Eid in the times of COVID-19

Story – Madiha Asif, Manal Al Badi

Across the world, no matter where you might be, Eid Al Fitr is a time to celebrate with friends and family.

This is when you normally meet cousins whose names you’ve only heard of from your parents, or seen in photos shared on social media, but never actually see otherwise. It’s a time for the entire extended family to meet each other and renew the bonds of togetherness and solidarity.

After a couple days spent with your loved ones, it is only common for you and your family to then drop by the homes of your friends. The joy of a festival comes, after all, from sharing it with others. 

All that, however, has not been made possible in Oman during this year’s Eid Al Fitr: the precautions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 mean that safety – as it should – took priority over celebrations. Advances in technology do of course help us keep in touch with our loved ones, but even they cannot fully make up for the ache we get when we are unable to spend special moments like these with them.

“We have a big family of five sisters with their husbands and children as well as two brothers, their wives and children who live across Oman and some in the UAE,” said Omani national Mariam Abdullah Al Hajri. So, Eid at our house in Buraimi is like a big celebration where we all gather, offer Eid prayers together, eat halwa, distribute Eidi to the kids, prepare lunch, and feast together.

“Unfortunately, this time, we did not get to see each other nor the kids due to the restrictions and fear of spreading COVID-19,” she added. But we managed to keep the spirit alive by dressing up, preparing some desserts in our houses and talking to each other through video calls,”

Omani national Mohammad Al Mashrafi from Ibra in North Al Sharqiyah said: “Last Eid, our relatives, neighbours and friends came to congratulate my family but this Eid, nobody has been able to come, due to the decisions of the Supreme Committee to deal with COVID-19. Every Eid, we gather at my uncle’s home with my family and my cousins, but we did not do that this time. We stayed at home.”

“Actually, I am rather happy with how we celebrated this Eid, because my parents, brothers, sisters and their children were together at home, and we celebrated by cooking together to make shuwa, mashakeek and rice during the three days of the festival.”

Fatima Al Hinai from Ibri in Al Dhahirah added: “Last Eid, I went with my mother and sisters to congratulate their parents, my uncles, aunts, and my neighbours and friends but this Eid, I could not, because of the COVID-19 situation.”

The desire for people in the country to spend time with family during an auspicious moment such as this was felt in equally strong measure by both locals in Oman as well as its expat population. Ahmed Suliman, an Egyptian based in Muscat with his family for the past 30 years, said this Eid was like none of the previous celebrations he’d experienced.

“Every Eid my friends and family used to gather to go to the beach and enjoy a barbecue, visit friends’ homes, and shop for new outfits,” he said. “The excitement of celebrating Eid used to be something we all looked forward to after fasting throughout Ramadan. This time, everything was incredibly quiet as both Ramadan and Eid just came and went by quite quickly.

“We as the family tried to lift each other’s spirits and made some Egyptian desserts and biscuits while I prepared burgers,” Suliman added.

Dola Algady, another expat who lives in Sohar, said that this Eid had been different for their family as well, as they’d drive to Muscat to spend the holiday. This time, however, she attempted to bridge the gap using a video call, but it wasn’t quite the same.

“Because Eid holidays are usually for about a week, we would drive to Muscat and spend them with friends, shop at the malls, eat out at restaurants, take our daughter for many indoor activities, and let her pick gifts for herself.”

She added: “This year, we didn’t do any of it. We just stayed at home and celebrated Eid through video calls with our friends and family. We are just hoping and praying for this virus to end soon so that everything can come back to being normal, and we are able to celebrate Eid Al Adha the way we used to.”

For many in the country, Eid is a time to buy new clothes for themselves and their children. Many also offer them as presents to people whose homes they visit during this time of the year. Mohammed Al Mamari, from Sohar, the capital of the North Al Batinah Governorate, had made plans to get new traditional clothes stitched from his tailor.

However, while some businesses have been allowed to slowly reopen, tailor shops continue to remain shuttered, thereby putting a pin in the plans of Mohammed and tens of thousands of others in the country to get new clothes stitched specially for this occasion.

“Usually, I go to the tailor to get a new dishdashah, shirt and pants but this Eid, I couldn’t, because tailors and clothing stores are closed, and without the tradition of new clothes, it is difficult for me to be happy during Eid.  I used to go with my father and brothers to offer Eid prayers in the mosque, where I’d meet my relatives, friends and neighbours and share in their blessings, but this time, I really missed all these things.”

However, Omani national Mohammad Al Mashrafi from Ibra in North Al Sharqiyah was rather happy with how things managed to turn out this time, because he was able to spend time with his parents, brothers, sisters and their children at home, cooking the traditional shuwa, mashakeek and rice together.

He added: “Last Eid, our relatives, neighbours and friends came to congratulate my family, but this Eid, nobody has been able to come, due to the decisions of the Supreme Committee to deal with COVID-19. Every Eid, we gather at my uncle’s home with my family and my cousins, but we did not do that this time.”

A big part of Eid is the shuwa, a traditional meat dish that is made by slowly cooking meet for days in an underground pit filled with hot coals. Making shuwa often requires the entire family to take part, with the men readying the pit and the women preparing the animal – which is normally a goat, but can sometimes be a camel – in a traditional spice rub and other seasonings before it is lowered into the pit.

The result is a juicy, flavourful dish that is so tender the meat just falls off the bone. In many areas, an entire village will get together to prepare enough shuwa for all of them to enjoy, and it is said that no two villages have the same shuwa recipe. It is a tradition that Yamen Al Farsi does look forward to, but one the Barka native was unable to enjoy this time.

“All the village residents gather to make shuwa in a big and deep hole in the ground, which is locally called a tanoor, but this Eid all of us had to make this in our homes. I wasn’t very happy with this year’s Eid, because I miss many of our customs, such as gathering around the tanoor, meeting in the family majlis to eat the shuwa, meeting our relatives, friends and neighbours to congratulate them, and travelling to other wilayats to meet people.”

But new clothes and scrumptious food are but a few of the traditions followed by people celebrating Eid. There are other things that children look forward to at this time, with Saham native Ahmed Al Badi shedding light on the other practices followed by Omani families and their children during the festival.

“The men and boys wear the mussar, which is a piece of cloth, either from wool or linen, features embroidery in the form of delicate threads and patterns, and wrapped around the head. They also wear the Omani dishdasha, the khanjar – a silver and ivory dagger worn at the waist, and traditional sticks called Assa.

“The children create a pulp made from the leaves of a plant that are ground and mixed with water. The resulting bright red coloured mixture is applied to their hands and feet, while the women and girls wear boutique clothing with gold ornaments around their necks and on their ears and hands. They also create bright patterns and motifs with henna on their hands and feet.”