Eids, Birthdays and Traditions

The smell of biryani fills the air in my parent’s house. Soon we’ll take it out of the oven and mix the masala and chicken on the bottom with the Basmati rice on top. Tired from the frantic morning rushing to Eid prayer at the Phoenix Convention Center and the long day of cooking before, we’ll soon sit down to this special Eid lunch. I’ve spent close to 60 Eids this way with my family. When we moved to Arizona in 1991 when I was 14, we began our tradition of attending Eid prayer, usually held at the Phoenix Convention Center in downtown Phoenix, then making the long drive home, and then sitting down to eat Eid lunch.

Today we went to the Phoenix Convention Center for Eid prayer as we have done for many years. I reveled in the gorgeous outfits of the men, women, and children from all over the world. African families in their traditional outfits, South Asian families in theirs, Arab families and so many other ethnicities, it’s hard to discern and name them all. A particular little girl sticks out in my mind. She must be all of six years old and she was wearing a spectacular green, red and yellow sari that her mother bought from Bengladesh. The tradition is to wear your best clothes to Eid and the fashion that appears at Eid prayers never fails to impress.

Many things have changed in the twenty-seven years since we started going to the Phoenix Convention Center for Eid. I got married, moved away from home, moved away from practicing Islam, then got divorced and moved away from Arizona. But no matter what, I have always come “home” to accompany my mom and dad to Eid prayer and help my mom cook Eid lunch.

Not only have things changed with me but the entire community and my family has changed. The Muslim community has gotten bigger, new people have arrived, long-time residents have moved away, aged, and passed away. New mosques and Islamic centers have sprung up in every locality, taking congregants away from the main Eid prayer, new friendships have formed, and some old ones have grown apart. My parents aged, my father passed away, my nieces and nephews grew up and have kids of their own. So much has changed yet coming back to celebrate Eid with my family in the same way we have for almost 30 years has been a grounding experience through all of it.

I suppose traditions are just that, they are meant to ground you in the midst of the chaos of life. When I was younger I balked at traditions, thinking they were remnants of old ways that didn’t apply to modern life. I also associated them with oppression.  In my mind my family’s and religion’s old traditions were tied to misogyny, a closed-off-ness to new ways, and that they kept us entrenched in old, outdated ways of thinking.

Traditions were at odds with creative expression and evolution I thought. And yes, there is a tension between old traditions that are passed down from generation to generation and self-expression. But I’m learning to live with this tension, which I think is fruitful and generates ways to integrate old traditions and create new ones in our unique self-expressed ways. Instead of hampering change, traditions provide the container in which we can evolve and go through life’s milestones.

They not only bring meaning and give us ways to understand our otherwise chaotic lives, they are what binds us together, from generation to generation. They are what create culture and keep it alive. A tradition doesn’t have to be something that has been passed down from your ancestors. Even in our busy modern lives in the West where rituals and traditions as missing, we can create new traditions. Traditions help me feel less lonely in the world because they are a way of acknowledging a holiday or a special occasion, like a graduation, a marriage, a birth, or a death.

For example, I have a few traditions to celebrate my birthday. Share a nice meal with friends or family, cut and eat a cake, and receive birthday greetings in person, on the phone and on Facebook. A tradition that has become extra special for me is when my parents call me to wish me a happy birthday. Calling the kids on their birthday was my father’s job. He remembered the birthdays of all eight of his kids, their spouses, and his dozens of grandkids and he used to call every single one on their birthday. When my father had a stroke in 2014, he was unable to do this and on my birthday that year I cried at the loss of the lifelong tradition of my dad remembering and wishing me a happy birthday. Even though it was just a phone call, it felt like a huge chunk of my life was lost. A simple phone call carries a lot more meaning when it’s a tradition.

Traditions somehow help us repair broken relationships. Continuing with the birthday example, it is a modern tradition to wish someone you may not even know very well a happy birthday on Facebook. This may seem insipid and not genuine to a lot of people, but I notice on my birthday all sorts of people reach out to me and wish me a happy birthday, people I haven’t spoken to in years, people from my past lives, and even people I didn’t leave on good terms. It is the tradition of wishing someone a happy birthday that gives an opening, a reason, a structure to begin to connect with people again.

We live in a world, especially in the West, that is largely devoid of tradition as we lead more and more isolated lives. I live alone in San Francisco, go to work, see friends on weekends, but otherwise find it hard to feel connected and feel “in community.” I recall my roots in my highly traditional Indian culture and I see how the very traditions I derided and pushed away for most of my life are the things that preserve community, family and a feeling of belonging. They help us feel connected not only in society but in time, back to our heritage, our past, and to future generations who will continue our traditions and create new ones of their own.

Photo: Me and my mom at this year’s Eid Prayer at the Phoenix Convention Center