COLUMBIA — It was 95 degrees during Maria Al-Jishi’s first week as an MU student, and she couldn’t even have a drink.
“Everyone was drinking cold, cold water, and I was thirsty, exhausted and had five classes to go,” she said.
For the holy month of Ramadan, a time of spiritual reflection and renewal in the Muslim faith, Al-Jishi, 19, has been fasting as she does every year. She's used to not eating or drinking from sunrise to sundown, but this year was especially challenging.
In her homeland of Saudi Arabia, “everyone around you is in the mood of Ramadan. It creates an atmosphere that’s very united, … but I can’t really explain it," she said. "Everyone participates in the same thing. Everyone is fasting.”
On Wednesday evening, dozens of MU Muslim students met in Memorial Union to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan.
“Eid Mubarak!” the traditional holiday greeting, was heard again and again.
Many of the students are American-born and are used to celebrating Ramadan and Eid in the United States, but others from abroad agreed with Al-Jishi.
“When we came here, it wasn’t about feeling hungry,” said Pancea Motawi, from Egypt. “I miss the whole atmosphere of Ramadan.”
Motawi said that in Egypt, buildings are decorated with lights for Ramadan and many restaurants have special offers.
“It’s more like a tradition,” she said. “Not just a religious thing. The foods that we buy for Ramadan — dates and nuts and sweets — Christians buy those, too.”
Al-Jishi said that in Saudi Arabia, the spirit of the holy month is endorsed not only by individuals but also by companies and television channels.
“The different TV channels change their theme music for Ramadan,” she said. “They make it more mellow because of fasting; no one is feeling jumpy. They put a little crescent on almost everything and they increase food advertisement because they know you’re hungry.” A crescent is a symbol of Islam.
In the U.S., Al-Jishi said it was hard to watch everyone else eat while she was fasting and she had to plan to get food before sunrise without a car.
Some students found it helped to know other Muslims in the community. Ayoub Laabidi, an exchange student from Morocco, said he normally took fast food and ate alone in his room.
But twice, he went to the mosque to share the iftar, or the evening meal.
“I like the Muslim community in Columbia,” he said. “They’re doing a great job.”
Hisham Abbas, from India, also went to the mosque for meals and prayer throughout the Ramadan season. He has been living in the U.S. for three years but didn’t participate in Ramadan for the first two years.
“Getting food on time is so difficult here,” he said. “I was scared if I fall sick during Ramadan, I may slack in my research and studies.”
Another problem has to do with Missouri’s long summer days. Because Muslims fast between sunrise and sunset, the length of the fast varies depending on their location.
“The days here are longer than the days back home by like three hours,” Al-Jishi said. “You’re used to fasting for 10 hours and suddenly it becomes 13. The extra hours really do make a difference.”
The students also spoke about the difficulty of spending a holiday far from their families.
“I miss the food that my mom makes,” said Riham Darwish, from Jordan. But she said she’s glad that she came to the United States this year. “I had 20 similar Ramadans at home, and it’s not bad to have a special one.”
Al-Jishi’s mother and other relatives called her on the phone while they were celebrating Eid at home in Saudi Arabia, a day earlier than in Columbia. Even though she was far from home, they wanted to share the sense of celebration with her.
As one of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan is an opportunity for Muslims to reflect on their faith.
“God is everywhere,” Al-Jishi said. “Not just the Middle East, so it doesn’t matter where you are.”