From floods to fasting: How Pakistan’s recent natural disaster cast its shadow over Ramadan
As Ramadan drew to a close, the photographer Alixandra Fazzina, who witnessed the devastation of Pakistan first-hand, examined how Muslim celebrations were affected in both the flood-hit land and among the community in the UK
Sunday 12 September 2010
When August's floods came, I had been working as a photographer in Pakistan for two years. There had been floods there before, but never on this scale. Millions lost their homes, and I wanted to put a human face to the disaster. In the north, the floods came like a tsunami, with no warning; whole villages were washed away. In the southern regions, people at least had 24 hours' notice to evacuate, by bike or foot, and transfer to the relief camps.
Oxfam took me to one of these camps, in a school in Layyah, a town on the banks of the Indus in south Punjab, eight ' hours' drive from Islamabad, where I live. There are 252 camps in the one small provincial district I visited; the one in Layyah had 150 families, all from poor rural communities. It was around 50C there, and humid, with cramped conditions and just three toilets shared by 80 families. People were sleeping side by side without any sanitation, and waterborne diseases were spreading – although hygiene kits from Oxfam helped.
It was the holy month of Ramadan, so pretty much everyone was fasting, which created a communal feeling. However, when the breaking of the fast – iftar – came at around 8pm, there weren't enough cooking facilities to go around, so meals had to be staggered. Normally, the daily fast was broken with a large meal: samosas, pakoras, pickles, yoghurts and, most importantly, dates – which the prophet Mohammed had. But families such as the one pictured above – Shaheen and her extended family of 46 – received only a basic ration of roti and a pot of meat and potatoes. So the feeling families normally have, of sitting down and eating the same foods at the same times as the rest of the Muslim world, was dissipated.
The people I spoke to felt they were being forsaken and, while they were not questioning their belief in God, they do feel they are being punished for something. There's no money to reconstruct their lives, and people told me: "When you have a home, the things you have – the pots, pans, bed, blankets – you collect over your whole lifetime. No one can afford to restock it all again." It's been devastating for them.
To what extent had the travails in Pakistan affected the way Ramadan was observed this year in the UK, where a large section of the diaspora live? I went to photograph Tamreez and her husband Asim, a British Muslim couple living in Wembley, north-west London, to see how they were observing the religious month.
The couple have a very British sensibility: they're easy-going, tolerant, thoroughly modern and enjoy living in a multi-cultural society. Tamreez's family, from Islamabad, were visiting when I took the pictures above, and the floods were on all their minds. They had satellite TV constantly tuned to Pakistani rolling-news channels. And both Tamreez and Asim have been involved in aid work. Giving charity to the poor – zakat – is one of the five pillars of Islam and is especially important during Ramadan. So Asim has been helping pack relief supplies donated by people in the UK to send out, while Tamreez has been involved in donating to Oxfam.
People spend more time reading the Koran during Ramadan, and Asim has been engaging in a very Western way of discussing it by starting a blog in which he explores various passages. Both he and Tamreez are acutely aware of how fortunate they are, and gave extra thanks that they were in a better position than those in Pakistan – even if they did have to do a full day's work with people eating and drinking around them while they fasted. In that sense, this year's Ramadan did feel less of an occasion for them.
Before Asim and Tamreez would break the fast with the evening meal, they'd go to a halal grocery store looking for paneer [cheese], which Asim's father particularly likes, while stocking up on treats such as honey and yoghurt. During the meal the living-room door was left open so they could all hear the call to prayer from Mecca on the TV. While they appreciate their food, the meal was a sombre affair, spent thinking of others less fortunate than themselves. This family, too, has suffered losses directly. One of Asim's relatives was killed in the floods – and there are few people in the UK who don't know someone affected by all this.
To donate to the Pakistan flood crisis, visit oxfam.org.uk
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