Eid celebration

A boy looks up while men bow in prayer during the communal Eid al-Fitr celebration at the Portland Expo in 2010. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For the second year in a row, COVID-19 is changing the way Muslims across Maine celebrate Eid al-Fitr, one of the holiest festivals of Islam, which begins Thursday in the United States.

In past years, thousands of Muslims would gather at the Portland Expo to pray together and mark the end of Ramadan, a monthlong fast that emphasizes the importance of personal responsibility, charity and spiritual growth. Now, the Expo is a mass vaccination site.

So this year, the imams, or leaders of Muslim communities in Maine, have encouraged families to celebrate Eid in small groups and to follow safety guidelines, according to a written statement from the Muslim Community Center of Maine.

“Our local imams have concluded to not hold a public Eid prayer,” the statement said. “This decision was reached after careful consideration of the Covid-19 pandemic and keeping the safety of our community in mind.”

The imams said they understand the importance of Eid to all Muslims and the joy that it brings.

“However, we do not want to see any person dying or getting sick as a result of attending Eid services,” the statement said. “Insha’Allah (If God wills it), we will have better days ahead, and we will have Eid prayer celebration together. May Allah accept our efforts and forgive our shortcomings.”

In Maine’s largest city and across the globe, nearly 2 billion followers of Islam are celebrating Eid al-Fitr, a one- to-three-day festival marking the end of Ramadan, a monthlong period when Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset. They also generally avoid indulgent behavior and emphasize charitable giving and prayer in their daily lives.

In recent years, more than 5,000 Muslims have gathered at the Expo or next door at Fitzpatrick Stadium to say Eid prayers together, followed by large celebrations at local mosques and feasts at home with family members and friends. But the pandemic has put a hold on larger celebrations of all kinds, including Eid.

Last spring, when Eid arrived at the start of the coronavirus shutdown, the imams canceled communal Eid prayers and area mosques were shut down for months. Individuals and families marked the holiday quietly, reaching out only to ensure that vulnerable elders and others in need had food and other resources to mark the holiday.

Portland City Councilor Pious Ali compared Eid to Christmas or Thanksgiving, which have similar traditions of getting dressed up, attending religious services, sharing meals and sweets, giving gifts and spending time with friends and loved ones.

An immigrant from Ghana in West Africa, Ali began calling friends and family members around the world on Wednesday, wishing them Eid Mubarak, or Blessed Eid. Ramadan ended at sunset Wednesday, which is when Eid technically begins, but celebrations begin in earnest Thursday.

“The good thing this year is a lot of people will be vaccinated, so gatherings will be much safer,” Ali said. “I will pray at home, then I will dress up and go out for a walk, and I will make Ghanaian fish soup, which is a traditional favorite.”

Eid feasts vary across cultures, but they often include rice, stewed or grilled meats and vegetables, dates and other fruits, and desserts. And as with many holiday traditions, Muslim children receive gifts during Eid, with adults giving out crisp dollar bills or sweets, Ali said.

Reza Jalali, executive director of the Greater Portland Immigrant Welcome Center, said he and his wife might celebrate the end of Ramadan by getting takeout Wednesday evening. In the past they would have planned a celebration at home and invited guests, but their children are grown and gone, and COVID-19 has changed many things.

“Everything about COVID is lousy, but the impact on religious celebrations is especially sad,” said Jalali, an Iranian Kurd who came to Maine in 1985. “I love going to the Expo and seeing all the colorful traditional clothing from every culture. They look like royalty. We’re going to miss that.”

Like many people, Jalali and Ali are celebrating incremental improvements since last year and looking forward to a return to larger gatherings soon.

“We hope next year, insha’Allah, we’ll be able to come together in a communal celebration again,” Ali said.

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