challenges our communities face.
I pray we all get the opportunity to travel to other Muslim communities around the world and learn about their cultures, traditions and challenges. If you don’t have the ability to travel internationally then visit a different masjid than your own or visit a masjid with a different ethnic/cultural or racial demographic than your own. Build genuine relationships with a brother or sister who’s different than you. Learn to listen, learn to empathize, and learn to respect others different than yourself.
We must become ambassadors of understanding, agents of change, and messengers of peace, and servants of mercy to all. It’s only through making genuine connections with others will we solve the problems facing our world.