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With coronavirus, time seems to keep marching on with little meaning. But last week, as I flipped the calendar, I realized that we were about to welcome our second Eid holiday of the year on Friday, July 31.

Sitting in prison, especially in the middle of this pandemic, it’s easy to forget just how important Eid is in the lives of Muslims around the world. The day is not usually marked with huge fanfare, although the Muslim brothers try to keep the spirit of the holiday alive behind cell bars. But it’s not the same and doesn’t reflect the significance of the holiday in our lives. 

In the Islamic calendar, there are only two main holidays, both called Eid. The first one, Eid-ul-Fitr takes place after the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a month of fasting. The second Eid — what many of us call the ‘Big Eid’ — is known as Eid-ul-Adha and takes place after the yearly pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah, called “Hajj.” 

The pilgrimage is one of the five fundamental pillars of Islam so Eid-ul-Adha is particularly important to Muslims around the world, in part, because of its message regarding sacrifice. The Hajj ends with the sacrificial slaughtering of an animal according to the tradition of Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). This story of sacrificing one’s beloved son is shared by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, with one variation: Muslims believe that Abraham was going to sacrifice his son Isma’eel (Ishmael), and the other two religious texts mention Ishaaq (Issac) as the chosen son. 

It’s a universal message and a powerful one about love and sacrifice. It’s a message that can get lost on this special day in the petty dealings of life in prison. So I search my memories for Eids I’ve celebrated in the past to keep me connected to the millions of others outside.

As a kid growing up in Pakistan, there was a national custom we followed in the run up to the Big Eid. Our family would buy an animal a month or two prior to Eid-ul-Adha. We would care for it and domesticate it and a bond developed between the family and the animal. We grew to love it. So, in a way, when it came time to sacrifice the beloved animal, it would be hard due to that affection. The practice was an obvious effort to mimic Abraham’s trial and anguish.

Among other fond memories of that time were the new tailored Eid clothes, the varieties of delicious food, visiting neighbors, family, and friends, and hitting up the bazaars of Lahore. But, best of all, was the tradition of receiving “Eidy” — or monetary gifts — from our family elders. Children would wait with excitement for aunts and uncles to press money into their hands. 

I was one of those kids and it was a happy time. We all had our favorite uncles, aunts, and cousins, whom were known to be more generous than those who were of a more frugal temperament. You see, at that age the intricacies of who was well-to-do and who was not was not in our periphery.

Later on, when I moved to America, the Big Eid was a bit dull in comparison. Obviously, we couldn’t get a pet lamb, goat, or ox at home to raise and sacrifice on the Eid day. So, here in the so-called civilized world, our family would either send money to Pakistan, to have a relative slaughter an animal and distribute the meat to the poor, or would buy an animal here at one of the local Islamic slaughter houses and get that very important part of the Big Eid over with.

But, we did keep other traditions alive. We congregated for Eid prayer in one of the local mosques and then returned home to dress up in new clothes. And then we would start making the rounds from Long Island through Queens, and then to New Jersey to wish our family and friends an “Eid Mubarak” and to receive our Eidys. Older cousins would joke about the need for family members to practice more celibacy as the number of kids seeking Eidy grew every year.

But as I grew older and entered my twenties, it became a sense of pride for me to give Eidy to those who were younger than me. I remember making prayer to be more successful the following years so that I could give more and be that favorite brother, cousin, and uncle. While my prayer was not answered by the All Mighty and I sit here away from my younger family members, I still make the same prayer. I still hope for a better tomorrow.

Coming to prison jars the very core of your being. People say to, “watch out in here, cause ‘they’ will come for you. ” The truth is, ‘they’ don’t come for you, ‘they’ come for your soul. In this labyrinth of evil, you tend to lose the very things that make you human. Among those things, happiness tops the charts. I think about that a lot as I mine my memories for those happy Eid celebrations in the past.

Here in prison, our Big Eid is usually a simple affair. A congregational prayer is followed by a few refreshments and then a prompt return to our cages. On our housing units we prepare our meals together as brothers in faith to give some color to our bland canvas of merrymaking.

But food was one my best memories of Eids in the past. The food here is hardly comparable. I don’t remember a single Eid behind bars when I didn’t just stare at the food after receiving it.

This year, COVID-19 restricted our so-called festivities even further. No congregational prayers and the prison kitchen sent us an ‘Eid Food Tray’ prepared by select Muslim prisoners to everyone. That was the extent of our official celebrations.

But, as always, we tried to create our own mirage of an Eid celebration. Without family around, a man is lost and I’ve been lost for a longtime now. But there is a Muslim community here by the Grace of God,  and when our eyes meet, there is a mutual and shared pained look of understanding of what we are missing and where we are.  We held that look for the briefest of moments this Eid and then we simply nodded and carried on. Grown men don’t cry, after all.

So I retreated to my cell on the Big Eid, placed my food on the metal table that is attached to metal sink and toilet, and then I sat next to my ‘slit’ of a window to blankly stare outside. I tried to picture my parents, brother, sister-in-law, and their two bundles of joy, my nephew and niece, among other family members and friends. And I let my mind wander again to try to remember Eids past when I was with them.  

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.

Tariq MaQbool is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. He maintains Captive Voices, a blog where he shares his poetry and essays as well as the writings of other incarcerated people. His work has been published in The Marshall Project, NJ Star Ledger, Slant'd magazine and The News Station.