Mouna Algahaithi shares a story about her experience celebrating Ramadan during a time of social distance measures in Madison, Wisconsin. Mouna talks about the differences between Ramadan in 2020 compared with her experiences of the celebration in years previous, and what things she'll carry on in future years. Mouna talks about her work with PBS Wisconsin and the impact that the Safer at Home order had on the outreach work and learning activities she typically does with Wisconsin communities.
COVID-19 story by Mouna Algahaithi, 2020
Narrator Name: Mouna Algahaithi
Interviewer Name: [Laura Damon-Moore - though not stated in interview itself]
Date of interview: 6/12/2020
[00:00:00] - Start of interview
[00:00:51] - Topic that narrator wanted to share - celebrating Ramadan during a pandemic
[00:07:17] - Takeaways from this year that you will take with you into future years
[00:08:55] - How the pandemic has changed the ways that Muslims around the world are using social media and other platforms to share their experiences
[00:10:44] - Planning for the new mosque in Madison
[00:13:08] - Where is the new mosque located?
[00:13:07] - What does work at Wisconsin Public Television look like for you
[00:19:58] - What does this time mean for the future of education and learning
[00:23:38] - Is there anything we have not talked about yet
[START OF RECORDING]
Interviewer: It’s Friday, June 12, 2020. I'm here for the Madison Public Library's Stories from a Distance project. Our narrator will introduce themselves and share their connection to Madison.
Mouna Algahaithi: Hi everyone. My name is Mouna Algahaithi, and I am an education engagement specialist at PBS Wisconsin, and I have spent the last five years in Madison. I moved back to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I graduated with a degree in education policy studies and with a certificate in criminal justice. And other than that, my major connection with Madison is just that my mom was born and raised here, and so I feel like I had easier access to Madison rather than moving to a different place for school.
Interviewer: Thank you so much, Mouna, for taking the time to share your story today. I believe that you had a particular topic that you wanted to talk about, so feel free to take that away.
Mouna Algahaithi: Okay. So one unique thing that's happened ever since the pandemic hit is celebrating Ramadan from a distance. And what Ramadan typically looks like is it's a month of fasting for Muslims worldwide. And so Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, and it's a month of reflection, of spiritual rejuvenation, a month of charity, and it's really a time to gain deeper relationships with yourself, with God, and with your community. And typically what a regular Ramadan might look like is going to the mosque frequently, so several times a week, if not every night, because people will be breaking fast together, and we will be doing night prayers together, and it's really a time of celebrating, right? You fast all day but you're continuing your regular work life and your regular social life, but then you notice how different that changes when you can't drink anything and you can't eat anything. And so the time of breaking fast, which is called iftar, is a really special time to be with friends and to be with loved ones and to be able to kind of celebrate that together. And when the initial Safer at Home began on–I think it was March 16–we were told that we would, you know, be out of the office for two weeks. And while I had a feeling it would be longer than that, I knew that Ramadan wasn't going to begin until April 24, and so I thought, Hey, I think we'll be back to normal before then, and then there was kind of this–um, I kind of stopped thinking that. I, I-it's almost like I couldn't comprehend that Ramadan would be different this year, and so I kept pushing that thought off, taking things day by day because I was struggling in my own way with even adapting to working from home and being, you know, socially isolated from people that I loved and cared about, and so I kind of just kept pushing it off, that Ramadan was so close.
And then, I think it was about a week beforehand–I think it was like four days beforehand–and I was like, Oh my goodness! This is happening. Ramadan's happening and we're not even allowed at the mosque. And that was really difficult. I struggled, thinking about how am I going to attain the same level of spiritual rejuvenation, of spiritual connectivity with myself and my fellow Muslims in Madison without being able to be with them, without being able to go to the mosque and engage in that worship? And I was really interested to see the way that different Muslims from around the country were reacting to Ramadan in the pandemic. And it was really helpful to see a lot of spiritual leaders use social media platforms to answer so many questions that people had, right? How do we offer the night prayers at home? How do we find and access spirituality without a community? And what was really beautiful was this reminder that part of the beauty of spirituality in Islam is that you don't need anyone else to achieve that connection with God. It starts with yourself. It's–you know, our prayers are unique because while we may be encouraged to pray in congregation, it's still an individual act that's happening, right? So there's that collective worship, there's that collective benefit, but at the same time it's my intimate conversation, my one-on-one conversation with God. And so, it was really beautiful to get to spend the month cultivating spirituality within my own home, not having to leave to find it, and to do different practices in my home that I normally wouldn't do, things that I would normally seek out at the mosque, and so my husband and I would pray the night prayers here together and it was–it was actually really beautiful. There weren't, you know, screaming children running around and, you know, all the chaos that comes with being surrounded by a lot of different people.
And so, it really turned into a month of more intentional introspection, and actually ended up being one of my favorite Ramadans, and now that it's been several weeks since Ramadan has passed, I actually find myself missing it, missing that intentional space that was created because I knew that if I didn't put anything into the month, then I wouldn't get anything out of it. If I just continued to do everything regular–you know, waking up, working from home, yada yada, it wouldn't feel like Ramadan except I'd be hungrier than normal. I'd be thirstier than normal. And so, it was definitely unique to see the ways that people adapted to not being able to be together, so I saw people doing virtual iftars, right? So, being on Zoom but breaking fasting together. And it's like, You can't try what I'm eating, but you can see me eat it. And finding that connection there. One of my friends did an iftar drop-off, so she brought a whole meal to my house and just left it in the trunk of her car, and then my husband went and grabbed it, and so it was, you know, a no-contact delivery. And that was so sweet! And even seeing different social media influencers use their platforms, whether it was Instagram or even TikTok to talk about spiritual topics, but in a really engaging way that connects with the younger Muslims today. So it was really amazing to see the way that the Muslim community still found a way to be together, even from a distance.
Interviewer: Mouna, thank you. Yeah, thank you for that picture, that image. Thank you. Are there takeaways, do you think, from this particular year's celebration for you that you feel like even once things are open, even in a non-pandemic year, that you will take with you into the future because of this unique situation that we've found ourselves in?
Mouna Algahaithi: Yeah, so typically Ramadan, if I don't go to the mosque or night prayers, I kind of feel guilty, and I'm like, Oh, come on, Mouna, this is a special month. You should really be there, at the mosque, doing your prayers. And one thing that I learned this year is that even the prophet--Peace be upon him, the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him--is somebody that we look up to for guidance on how to practice Islam--the prophet Muhammed wouldn't pray every night during Ramadan at the mosque, right? He would pray the first few nights, and then would pray the rest at home. And looking to that example as a way to cultivate spirituality in your own home was really special for me, because something that I'm going to be bringing to future Ramadans is–I guess something I won't be bringing is that guilt of not going to the mosque for every single night for Ramadan, knowing that I can still have iftars with friends, have these experiences with my family, but also really be intentional about creating that space at home, was something that I'll definitely be carrying into future Ramadans.
Interviewer: Amazing. Would you say that it is–you know you talked about, like, there being more of a social media--that platforms were being used in a different way. Yeah, do you think that there is, you know, in recent years has that been more of a space for Muslims around the world to share their experiences, or is it typically more of a localized, in-person community and--yeah, and how, I guess, what has that looked like immediately previous to the pandemic and then with this year--you know, you touched on that.
Mouna Algahaithi: Absolutely. So typically things are very localized, right? I mean, we have, you know, world-wide scholars who will do a seminar or a lecture that you can watch on YouTube, and that's been happening for a while, but there are definitely these localized components that because of the pandemic we've had access to. So, for example, in Madison we don't have a lot of programming that goes on for Muslims. It's something that we're working on, but when I would travel to other Muslim communities in Boston, or in California, I would notice how active they were, how many different activities were being hosted for people of all ages, all different types of backgrounds, and I really wished that was something that we had in Madison. But it was kind of closed off; it’s like, unless you're in Berkeley, you're not going to be attending that, that discussion with other Muslim sisters on that, you know, topic. And so, that was one beautiful thing that came out of this, was that things that were happening in Berkeley, or in Austin, Texas, or in New York were now available for somebody in Madison, Wisconsin, to be chiming in to and to be building community with.
Interviewer: That’s amazing. Thank you. So just on a sort of related, well, related topic, can you tell us a little bit about the new–the efforts around planning for the new mosque here in Madison and just sort of where that process is and where the Madison Muslim community is in terms of generating support for that project?
Mouna Algahaithi: Yeah, we are really excited about the new mosque. We have certainly outgrown our--we, there are currently three mosques in Madison. There's one on the east side, the west side, and downtown. And the one on the west side is the one that I go to most often, and it's most convenient for me. And people–they've had to institute, you know, two Friday prayers because one would fill up too much and there wouldn't be space for others to pray, right? And that just speaks to the level of engagement with the Muslim community, but there's also so many of us here in Madison, and we need a bigger space to pray, to congregate. We need an intentional space, too, that has an office so that we can have different types of programming for youth or people who convert to Islam. I remember in a lot of the work that I do when it comes to sharing--spreading awareness on Islam, people would come and say "Where is an Islamic resource center, where can I go in Madison to learn more about Islam or to meet other Muslims?" Currently there isn't something that's that easy to access, and so I'm so excited about the new mosque that's being built because it will have those things. It will have a community room, it will have office space, it will have a huge men and women's section. There will be a kid room, and that is just going to completely change the way that the Muslim community can interact with each other and with non-Muslims in the community. And so the exterior of the building has already been built, which is really exciting--so I think that was a part of Phase 1--and now they're working on installing, you know, electricity and plumbing. So we're pretty close to it being open, but we do have a lot more [unintelligible] and so that's kind of the biggest thing that's happening right now, is getting that money that we need to complete the building of the mosque so that we can finally have those doors opened and build community together that way.
Interviewer: Thank you. Where is the new mosque located?
Mouna Algahaithi: It’s going to be on the west side, kind of near the west side Woodman's.
Interviewer: Okay, great, thank you. And, Mouna, I'm wondering if you would actually, because you, you know, you said you work for Wisconsin Public Television and in working with early literacy and family education and things like that, would you be willing to share a little bit about what work looks like for you. You know, at the beginning of this, you know, sort of pre-Safer at Home and then now during Safer at Home, and just what that experience has been like for you.
Mouna Algahaithi: So at PBS Wisconsin, I have the privilege of getting to work with young learners and their families and educators around the state. A lot of my work has been, um, within these last two years has been focused in the areas of Westby and Cashton, which are two rural communities that we selected to kind of have a deep connection with, and more of a deeper partnership with, in terms of influencing activities. And, before the pandemic hit, I had, between February and June, weekly activities planned, so we had weekly events planned, where I would be traveling to Westby or Cashton, which is a two-hour drive from Madison, and then we would be putting on different fun events that are, you know, connected to PBS Kids characters, but involve, you know, this multimedia approach of reading a book, watching an episode, sharing a meal together, and then build a hands-on activity that relates to the media that we interacted with. And it's a super fun, educational way to connect with families, and that's kind of what that looked like is–and what my schedule looked like is that weekly we had, we had those scheduled, so I was going to be busy. I was set for several months in terms of traveling and driving and getting my fair share of mileage (laughs) accrued.
Once the pandemic hit it was suddenly all of these events that we had planned were canceled, and so it was quite the experience looking at my calendar and just deleting all of these events that we had spent months planning for. I actually visited the office recently, and it was really weird to walk into the office and see three totes labeled with the dates and activities and events and looking at them and thinking, Those never happened. And now they're just sitting there, ready to be used, right? These materials are ready to be in the hands of kiddos and their families, and so it was really difficult for me when Safer at Home first began because I thought, What can I do now? How do I continue to serve early learners and their families? And I saw a really powerful Mr. Rogers quote about whenever something scary happens, look for the helpers, and I thought, How am I a helper right now? What can I do to be a helper?
I am so fortunate to have gotten to work with One City Schools, which is a charter school here on the south side of Madison, and I actually was an assistant teacher there before I started my job at PBS Wisconsin, so I had that connection with students and with some of the families there and the teachers. I had already in January done a weekly series, a weekly STEM series, at One City as part of their school day. They have academies, which are basically an opportunity for organizations to come in and organize an activity with kids. And so, I got to spend each week in January with kiddos doing different STEM experiments. And so with my current role at PBS Wisconsin I had gotten to kind of establish a partnership with One City Schools and I reached out to my friend at One City. Her name is Lucy, and I said, Hey, what are the chances that we could facilitate something virtual for these kiddos, that we could continue the excitement that so many kids had at those STEM in-person workshops, virtually. And one thing I love about Lucy is she's very willing to give things a try. She was like, "Hey, why not? Let's do it. Let's start next week." And I'm like, Let's do it! Yes! And that was exactly the type of energy that I needed because one thing that came with this pandemic, I think, especially when it comes to the workforce, is a greater acceptance of failure, a greater acceptance of risk. And knowing that we're in a time where we can't really plan and what might happen, right? We're experimenting a lot--with new technology, with new ways of connection, with new ways of communicating. And so, knowing that we're kind of in–during a time where risk is needed to try new things, right? That's, I think, kind of the impetus for innovation, is taking a risk for something new, and so Lucy kind of gave me the go-ahead and said, "Hey, let's, let's do this. Let's try it out. We'll have a weekly PBS Kids Science Lab. We'll see how many kids show up. We'll make it half an hour, so it's, you know, it's very accessible." And, I thought, Okay, half an hour is a very short amount of time. What is something we can do that's meaningful? And so the way that we had it set up, we actually just had our last one this week. We ended up doing eight weeks of this weekly program. And what we did is, we would watch a PBS Kids episode, we would listen–we would learn the vocabulary from that episode, and then we'd extract a hands-on experiment from that episode. So, for example, in one of the episodes we saw Nick, Sally, and Cat in the Hat trying to test out different bridges, and then kids got to build their own bridges. And then what they would do is they'd have the week to do the challenge of the week and then on Friday they would show and tell, they could come and show the thing that they had created. And what I heard from Lucy is it was the highlight of virtual learning. The engagement was incredibly high. Children loved attending and seeing a PBS character that they already love, that they might already be watching, but with a different lens, because now they're doing it knowing that, Hey, I'm looking for this particular theme, I'm looking for this specific vocabulary word and I'm going to be applying this to my own creation pretty soon. And so it was a really beautiful way to blend learning and fun in a hands-on way with connecting students that I already had relationships with.
Interviewer: Thank you. You definitely spoke to this but I wonder, I am so interested in this idea of risk and experimenting and having the pandemic be this impetus for that. As somebody who works in that education space, can you reflect a little bit on what this time might mean for the future of education and learning, family learning, early childhood learning, things like that. Can you just reflect on that a little bit?
Mouna Algahaithi: Mm-hmm. I think that as we move forward with whatever format schools are going to be taking in the next year--which will likely be either an experiment, of hey, let's just go back and try to do some socially distant activities and seating and whatnot, or let's create some sort of hybrid, where we'll do some things online and some things in person. I think what people are going to get more comfortable with is the virtual format, and I think that now more than ever is an incredibly important time for parents and for teachers to recognize the role that technology can play in learning. I think so often the conversation is about screen time is bad, you know, technology is bad, we need to focus on workbooks and, you know, I don't know–not fully relying on technology. And I completely agree. I do not think we should ever be fully reliant on technology, but I think that in the world we're living in, technology is playing a role in your student or child's life whether, we want it to or not. But we, kind of as media mentors--whether we're librarians, teachers, administrators, parents–we get to decide, we get to kind of help guide what our children's interaction with technology is going to look like. And by showing kids high quality digital media experiences, it will helpfully inform their interaction with that different type of media, right? If children know that they can go to PBSKids.org and watch their favorite show and then they can play some games, that's fun for them, but as the media mentors, we're knowing that with those PBS Kids there are learning goals associated with each of those episodes, so we know that they're having fun, but there's also an educational basis behind it. And so that's why I am such a fan of public media and that's why I love PBS so much. Not because I'm just spouting something because it's my role, but it's because I fully believe in the power of public media, and especially educational media, that children are either going to open YouTube and watch a silly video that might be entertaining but might not have anything concrete behind it. That's okay sometimes. But we as media mentors, whether we signed up for this or not as caregivers, or educators, or whatnot, we kind of have to know, and play around with and accept that being online is going to be something that is inevitably increasingly more a part of our future, and we have to decide what type of education and what type of interaction with technology and with digital media we're going to be introducing and allowing and making paths for for our kids.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for that perspective. Mouna, is there anything we have not talked about yet that you want to mention or bring up?
Mouna Algahaithi: (sighs) No, I don't think so.
Interviewer: Thank you so much for being with us.
Mouna Algahaithi: Yeah, no problem! Thank you for having me.
[END OF RECORDING]