Eid in prison is like building a sandcastle with the tide approaching. Even when you are having fun building it, you know the impending doom. The reality of disappointment washes over as fast as the waves level the sandcastle on the beach.
We do make an effort behind bars to make Eid festive for those of us incarcerated Muslims in New Jersey State Prison. Usually, as soon as the doors open at 6:30 a.m. morning count, Muslim prisoners rush to take their ritual showers and get ready for Eid prayers in the big visiting hall. After that, we get to enjoy a few simple refreshments of cake, donuts, coffee, milk and juice, courtesy of the NJDOC.
For an hour or so, we get to make believe that this is normal somehow. It’s not, of course. After the initial celebration, we are unceremoniously kicked out of the hall to return to our housing units. We are prisoners, after all. And Eid doesn’t change that.
Once on the unit, though, we do try our level best for some sort of normalcy. Brothers on the unit will get together to make a meal for everyone. It’s a comradeship is something that creates the semblance of family, and for that much I am truly grateful.
However, for me, the actual festivities start when I get the phone on my allotted time. That’s when I get to call home and talk to my family and loved ones. For the duration of that call, I am in heaven. Usually, I will call home and speak to different members of my family who gather at my aunt’s house. Hearing their voices and knowing that they are all together helps me, for a briefest of moments, to enjoy Eid vicariously through them. For that also, I am truly grateful.
But with the highs come the lows. After the customary call, I usually sit next to my slit of a window and look outside feeling rather blue. I reminisce about the good old days of freedom when I was home. It was a time that now is a very, very distant memory. Actually, now it’s more of a yearning then memory. It’s a longing, a hope in this dark place. But given the futility of my situation, I can usually remind myself and find comfort in an old Urdu proverb: “The world rests on hope!”
But Eid was very different this year, courtesy of the COVID-19 restrictions. While we did try to follow the normal routine of showers in the morning and meal preparation among ourselves on our units, the sense of togetherness we try to hold on to every year was missing. There were no gatherings in the big halls for congregational prayers. Instead, we prayed alone in our cells.
That sense of loneliness seemed to carry over even when I started my customary Eid calls to family. It wasn’t something completely different from what I had experienced in years past. Over the years, I started to notice some changes in the people on the other line as I called to wish them Eid Mubarak. I noticed it during this Eid as well.
Over time, especially when one is in prison, relationships can change. There can be an awkwardness that hangs heavy between the prisoner and the people outside. I guess time is like gravity in a sense. It places an invisible pressure on all things and overtime, as with all things, people and their attitudes can change as well in different ways.
In the beginning of my journey behind bars, I had family and friends present for some support. Over the years, some would fall off the ‘contact-list’ and would then come back. But during those Eid day calls, we would get in touch and rekindle our ties of kinship.
But I noticed a change as the years rolled on. In some cases, work or some other social or professional engagement made it difficult to connect with everyone during those Eid calls. I chalked it up to the busy highway of life with all its exits and off ramps, firmly holding on to the hope that sooner or later we would find our way back home.
In reality, however, that was wishful thinking on my part. The coronavirus pandemic has been teaching a lot of lessons all around. It taught me one on this day as well.
COVID-19 restrictions sort of made everyone more available during this past Eid. The normal excuses that someone had left early or was at work didn’t materialize. They were all gathered in one place. But when I spoke to my extended family, I quickly realized that not everyone wanted to speak to me. Some spoke to me out of a sense of obligation, almost as if they were doing a charitable act. Others did so to appease someone who actually did care, and some avoided speaking to me altogether.
In that moment, I almost felt as if I had become a stranger among my own.
A friend once asked me how it felt to be locked up for such a long time. I told her that it’s like being frozen in time. I was locked up at the age of 25, and, for me, time just stopped. All of my points of reference for the life outside ceased in that moment. Every perspective I had was defined by the perception of that 25-year-old Tariq. I only knew life, family and people, from that angle.
To me, nothing ever changed.
But, of course, everything has changed. Time doesn’t stop for anything or anyone. My most recent Eid call seemed to really bring that reality home.
I now feel like a twig that was floating on a river and got too close to the riverbank just when winter came in perpetuity. A 150-year sentence winter. A never-ending, everlasting slow death.
Yet, everyone else’s life didn’t stop. And now I watch my family and loved ones flow by me in the center of the river-run. I can see everything but, being frozen, I can’t say anything. I am not part of that free-flowing life. Over time, I have seen many changes in my family. At times, I am screaming, wanting to be heard, but no one pays mind to a frozen-in-time twig. It feels cold, and blue.
It is hurtful as it highlights my loneliness and a sense of being abandoned. Being invisible and irrelevant is not easy to swallow. It is beyond humbling to realize that I am not who I used to be. I am a shadow, an abstract thought, a concept of a bygone era, a very, very distant memory.
A close family member once told me, in a not so subtle manner, “We have to prioritize in life!” I got the message then. But, with the current COVID-19 pandemic, as a prisoner, I find myself dropping steeply on the ‘priority list’ of both family and society.
Yet, even in midst of the cold winter it seems, hope in God’s mercy prevails like sunshine for me. Like all storms, hurt, sadness, and heartbreak, this feeling shall pass too. I am blessed; my parents gave me the best gift in life, a brother, a friend, a mate for life. I top his ‘priority list.‘ For me, his closeness above all shall suffice. His love and loyalty are also never-ending, everlasting, and amaranthine.
And during our most recent holy day, thinking of him, his wife and two beautiful children, with a smile on my face, I started to feel a lighter shade of Eid holiday blue.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.