ON Saturday night, we gathered at Malaysia Hall to welcome Ramadan 2022 with enough crowd to fill the halls for the first tarawih prayers after two years.
The Covid-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns had seen to it that the doors of the centre where Malaysians meet were temporarily closed for all kinds of activities.
Now things are stirring back to life, although the much-loved Malaysia Hall's canteen is still not operating, pending renovations and tender being opened for the new operator.
It was about 4pm when we received the news in our family WhatsApp group that fasting in the United Kingdom (UK) starts on Saturday, April 2. We had earlier assumed that it would start on Sunday, the same day as Malaysia.
For Malaysian Muslims in the UK, we wait for the announcement from the London Central Mosque and news of the sighting of the new moon, which are relayed to the Malaysian High Commission and then to the community.
Two years ago, Ramadan fell on April 23, a month after the British prime minister announced the first lockdown for the whole of the UK, ordering everyone to stay at home. The future for any activity looked bleak, and we had to live life following the standard operating procedures (SOP) and the new normal that kept changing.
It was Ramadan like no other. With the offices, restaurants, eating places and venues for prayers closed down, we had to observe the whole of Ramadan at home for our own safety.
Mosques and prayer halls closed their doors out of fear that the premises had the potential to be breeding grounds for the virus to spread. It did cause some anger, of course, as some people could not quite understand what really constituted fertile grounds for Covid-19.
Even when the doors were cautiously opened, only a limited number of people were allowed in at one time.
As a family, we fasted and prayed at home together, making the most of a very unusual situation. Friends and neighbours left sweets and snacks for buka puasa at the front door and quickly disappeared. We did the same, too.
And eventually, when Hari Raya Aidilfitri came, we just celebrated at home. It was our first Eid prayer at home. Again, it wasn't a celebration in isolation, as friends still made their way to our doorsteps to leave their hari Raya fares.
The first tarawih prayers at Malaysia Hall after two years, two nights ago, brought back wonderful memories that went all the way back to Ramadan activities at the old Malaysia Hall in Bryanston Square.
Although there were many new faces in the congregation and many familiar faces missing, I saw those whom I had seen before as babies in their carrycots beside their mother, now praying next to me as adults.
Last month, during the celebration of Nisfu Syaaban, the imam who led our prayer had been with the congregation since he was a teenager.
Most of the older ladies, those who had to pray seated on chairs (due to physical limitations), are no longer there. Their places
are now taken over by some others.
However, the celebratory mood was still the same. People are happy to be able to gather again during this blessed month and looking forward to the Ramadan activities that have been prepared by the Malaysian High Commission, together with Ustaz Zaki Ismail of The Sofa London Mosque (which had been the alternative gathering place for Muslims from the Nusantara until it closed its doors during the pandemic).
For the month of Ramadan, generous donors are already making their bookings to sponsor the breaking of fast at the canteen of Malaysia Hall.
I remember those days when the iftar and moreh (feasts after the tarawih prayers) were over-subscribed. A lot of London-based Malaysian companies and organisations and generous individuals sponsored food much longed for, especially for students away from home.
With Ramadan in April, iftar comes at about 7.45pm, so a lot more people can be expected to join the congregation at Malaysia Hall.
Malaysian restaurants are participating again to prepare sponsored food for the congregation at Malaysia Hall.
Post-pandemic, post-Brexit and now the war in Ukraine have started to sting, affecting the prices of goods and services.
But the generosity of the people
is still evident as they look forward to doing their bit and reaping the rewards in this blessed month.
One of the daily programmes at Malaysia Hall throughout Ramadan is the tadarus — the reciting of the Quran together an hour before iftar, with the aim to finish reading the holy book by the end of the month.
Then, there will also be another celebration — always something to look forward to.
The night prayers on Friday were led by a guest imam, a scholar from Malaysia. The congregation can expect more guest imam and speakers from religious institutions in Malaysia during this month.
There was a moment at Malaysia Hall on the same night when I allowed my thoughts to go down memory lane.
Old faces and voices of education attachés, such as Ustaz Annuar, Ustaz Erfino and our beloved bilal, Hj Zainal, as well as the late warden, Pak Ya, loomed large in my memory.
They played a large part in making a difference in our life abroad as we celebrated Ramadan, Hari Raya and other important occasions at a place we called home away from home.
I was missing Kak Puteri Zakiah, who for years during every Ramadan would provide homemade kuih for the congregation. She has now returned to Malaysia for good.
I was also missing Mak Ndak and her family, who would always provide food for moreh. Mak Ndak, who used to occupy a seat in our prayer hall, is now 94 years old and too frail to attend. But as usual, I know she will send food for moreh. Already, she has made and distributed her famous acar buah (pickled fruit), as she does every year to welcome the holy month.
Have a blessed Ramadan, everyone.