Ramadhan and the New Muslim
Ramadhan is a fulfilling yet challenging time for us all. But the situation for Muslims in the West is markedly different to the Ramadhan experience in Muslim-populated countries. Amal Awad reflects on her own experiences.
Wherever you are in the world, it’s not easy fasting – particularly during the peak of summer (not too long ago in Sydney we were eating at what seemed like the unholy hour of 9pm). Fasting is, quite rightly, a test – no water, no food and being on your best behaviour, which, admittedly, shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as it is sometimes. It’s also a time for greater reflection when by 5pm all you want to do is have a power nap.
In other words, it isn’t easy – and I’m not just talking about the potential awkwardness of fasting-induced halitosis and a sneaky nap in the first aid room at work.
But having had a taste of what it’s like to fast during Ramadhan in the Middle East, I can safely say that the Western experience is starkly different. In a Muslim-majority country, almost everyone is fasting. Shops close and re-open post-iftar. The evening brings in a festive atmosphere. It feels like Ramadhan.
You’re not the random worker at your office who has to sit out a farewell lunch because you can’t eat. You’re not the sole student absenting yourself from softball because you can’t drink water. For many Muslims living in the West, it’s a time of constant explanation, flexible working arrangements and the odd iftar get-together at a nice restaurant.
It’s also the lonely fast-breaking on the train home with a sandwich. If you’re lucky, you may end up in a carriage with another Muslim and you can share in a brief moment of camaraderie and some dates when it’s time to eat. Then you’ll quietly nibble on your tiny meal and fight off the urge to take that aforementioned nap.
It’s unfortunate, but for so many of us, Ramadhan is something we undertake in-between everything else going on in our lives. It’s not that it lacks significance; it’s just that life in the West doesn’t completely accommodate fasting.
But I’ve tried in the last few years, as age and better eating habits influence my behaviours, to take a more thoughtful approach to what is, essentially, an ideal time to cleanse your mind and body of all the crap it’s accumulated in the last year. Geography is irrelevant.
You learn a lot about yourself when you’re fasting. You realise you have more strength and self-control than you’d ever given yourself credit for. You suddenly love everything on the supermarket shelf (do not go shopping when you’re in your fasting happy-hour-I-want-everything state), but you start to appreciate the wisdom of restraint. It defeats the purpose of fasting to overeat – and it leads to bloating (I’m just saying).
Ramadhan is also a profoundly humbling experience. A few years ago, a work engagement through a previous employer led me to attend a lunch briefing while I was fasting. My manager insisted that I was the only one who could attend, so I did my job and went to a fancy office in the city and quietly endured while everyone around me feasted and threw curious glances and questions my way.
I didn’t mind, but in front of me there were fresh, warm bread rolls, a delicious buffet and jugs of cold water. It was distracting, but I truly understood what it meant to be tested, and the purpose of Ramadhan. More than anything, it made me consider my own situation in life and show some gratitude. There was nothing to stop me from reaching over and taking a plate, but in my eyes I had no choice. Through that, I understood helplessness.
A few weeks ago, a link – ‘21 pictures that will restore your faith in humanity’ – went viral on Facebook. My stubborn instinct was to not click on it, lest I be confronted with images so syrupy my calorie intake would rise just by looking at them. That, and my newsfeed was jammed with motivational quotes and misappropriated celebrity quotes. I was kind of memed out as well.
But by the tenth posting of this link, I relented and browsed through the images that were, for the most part, rather awesome. Random and genuinely touching, my favourite one was a picture of a beautiful Guatemalan girl shyly resisting the gift of a flower from a cheerful tourist. Completely heart-warming. Mission accomplished. I was sucked into the viral-list vortex.
However, what particularly resonated with me was the inclusion of a typed-up letter.
‘We are observing fasting the month of Ramadhan,’ a man named Mohammad wrote to his neighbours, before proceeding to invite them (and any clan members who were so inclined to attend) to join him and his family for dinner. It was an open invitation, and a poignant gesture. In a time when people are weary of strangers and, arguably, random acts of kindness, it was also rather brave. That it’s no longer common to be invited round to a neighbour’s house for dinner made it all the more meaningful in my eyes.
It got me thinking about my own Ramadhan experience and what I could do to make it more meaningful and worthwhile. I fast, but do I truly appreciate what is a blessed and holy month? I’m guessing I could do a whole lot better, even if subjecting my neighbours to my ‘cooking’ (and I use the word loosely) isn’t an option.
I’m not really one for new year’s resolutions – whenever I recognise that a massive change is necessary, I tend either to procrastinate or jump straight onto it, in a feverish, nobody-get-in-my-way kind of trance.
But Ramadhan is a good checkpoint, and I think it’s about time I made the most of it.