Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan, are observing Ramadan in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few months ago. Mosques are shuttered, festive dinners with extended family and friends are canceled, and many members of this ethnically and economically diverse community ― one of the largest Muslim populations in the U.S. ― have found themselves on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Confronted with these changes, three Michigan Muslim organizations have come up with a way to help community members feel connected during a season of social distancing ― the Ramadan Lights Contest.
The challenge encourages Muslims in the area to decorate the exteriors of their houses, take photos of their creations, and nominate themselves or neighbors for prizes.
Across the greater Dearborn region, at least 65 families have responded by decorating their homes with lights, lanterns, and banners to celebrate Ramadan, which began on April 23.
The organizers have received photos of Ramadan wreaths, string lights tracing the eaves of houses, and stars dangling from porches. Above the front door of one house, a family has placed an electric crescent moon that glows in the colors of the rainbow. Another family used a drone to dramatically film their lights from all angles, sending in a video submission with a holiday song playing in the background.
Hassan Chami, a Dearborn resident and one of the organizers of the competition, said he has enlisted a friend to create a customized 3-D printed sign with the words Ramadan Mubarak, or blessed Ramadan, to place outside his home.
“In the short term, we’re trying to lift everyone’s spirits during COVID-19,” the disease caused by the coronavirus, Chami told HuffPost. “Maybe we’ll have some families driving around the city looking at the lights.”
But Chami has a long-term dream for Dearborn in mind, too.
“I hope it’s a tradition where in the future, my kids and nieces and nephews grow up in a community where, when Ramadan comes around, the entire city is lit up,” he said.
Chami founded the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, a late-night food festival that draws thousands of Muslims and non-Muslims throughout the holy month. This year, Chami said he had about 40 vendors lined up to dish out halal delicacies ― his biggest number yet. But he had to cancel the festival due to the virus.
It wasn’t the only festive social gathering that Muslims in the area have had to forego. Smoking hookah in friends’ garages, chatting around fire pits in mosque parking lots after evening prayers, sipping coffee in the city’s Yemini cafes into the early morning hours ― all of these beloved local traditions have been shelved because of the virus.
The region’s Muslim communities have been on the front lines of responding to COVID-19, according to Sally Howell, a scholar of Arab-American history at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Muslims in the area are overrepresented in fields such as health care, law enforcement, food service and taxi services, she said.
“The Muslim community writ large have been hit very hard by this,” Howell said.
Howell said that in recent years she’s noticed an exponential growth in the number of Muslim families in Dearborn decorating their houses for Ramadan. Last year, she and other members of Halal Metropolis, an arts exhibition, documented this phenomenon for a project.
This year, Halal Metropolis, the Ramadan Suhoor Festival, and the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC), an umbrella organization for the state’s Muslim groups, teamed up to organize this trend into a friendly neighborhood competition.
Howell said that it’s common in the Middle East for public areas, such as streets and cafes, to light up during the holy month, but somewhat rarer for people to decorate their own houses. Chami said he thinks it’s standard practice for Muslims in the Middle East to decorate their homes for the holiday ― and that American Muslims are catching up now because they finally have access to Ramadan lights and home decor through Amazon, party stores and local grocery stores.
Machhadie Assi, an event coordinator and youth director for MMCC, said the practice of decorating homes during Ramadan wasn’t very popular in Lebanon, where she grew up. But she said it’s a trend that younger American Muslims are beginning to adapt, after seeing how important decorating is during Christmas.
Regardless of how it started, Assi hopes that more Dearborn Muslims will adopt the tradition in the future. She said she sees the Ramadan Lights Challenge as a way to bring “contagious, positive energy” to the community.
“Ramadan is a very uplifting month, so hopefully this light will represent the enlightenment of Ramadan,” she said.
The three Muslim organizations will be sharing photos of nominated houses throughout the holy month. The most creative houses will receive a certificate and a tray of sweets for Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. The homes will be recognized during a ceremony in 2021.
Howell said she also hopes the challenge will become an annual tradition ― and that it will eventually be recognized by Dearborn’s local city beautification group, which awards prizes for the city’s best Christmas decorations every year.
In an era of increased surveillance and a time when Islamophobic rhetoric is spewed from the highest offices in the land, draping lights for Ramadan is a way for Dearborn’s Muslims to celebrate their religious identities and make their presence known, Howell said.
“They’re saying, ‘Here in this space, we’re going to be ourselves, we’re not going to worry so much about what other people think. This is who we are,’” she said.