Ramadan in the age of Snapchat: On the right to be Muslim and boring


You can hear the boy laughing as he zooms in on his mother. She talks to herself, counting and recounting the number of seats at a table overburdened with platters of basmati rice, kibbeh, and kofta. He holds on her until finally she acknowledges the camera, chiding her son with mock annoyance. Then the video cuts out and you’re onto the next one.

Deep in the midst of a social media-induced fugue state, I found myself watching this six-second scene after clicking the Ramadan Live story at the top of my Snapchat feed. It was just one in a series of snippets that captured people from all over the world as they prepared for and celebrated the first day of the holy month. Some of the videos are all naked anxiety, people giving themselves pep talks for long summer days without food or water. Others show the wild joy of families breaking the fast together, biting down on dried dates. By the end of the Snapchat story, you’ve traveled the globe: There’s a guy in Pakistan drinking a suhoor cappuccino, another girl explaining what “suhoor” means as she walks through the immaculate streets of Dubai. There’s a teenager in Detroit, pouting to the camera, a taco emoji perfectly positioned in front of her mouth.

It took me by surprise, the banality of it all.

Last week, Omar Mateen pledged allegiance to ISIS, then shot 49 innocent people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. His unnerving bathroom selfies flooded all of our newsfeeds, accompanied by discussions of what “radical Islam” means and whether or not Muslims should be allowed to exist in America. Donald Trump said some shit. Some people went wild for it, some people didn’t.

This is the predictable narrative of media coverage on Islam. There’s never, ever any chill. If one does stumble upon a real-live Muslim person on TV, their visibility is contingent on either defending or downplaying their faith. It’s either talking heads on CNN trying to explain that we aren’t all evil or Aziz Ansari not ascribing a religion to his character on Master of None. Or worse: It’s a Christian woman wearing a hijab for Lent and receiving a platform to share her experience that real Muslims are rarely afforded.

I hadn’t realize how accustomed I’d become to horrifically inaccurate depictions of myself (Terrorist #2, Fruit Cart Pusher #1) until I was gifted a moment of recognition. Here were public displays of Muslim life as I had known it growing up. To witness Muslims in all their boisterousness and quiet tradition on Snapchat, the most unassuming of the social media apps, was damn near revelatory.

Not only does it allow Muslims to exert control over our own narratives, but it gives us the luxury of being boring.

I fasted last week for the first time in ten years. I’m not very religious now, but I surprised myself by offering to prepare an iftar meal for my sister and her practicing friends. The familiar, intermittent seizes of anguish and assurance reached a fever pitch as I began preparing our dinner. This looks pretty good, I’d think. But how the hell am I supposed to taste-test? I opened Snapchat without thinking, showing off the ingredients for tabouleh, my face as I realized I still had four hours of fasting to go, the empty dessert bowls to signal my end-of-day success. They were throwaway moments, but they were my way of showing my friends—both Muslim and non-Muslim—my own version of Ramadan.

On Facebook, we’re encumbered by the knowledge that our grandmothers and ex-boyfriends and old science teachers can see anything we post. Twitter is a stage to showcase our wit. Instagram is a curated collection of our best, most enviable moments. Snapchat is for everything else. The impermanence of the 10-second images and videos frees us from affectation; it’s a place for us to be our least impressive selves. Maybe we pull out our phones and flip them to selfie mode when we’re waiting for the train, or maybe we upload aggressive amounts of poorly lit video because it’s something to do at an otherwise boring concert.

Mostly, we’re sharing snaps with friends, people we know or feel like we know (Hi, Kylie Jenner!) But the Live Story function turns private moments into public ones. The video stories are usually centered on a location or cultural celebration (Snapchat covers everything from Diwali to Dia de los Muertos), compiled by a team that sifts through thousands of submissions. The result makes for some oddly intimate moments, witnessed by the 10 to 20 million people that look through a Live Story every day.

Snapchatting Ramadan Live is the perfect antidote to the barrage of Muslim caricatures. Not only does it allow Muslims to exert control over our own narratives, but it also gives us the luxury of being boring. Ramadan is an occasion, sure, but the day-to-day of it is comprised of a lot of waiting around. Watching the stories, you enter the private homes of people in repose, at their most relaxed and carefree. For many, this is Muslims as they’ve never seen them. Snapchat images of people in places as far-reaching as Egypt and Bangladesh do the work of dispelling the notion that the Muslim experience is monolithic. That diversity is rare proof that all Muslims, no matter where they’re from, are capable of being ordinary.

On the Ramadan Live Snapchat story, you see people who are proud, unhindered by demands to present themselves in any other way than the way they actually are. It’s true that Snapchat bears little resemblance to traditional media, but I’m pretty sure any network exec would kill in cold blood for 10 to 20 million viewers. For a group of people with so little agency over their own image (at least in the West), that kind of exposure is invaluable. It’s the difference between Terrorist #2 and a girl fumbling to make tabouleh, with four hours of fasting to go.

Sarah Gouda writes and lives in Chicago. She’s interested in science, pop culture, fashion, and free food.

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