This week, religion writers around the world are reporting on the preparations for Eid al-Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
While Muslim families always approach this annual holiday with high spirits, this year is a bitter-sweet exception after so many restrictions and so many lost loved ones during the COVID pandemic.
In Algeria, where I live, Muslims were thrilled as Ramadan began with the announcement that, this year, we would be permitted to gather for Tarawih prayers that end the day’s fasting. While these group prayers are allowed this year, however, they are subject to severe restrictions. Face masks are supposed to be mandatory; we are supposed to pray at least half a meter away from the next person; the duration of the prayers is reduced from one hour to 30 minutes; no children are allowed—and no time is allowed between Adhan and the prayers. Then, after the prayers, worshipers are urged to leave mosques immediately.
Those restrictions are so daunting—and COVID has been such a threat over the past year—that many people in Algeria were too scared to perform Tarawih prayers in mosques.
Then, this year’s biggest disappointment came when we learned that Algiers Great Mosque would not be open for Tarawih prayers. Algiers Great Mosque is the third biggest mosque in the Arab World, after those of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia. Just next to Algiers beach, this mosque took nearly 20 years to build at a cost of more than $1 billion. Earlier this year, government officials had promised that the mosque would welcome worshipers, but then authorities decided not to hold Tarawih prayers in this new mosque for this year.
Muslims mainly are gathering at neighborhood mosques and, even then, not everyone is comfortable attending these prayers.
Sid-Ahmed, from east of the capital Algiers, is one of them. In his 50s, he told me that he is praying at home, instead of going to perform these prayers at the local mosque. At first, this year, he did try to pray in a mosque for few days, but “our local mosque is very crowded and people are not putting face masks anymore,” he said.
Officials could have increased air circulation by opening windows at the mosque, but they remained closed. Sid-Ahmed was especially concerned because he has asthma and was advised to avoid any situations that could endanger his health.
In the area where I live, I have also seen worshipers who are not sticking to the official health rules. Most people do not put face masks, and the new distancing that is supposed to be observed between worshipers inside the mosque are not respected all the times. Most windows remain closed.
What made people less vigilant these days in Algeria are the relatively low numbers of new infections. Few days ago, we saw new infections went down to less than 100 new cases a day. Algeria reportedly achieved this figure by a severe closure of its borders from the beginning of the pandemic.
I still go to mosques for praying with my wife and my kids, but we vigorously stick to health measures designed to limit the spread of Covid-19.
Rachid sees this as recklessness, and he is staying at home after iftar. A man with a small business to run in the capital banlieue, Rachid used to go to mosques every Ramadan, but not this time. Last year he was infected with Covid-19, alongside with some of his family, and he spent few days suffering from usual Cobid-19 symptoms, whereas his mother was taken to hospital and went through difficult days. Now, he does not want to repeat the experience, and he is extra-vigilant even while running his shop.
The official rules for Tarawih in Algeria, this year, include special restrictions on women: No pregnant women are allowed to go into mosques for Tarawih, and kids are not allowed. This is especially difficult for women who have small children.
Souad, a house wife, 47, has a 12-year-old daughter. She said that organizers at her local mosque warned her not to bring her daughter with her next time, which was a dilemma for her. She has nowhere to leave her daughter while prying at mosque, and she does not want to leave her alone at home. Souad is taking her daughter with her and every time she must talk to organizers to let her daughter enter the mosque with her. She has been successful so far.
Fahima, 58, a retired mathematics teacher, is not going to Tarawih prayer this year because she does not like the restriction on the length of the prayers. For Fahima, making the effort to go to the mosque for only 30 minutes is not worth the hassle and the risk of the contamination by coronavirus.
For people here in Algeria, this Ramadan is by far better than the previous one. This year, people are going out after iftar, which was not the case during last year’s Ramadan, when people were confined to their homes starting at 3 p.m.
We hope that Ramadan next year will be even better.