The loneliest Ramadan

Ali Muhammad puts on a mask for a rare trip out of his apartment building. Washington Post photo by Julie Zauzmer.

Ali Muhammad’s days are quiet now.

Most years, Ramadan is overflowing with activity – a month of nightly break-the-fast dinners with friends and family, and weekly Friday prayers that leave the mosque almost bursting at the seams.

Most years, Muhammad spends his time during this holy month at Masjid Muhammad in Northwest Washington. It’s the place he found his faith, found his purpose in life, found sobriety, found friends, found his soul mate.

Muhammad and Mary Clark married there just three months ago, before the coronavirus pandemic hit Washington, in front of a small group of family and friends on Valentine’s Day. That day, he pictured that when Ramadan began, they would congregate together with their friends at the mosque, then go home for the delicious iftar dinners that Mary would cook from scratch. They would enjoy their first holiday living together, and make plans for a huge party to celebrate their marriage with all the friends and relatives who weren’t at the ceremony.

Instead, Muhammad found himself spending a silent Ramadan alone.

The coronavirus pandemic brought Muhammad’s daily activities to a stop. At age 70, and on immunosuppressant drugs after a kidney transplant, Muhammad feared getting the virus if he so much as left his apartment building. “It’s not like I can say, ‘Well, I’m not afraid of the virus,’ ” he said. “I have absolutely no immune system whatsoever.”

He knew inmates were getting sick at the D.C. jail, which is just across 19th Street SE from his home. He stopped his daily walks to Eastern Market – a mile there, a mile back – even though he knew his knees would grow sore without the exercise.

And his work stopped – the business that he’d built up over the years, since he quit the cement trade he’d learned from his father. Muhammad’s company taught computer classes, mostly for senior citizens in their residential buildings and libraries and churches. None of his students were leaving their houses either. “This virus has put a damper on almost everything,” he said. “It’s just brought everything to a halt, period.”

He helped each of his employees find new work, and fretted about what he would do when this was all over someday and he no longer had any teachers.

And then in late April, Ramadan began.

Muhammad loves Ramadan. He tries to read the whole Koran, always hungry to learn more about his adopted faith. He became a Muslim in 2001, by happenstance or by something deeper and more fated. He was riding the 96 bus, as he did every day. He was sick and tired of drugs and alcohol. The bus passed Masjid Muhammad, and he found himself getting off. He walked inside; the men were friendly. He came back.

After many more visits, and many more questions about what those men believed, Muhammad solemnly spoke the words: “There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Now he was a Muslim too.

Just a short time later, men who called themselves Muslims crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“I said, ‘Oh, man. What have I gotten into?'” he remembers. At first, Muhammad wondered if he had made a terrible mistake. “I had to do some deep thinking and some talking to people and get some understanding. … I was more informed by that time, to accept my position in Islam as a Muslim who wants to prolong life and protect life.”

Once he made his peace, he went to the courthouse to change his name. Arnold Mack was officially gone. He was Ali Muhammad now, a man who always wanted to know more, who had endless questions about this religious community that had taken him in.

One of the people who always seemed to have answers was Mary. He fell in love with her wisdom and her patience and the way she was always taking care of people, including her elderly aunts and uncles.

They stayed inside for their first night of Ramadan as husband and wife, eating an iftar dinner that Mary cooked.

And then Mary started coughing.

She grew so weak, hardly responsive at times, that Muhammad insisted on taking her to the George Washington University Hospital emergency room even though she didn’t want to go. Mary, who is 77, tested negative for the coronavirus, but she had serious pneumonia. Days later, a doctor called Muhammad to tell him that his wife’s kidneys were shutting down.

Being unable to visit was nearly unbearable. There were the bills that Mary normally paid, that he needed to attend to. There were her aging aunts and uncles; he drove her van to each of their houses, bringing them groceries.

As the first Friday of the holiday approached, Muhammad was optimistic about praying from home. “I can live-stream what we call the jummah prayer and the speech and everything on my TV – I don’t miss that at all,” he said. A split second later, he thought twice. “Do I miss it? Actually, I do. I have all my friends. All my buddies sat in the front row. I miss that a lot. I miss the camaraderie. Still … I can adjust to that.”

But he couldn’t get the live stream to work. All those years of teaching computer lessons, and yet here he was, staring at Facebook and YouTube and unable to get the video to start on either of them.

The same thing happened the second Friday. He hooked his computer up to the flat-screen TV that stands over his prayer rug. He refreshed the screen over and over again. Nothing.

Finally, he gave up, and knelt on the rug to pray alone.

As the month wore on, he read the Koran alone most days, or studied with a friend over the phone. When he got food delivered to him from a program that distributes groceries to senior citizens, he went around the apartment building giving most of it away to families he thought needed it more than he did. “I’m doing what the Koran says to do,” he said – fasting and charity during the holiest month.

He counted more than 35 friends who were calling and texting, always asking how he was. But the one person he wanted to hear from was too weak to call.

Her yarn was everywhere, the couch still piled with the hats and kufis that she knits to sell at the mosque. The doctors kept calling with bad news – she didn’t have coronavirus, but she had fluid in her lungs, then a blood infection. “All kinds of things go through your head. You’re praying. You’re crying. You’re worrying. You’re missing her so much,” he said.

Finally, Mary had the energy for a phone call. They both cried, and she said she was constantly thirsty. He drove over to the hospital with a case of purified water.

Each day, she got stronger, little by little. She moved from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility. Their phone calls got longer.

He kept reflecting on what it meant that this holiday would happen now, of all times. “Sex, partying, all that – everything that we used to do, we give up during the month of Ramadan. I look at this year’s Ramadan as a sign from Allah. No one can do anything but fast. Every human being has to fast with us and give up something,” he said. “Right now, everybody is practicing Islam.”

This weekend, the strangest holy month of his life will come to an end. Soon after a silent Eid – the celebration of Ramadan’s conclusion – he hopes Mary will at last be home.

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