19 Apr 2023

'You come out of Ramadan with a different mindset': Five NZ Muslims on fasting, faith and celebration

Auckland police officer Abdelhalim (Halim) Hassouna
8:18 am on 20 April 2023

Ramadan – the most blessed month of the Islamic calendar – is an important period of fasting, prayer and reflection.

As this year's Ramadan period draws to a close, five New Zealand Muslims share their experiences and their plans for celebrating Eid al-Fitr – the festival of breaking the fast.

Ashia Ismail-Singer: 'Ramadan is always hard for me'

Ashia Ismail-Singer

Ashia Ismail-Singer Photo: Supplied

Ashia Ismail-Singer works as a nurse and real estate agent on Auckland's North Shore. She's also a noted cookbook author, currently working on her third book. She lives with her husband and two children, aged 18 and 21.

"I think Ramadan is always hard for me because my parents and extended family aren't around - they're mostly in the UK. Ramadan's always nicer when you are sharing it with your family, and Eid (the celebration at the end of Ramadan) will be the same. It's always hard doing religious festivals on your own.

"There's a calendar that comes out every Ramadan from the local mosque. We follow those times. We wake up at about 6am for what we call Suhoor or Sehri (the pre-dawn meal). We just have our normal breakfast, as you would. And then we do the Fajr prayers, which is the dawn prayer, which is the shortest one out of all of them, which is perfect. And then we just get on with the day, or we might go back to sleep for an hour or so.

"We fast all day, from dawn until dusk. I'm 52 now. I've been doing it since I was 16 or 17. So your body gets used to it. The first couple of days are hard; you get a headache and stuff like that, but you get used to it. I know doctors and nurses that fast. I think some of the doctors who are performing surgery or doing really long hours possibly don't, but it's a very individual thing. Most Muslims will fast. But it's a very personal thing and it's a personal choice as well."

"To me Ramadan makes me feel more grounded. During the rest of the year, you go about your daily life. You don't think so much about the spiritual side of things. But Ramadan is not just about fasting. It's about praying, it's about giving to charity. It's about thinking of people less fortunate than you and thinking about the good that you do. So I feel more connected to being a Muslim… and closer to God."

Rand Abueideh: 'I don't want people to feel sorry for me because I'm fasting'

Rand Abueideh

Auckland University law and finance student Rand Abueideh. Photo: Supplied

Rand Abueideh is a law and finance student at Auckland University. She lives with her parents and two siblings and works part-time as a maths tutor and as a receptionist at a swim school.

"I lived in Dubai most of my life; we came here four years ago. Coming from a Muslim country… the majority of the population is Muslim and the majority is observing Ramadan. We would have shorter work days; we would finish school around 1:00 pm, and at all the malls the food court would be closed off, so you wouldn't see food in the mall or anything. You would have time to pray. Here it's very tricky. I finish uni at about 6pm, and at my work, you're expected to work as you would when you're not fasting.

I'm very lucky because my manager's quite accommodating and she lets me leave early sometimes to go and break my fast with my family. But I know it's not the case with a lot of people. I've got friends who break their fast in the back room of a shop or something just quickly, and then they go back to work.

I don't have a place to pray at work, unfortunately. Sometimes I go pray in my car. At uni, there's a place to pray, which is nice. I use that space quite a bit.

Sometimes when I tell people I'm fasting, they sort of pity me. They're like, oh my goodness, not even water? But I don't want people to feel sorry for me because I'm fasting. I feel like I'm doing a good thing. I'm spiritually connecting with my God. I'm focusing on my prayers. I'm focusing on my faith and religion. And there's lots of health benefits to fasting that many people aren't aware of. It's not a bad thing that we're doing here.

I wish people were a little bit more aware about the context of Ramadan. If you know anyone who's fasting, please try to be accommodating towards them. Try to avoid eating in front of them. Maybe wish them Ramadan Mubarak, or a happy Eid later on. And maybe don't expect them to carry on doing what they would normally do, because they're under different circumstances than they usually are. So just a bit of appreciation for that factor would be nice."

Abdelhalim (Halim) Hassouna: 'You come out of Ramadan with a different mindset'

Auckland police officer Abdelhalim (Halim) Hassouna

Auckland police officer Abdelhalim (Halim) Hassouna Photo: Tim Collins

Abdelhalim (Halim) Hassouna is a Community Constable in Glenfield on Auckland's North Shore. He was born in Egypt and moved to New Zealand 11 years ago with his wife, who is Russian, and their daughter.

"I've been really looked after by the Police. My colleagues, my supervisors and my seniors understand how Ramadan works; that I work for nine or 10 hours without having any food or drinks. They're quite supportive and will ask if I need more help… if I need support, if I need a hand completing a task or paperwork. We have a really good cultural awareness in the Police.

The fasting does affect me. Like, for example, I had a training day during Ramadan, and I had to postpone it because I would not be able to handle the amount of physical effort required. When I asked for that, [my supervisor] didn't even blink twice… he said 'no problems mate - you can do it another day after Ramadan.'

Personally, and for all Muslims, Ramadan is a great opportunity to reflect, to practice self-control and self-discipline and restraint, which is pretty much your ability to control your emotions and action and desires. That's the whole purpose of Ramadan, to not take anything for granted; to start to appreciate little things, as simple as a cup of water or a banana.

And it happens once a year, and it's 30 days… it's not just a week or a day. You come out of the experience with different values and a different mindset. It's like you are resetting your system once a year, which is really good.

That's definitely something I can take into my job. Because part of Ramadan is to control your anger and emotions and actions. Usually, the police job is quite stressful, so you see things differently. When you deal with a member of the public, you are even more careful in what you say and what you do. So you add to your professionalism in policing… In Ramadan, you might think of being more compassionate and more present. Any act of kindness is highly appreciated during Ramadan."

Aysha Hussan: 'When Ramadan comes, everyone's focused and connected'

Aysha Hussan

Aysha Hussan Photo: Supplied

Aysha Hussan is a 16-year-old Year 12 student at Botany College in Manukau. She's a keen athlete, competing in athletics and netball for her school and at club level.

"Obviously you do feel hungry and tired, but I think when we fast it just gives me more time to focus on my religion. Because I find that when you don't eat, you actually have quite a lot of spare time.

Since I've been fasting, I also still train for netball a couple of times a week. And it's not that bad, but you do lack a lot of energy, 'cause you can't drink water or anything. So at times, you'll feel really dizzy during training.

There was a competition I was supposed to go to in Auckland for athletics, but I had to pull out because I didn't have any energy to be able to run and compete on the day. It was a little bit disappointing, but I'd rather take care of myself than push my body over its limit. And my coaches all understand what Ramadan is and how it has an effect on your body, which is like, if you have no food, you don't have that much energy. So they're all understanding with that.

When Ramadan comes everyone's focused and connected, which is a good thing. I think it gives us a chance to really focus on our God and also to get a feel of what it would be like for people who live in poverty and don't have food every day. It gives you time to appreciate what you have.

For Eid we're having a little celebration at the house and we'll have heaps of family come over, and food. And then we'll also be going to pray the morning prayer, and visiting around family. It's a celebration."

Noor Mohammed Shaikh: 'Fasting teaches us to see how privileged we are'

Noor Mohammed Shaikh, wearing a black polo shirt and black cap, poses in the kitchen of his Hamilton restaurant, Breeze.

Hamilton restaurateur Noor Mohammed Shaikh Photo: Mark Hamilton

Noor Mohammed Shaikh is co-owner of Breeze Restaurant in Hamilton, where he manages the restaurant and works with his father, who is the chef. He lives with his wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law.

"I look forward to this time of the year. It means reflecting on what we have, and to value it, and to treat everyone around you with love and kindness.

We are really grateful that we are in New Zealand, where the climate conditions are quite in favour of Ramadan when compared to other countries. I was born in India, and in the climate over there, you get way too easily tired.

For me, fasting itself teaches us to see how privileged we are as individuals to be able to have access to good food and clean water around us. There are lots of people who are not able to have food even once in a whole day. Or who are not able to drink proper water.

Being around food in the restaurant adds to the hardness level of Ramadan. There's lots of food around you, and you can't taste it. You can't have anything until sunset. My father obviously can't taste his food, either, but he makes everything perfectly fine. There's no complaints from the customers. I think that comes from his vast experience.

I break the fast at the restaurant with my father. Sometimes it gets so busy that we do not even realise that it's breaking fast time. We usually break our fast with dates, and then some water. And we have some fruit; our staff helps us by cutting it up for us so it's ready. It's teamwork. And then later on when we get home we'll have a meal.

Ramadan is a holy month. It's a month of peace, a month of goodness, a month of forgiveness, a month of mercy. It's a month of celebrating being a Muslim… it's a beautiful month.

The best day is Eid. You get to celebrate after your prayer, along with your family, friends, everyone. Especially for me, because it's going to be my first Eid with my wife. She just arrived in the country on December 26 last year from India. It's going to be so special for us with the whole family together."

- As told to Niki Bezzant

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