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During The 2nd Ramadan Of The Pandemic, People Find Ways To Connect From Afar

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

During this second Ramadan of the pandemic, people are finding creative ways to connect with the holiday and reconnect with each other. Deena Prichep reports on what the holy month of prayer and fasting looks like this year.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: During a usual Ramadan, the Islamic center of Raleigh, N.C., is full of people. Imam Mohammed Abu Taleb describes praying shoulder to shoulder, sharing an Iftar meal after the daily fast.

MOHAMMED ABU TALEB: You know, over a thousand people across multiple floors of the center, all gathered in tables, most of them with people that they haven't met or don't know in person and just breaking bread and eating together.

PRICHEP: Last year Ramadan came just a month into the pandemic, and the community had to figure out what it would look like.

ABU TALEB: We had to remind ourselves that the building is closed, but the mosque is open.

PRICHEP: They streamed services from an empty hall, which found viewers all over the world.

ABU TALEB: When we would ask the question, who are you tuning in with tonight, so many people would say, I'm alone, and this is my connection to community right now.

PRICHEP: Abu Taleb says these connections in prayer and fellowship are at the heart of what the mosque is. This Ramadan, things are starting to reopen - limited capacity, temperature checks, BYO prayer mat. But breaking bread together is still off the table, so they're using the app they developed last year which lets people order a drive-through meal to break the daily fast.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Chop me some cucumber, please, and pass me some tomatoes. Yes, please. Thank you. Let's go, guys. Let's go.

PRICHEP: Four nights a week, masked staff and volunteers prepare Iftar to go - about 300 boxes a night for people in need or those who just want to taste the Al-Maida special salad.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Tomato, cucumber. There's garlic salt. There's parsley, lemon juice - very simple, very nice.

PRICHEP: In Washington, D.C., the local chapter of Muslims for Progressive Values also brought people together over Ramadan food by hosting a Zoom Iftar cooking class.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I went ahead, and I threw in all my cilantro and the onions that we cut up earlier.

PRICHEP: The group started online, so it wasn't a huge shift to pause in-person get-togethers and pivot back to virtual. Ani Zonneveld heads the organization. They've been offering Quran reading groups, predawn meals and evening Iftars.

ANI ZONNEVELD: I think it's really important to understand that Ramadan is the exercise of that journey inward.

PRICHEP: Virtual programming can be a spiritual lifeline, especially for those cut off from family and physical worship. Despite coordinating this Ramadan calendar, Zonneveld is doing her best to not spend too much time on Zoom this holiday.

ZONNEVELD: Yeah, that's the kind of break that I need for this pandemic-era Ramadan. I'm sorry, folks (laughter).

PRICHEP: In North Carolina, Imam Mohammed Abu Talib is also looking forward to a future that's less virtual.

ABU TALEB: I'm hoping to go back to that space where we're shoulder to shoulder and feel that proximity in prayer that hopefully extends the proximity of our hearts as we step away from prayer. But I'm actually hoping that doesn't go back to just like 2019.

PRICHEP: Abu Taleb wants to see a new path forward where the congregation has new ways to serve and connect and appreciate all that they have. Going without something helps people realize what that something actually means, and in some respects, that's the point of Ramadan.

ABU TALEB: Right? And so it heightens the awareness of these blessings that we consume and enjoy. But last Ramadan made me think of all the blessings that we never - that I never remember to be grateful for.

PRICHEP: Like sitting across from your brothers and sisters, sharing a meal and, this year, he says, for the blessing of a vaccine.

For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep.

(SOUNDBITE OF VALLIS ALPS SONG, "RUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.