Even with Saudi Arabia yet to formally announce whether the Hajj pilgrimage will be held this year amid the coronavirus pandemic, envoys of Muslim countries in Turkey have already made alternative plans for Ramadan Bayram, also known as Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
Lockdown and social distancing measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have forced embassies to shift their plans from get-together feasts to videoconferences this Bayram, which falls on Sunday.
The Malaysian embassy in the capital Ankara normally organizes iftar or fast-breaking gatherings once or twice during Ramadan, inviting community members, students and eminent personalities in Turkey.
"But we didn't do that this year due to COVID-19," said Arhan Shah Anuar, Malaysia's charge d'affaires in Turkey.
Malaysians living in different parts of Turkey would normally gather at the embassy or at a hotel to celebrate Bayram together.
"Because of the extraordinary situation triggered by the deadly pandemic, we had to adhere to the safety measures and have therefore reduced physical interactions, among other (measures), by shifting the mode of interaction via various alternatives, including online meeting platforms such as Zoom," said Arhan.
Ever since it was first detected in Wuhan, China last December, COVID-19 has pushed the world into quarantine with strict physical distancing measures in place.
The pandemic has claimed more than 331,000 lives in 188 countries and regions while more than 5 million people have been infected.
Most companies have shifted to remote work, and the Zoom app, which allows a large number of people to take part in a video call, has exploded in popularity.
"We held several meetings over Zoom in Ramadan and will organize one during the Eid. In this new normal, distance is the main obstacle, but it should make us even more committed to keeping in touch more with fellow Malaysians in Turkey," Arhan said. He went on to say that this year, the Ramadan celebration was "low key, more of a family affair."
"We have iftar and pray Tarawih (late night prayers during Ramadan) together with the family at home," he said.
He said the embassy would prepare traditional Malaysian food on such special occasions.
"We try to live up to our traditional celebrations on Eid by preparing our traditional food. It makes us feel at home, even though we are thousands of miles away," the diplomat said. "The pandemic has forced us to stay away from restaurants, public places and meeting friends," he added. "The first thing that most people would do in the post-COVID-19 era is to rush for summer holidays."
The Malaysian embassy is in close coordination with its students and the diaspora in Turkey, he said.
"With assistance from them, we were able to deliver food aid, masks and hand sanitizers to Malaysians in Istanbul and Ankara who did not go back to Malaysia. We plan to do the same during the Eid holidays. We want them to feel our presence even more, that the embassy is always here for them in times like these," he said.
Ankara to miss ‘largest' open-house meals
"Unlike the previous years, this year, we had to adapt to safety and health guidelines in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic during Ramadan, and as such, we hosted no iftar receptions," said Pakistan's ambassador to Turkey, Muhammad Syrus Sajjad Qazi.
"We thoroughly missed breaking the fast together and sharing our food with friends and families, which is an important aspect of Ramadan," he said. Qazi noted that Pakistanis and Turks "share many Eid traditions because of our common religious and cultural heritage. Therefore, Pakistanis in Turkey do not feel themselves away from their home in Turkey on Eid and always find a lot of love from their Turkish brothers and sisters."
Given the vast and rich menu of the country's traditional cuisines, the Pakistan embassy hosts one of the largest open-house meals on Bayram each year, which are attended by local dignitaries as well as members of the local Pakistani community.
"Unfortunately, this year, due to COVID-19, all such receptions and programs have been canceled. But we hope that we will have such opportunities in the future soon, inshallah," Qazi said.
He noted that the focus of the embassy has been "on the welfare of the Pakistani community and students in Turkey in the wake of the suspension of international travel."
Due to the pandemic, Qazi said he misses the "very hospitable and scrumptious Turkish iftars and dinners this year."
"We also missed the prayer gatherings at the mosque," he said.
Qazi said, however, that "we all understand the necessity of the safety and health measures in place for the well-being of us all."
"Breaking the fast together and sharing our food with friends and families is an important aspect of Ramadan, and was thoroughly missed. However, nothing can dampen the real spirit of this holy month that teaches us selflessness, empathy and welfare for others," he said.
An official at the Bangladeshi embassy shared a similar story of quarantined life while noting there is no program this Ramadan.
Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to Turkey, Kubanychbek Omuraliev, said the members of his diplomatic mission will also celebrate the holy festival "at home with their families in compliance with all precautions."
He said the coronavirus pandemic and restriction measures brought many "positive aspects" along with some negative impact. "But on the whole, I think this crisis will teach us to be patient as well as appreciate more what is taken for granted, the simplest things – respect for each other, especially for close ones, live communication, meetings, a walk in the fresh air, etc."
The ambassador said the first thing he will do after normalcy returns is "to take a free walk after work without a mask as well as visit sights in the city on weekends."