Fasting and Netflix: Ramadan in times of coronavirus | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.05.2020
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Fasting and Netflix: Ramadan in times of coronavirus

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Muslims to reflect on how they observe their Ramadan traditions. DW reporter Christoph Strack joined a Muslim family in Berlin for the Iftar meal.

"It really is important to celebrate with the family," says the father. A few minutes later, his son repeats the same words.

I am joining the Bag family in Berlin for Iftar, the evening meal with which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast at sunset. This year, Ramadan runs until May 23. The three-course meal consists of simple, but delicious cuisine. And like many social and religious gatherings in Germany, Iftar is different this time.

"Normally, it's an occasion for meeting people," says Süleyman Bag. In any other year, he said, the family would have had guests around for Iftar at least once a week. On another evening, they would be invited to break the fast with friends. Another one or two evenings they would visit clubs or community centers or a public Iftar feast. "None of that his happening this year, sadly," says the 52-year-old.

Süleyman Bag (DW/C. Strack)

Host Süleyman Bag has been living in Germany for 45 years

This year, Süleyman Bag, his wife Lütfiye, their sons Selim (20) and Enes (21) and daughter Rumeysa (25) have spent nearly all day every day at home. Even the traditional visit to the mosque had to be canceled.

Read more: Religious celebrations in the time of coronavirus

Preparing for "voluntary starvation"

It's been a long day for the Bag family. Ena tells us that they got up shortly after 3 a.m. for the first prayers and then went back to bed for a while. There are five prayer times spread over the day. From sunrise to sunset, neither food nor drink is allowed. Süleyman Bag explains that Islam does indeed include a "philosophy of voluntary starvation" that can be traced back to the Prophet Mohammed.

Like all devout Muslims, he prepares for Ramadan by fasting before it even begins. He quotes a scholar: "If your stomach is empty, your heart is soft." Bag tells us that he used to be a miner, then a journalist. Now he works in the offices of a Kindergarten co-op.

Read more: Does fasting during Ramadan raise the infection risk?

Worrying about Father

Asked where he comes from, Süleyman Bag always answers "Gelsenkirchen". He moved from Turkey to the town in the Ruhr Valley with his parents when he was just seven years old. He made friends in the industrial town, went to school and like many people in the region, took work in the mines.

When he talks about his parents, Bag becomes wistful. He tells us how he worries about his 74-year-old father, who has to go for dialysis three times a week. Because another patient got infected with the coronavirus, Bag's father had to go into quarantine. "We were so worried about him," he says. Over and over.

Mosques have been allowed to open again for prayers under strict conditions. For most Muslims, the restrictions make a visit to the mosque impossible.

Deutschland Al-Torath Gemeinde in Berlin (Imago Images/D. Abuelo)

Mosques in Germany may reopen their doors to worshippers

Bag's wife came to Germany in 1989 and has not been able to master German. Her three children either study at university or attend a professional training college. Rumeysa, who wears a headscarf like her mother, is studying at the Freie Universität Berlin for her master's in Islamic Studies and is considering doing a doctorate. One of her brothers is training to be a nursery school teacher and the other is studying German and History at a teacher's training college.

Read more: What you need to know about Ramadan

Streaming films and prayers

The conversation starts off on a serious note but soon turns to lighter matters over dinner. I ask which members of the younger generation watch Netflix. Slowly, one hand goes up, then another, and finally, the third. "But only now and then," says the daughter. "Ah, you watch more than now and again," says her older brother. It was he who spent the final moments before the meal quietly reciting the call to prayer in Arabic until the day of fasting ended at exactly 08:56 p.m. Later, when the family says the evening prayers together, it will be the father who leads the recital.

Muslims in Germany, Coronavirus and Ramadan: To many, it was unimaginable that this festival, which goes from devout and reflective in the daylight hours to loud and sociable after sunset, could take a quieter form in the crisis. But while many people have been out on the streets protesting against the coronavirus measures, there have been no objections from Germany's more than 4.5 million Muslims.

Bundespräsident Frank-Walter Steinmeier mit Ehefrau Elke Büdenbender beim Gottesdienst in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/C. Soeder)

President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife Elke Büdenbender attended mass in a church in Berlin on Sunday

German President shows his approval

Last Sunday, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier thanked churches and religious communities for their help in tackling the coronavirus crisis, acknowledging that they acted responsibly and carefully from the start. His words contrasted with the headline published a week earlier by the mass-circulating daily Bild, that read "Churches Closed for Fear of Ramadan Chaos".

Some right-wing leaders seized on the rumor. But the Muslim community stayed calm. Digital services are booming:Friday prayers, sermons and lectures. The Secretary General of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany, Abdassamad El Yazidi, also hailed the sense of discipline.

"I was expecting the majority of Muslims to observe the health guidance in the coronavirus pandemic," said Yazidi. "But even I was surprised by how orderly everything has been. They are aware of their responsibilities and taking them seriously."

Togetherness despite the loneliness

Back to the Iftar meal at the Bags' home in northern Berlin. Talk turns to a mosque in southern Berlin, where hundreds of Muslims gathered at the beginning of Ramadan in defiance of government instructions — the only incident of its kind at Mosque in Berlin. "You've got to understand that," says Selim, the youngest son. Due to the closing of the mosques, he explains, the authorities allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast over loudspeakers. For the first time ever. "The Muslims there let that go their heads. But they soon settled down again."

Iftar in times of the coronavirus. "On the one hand, it is very sad," says Süleyman Bag. "We can't invite any guests. On the other hand, we do have the family." He says people can sense the togetherness despite the loneliness. "Maybe we will keep special memories of this Iftar meal," says Herr Bag as we say good-bye. "You were our only guest in the whole four weeks."