Last Wednesday, neighbors of my immediate neighborhood of Orchid Close (Cul de Sac), Husbands, St James came out at 6 p.m. to clap and cheer our frontline and essential workers as we have done for the past few weeks. This time, however, they shared in our family’s ‘iftar’ (fast-breaking) around 6:20 p.m. with savories, fruit and ‘falooda’ (a pink milk drink that is popular among Muslims in Barbados of Indian background at fast breaking).
While we sat apart, socially distancing, we were together as a neighborhood. Two neighbors serenaded us, showcasing their talents, and my son did the Islamic call to pray.
The approximately six households on our street have, since curfew started, found several ways of creating neighborly bonds as neighborhoods ought to be. Our WhatsApp group allowed us to “Get to Know the persons in our neighborhood better” using that famous Sesame Street song, “These are the people in your neighborhood” by producing a series of video clips highlighting several facts of each other. We also tried our voices at the ex-tempo challenge that was popular earlier in the curfew and competed in some trivia.
One neighbor said: “If there’s one thing I’ll remember from this COVID season is the time we shared as neighbors, in person and via the chat. Memorable!”
Our shared faith traditions teach us of neighborly love. In Christianity, the Bible speaks to this in the verses: “Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
In my faith of Islam, the rights of neighbors are strongly entrenched. We are instructed in the Holy Quran: “Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good—to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers…”
One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic is that it has brought neighborhoods together in many parts of the world. The several news items highlighting neighborhoods that got together while under quarantine attest to this. Confinement to one’s own place of abode for a lengthy period can be a struggle for many. Not being able to connect physically with family and friends who live in other parts can also make it more challenging. The internet and social media have certainly eased that challenge but human connection, even if only seeing and hearing another person live and direct, makes a big difference.
This is where our neighbors play a part. It helps us to express our social side and make that connection. And so we understand, especially during times such as these, why our faiths place great emphasis on neighborly relationships. We are certainly not in this world alone and we can’t survive without each other.
I read something recently where an interesting observation was made: “Someone once asked anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first evidence of civilization. She answered: a human thigh bone with a healed fracture found in an archaeological site 15,000 years old. Why not tools for hunting or religious artifacts or primitive forms of communal self-governance?
“Mead points out that for a person to survive a broken femur the individual had to have been cared for long enough for that bone to heal. Others must have provided shelter, protection, food and drink over an extended period of time for this kind of healing to be possible.
“Mead suggests that the first indication of human civilization is care over time for one who is broken and in need, evidenced through a fractured thigh bone that was healed.”
Others had to care. That is the lesson. In this lockdown and curfew situation, we only have our neighbors around us. They are the persons closest to us physically should we need help. The beauty of neighbors living at peace with each other and working together means that a lot can be achieved in the neighborhood. We all mostly live busy lives and so knowing and interacting with a neighbor can be near impossible during normal times. But these abnormal times have certainly given us the opportunity to be different.
As the neighbors on our street engaged in getting to know each other better through fun facts and other details, we learnt a lot and we began to appreciate even more the people who live around us. That human interaction, even though at social distances, allowed for us to become closer.
What made that human interaction even more important was the fact that most, if not all of us, were confined to our homes. There was no other form of human interaction besides our immediate household, going out on our designated days to shop and back home. We can’t visit friends or relatives. For some, that could be catastrophic and devastating mentally.
For Muslims especially, these are different times as we are observing the month of fasting (Ramadan) and in a few days, our festival of Eid-ul-Fitr. The month and the festival are both times of community, family and friends getting together. But this year was very different for Ramadan and will be extremely different for Eid. The community spirit will be strikingly absent and will be replaced by the virtual community.
Real communities have advantages that imagined, or virtual communities don’t. Human beings, in general, crave that human connection, that interaction which allows for touch, feel, smell, sound and sight to all take place in one space. The virtual space gives only sight and sound, very impersonal. Perhaps Caribbean people more than others crave that social gathering, it is in our culture and DNA. And that is probably why, whenever the opportunity was given in this pandemic, many flooded the places they could go to.
Will we lose all of this coming out of quarantine? Will we become so accustomed to social distancing that we won’t go back to social gathering in the long term? Time will tell. As parents and adults, we constantly frowned upon our children and younger generation glued to a screen, smartphone or some device. Sadly, that has become our realities. Will the virtual world replace our real world?
Faith communities have had to especially struggle during this lockdown period. Praying together in congregations is the bedrock of most religions. That mode of worship was stopped and confined to our homes. Our Pastors, Imams and Rabbis came to us via the internet.
Our significant religious events over the past weeks and now Eid for Muslims will be indoors amongst immediate families. Our new norm? Hopefully not, but absolutely necessary in our current situation. We make the most of it and look forward to coming out and coming together again. Blessed Eid.
Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace; Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association; Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI and a Childhood Obesity Prevention Champion. Email: [email protected]