Ramadan Kareem

It’s hot.  

I mean, that’s probably a bit of an understatement – where is it not hot right now, right?  And to be honest, I don’t even have many bragging rights.  You’d think living in the desert in Africa in August would just be awful (and in some ways, it is), but with temperatures in the 110s in America, I have to say that I’m glad to be living in a hot desert in Africa instead of, say, West Tennessee.

Then again, most of you readers across the pond are perusing this little blog from the comfort of your carpeted, plush home, air conditioners blasting, and I envision you slurping on a Sonic Lemon Berry Fresh Fruit Slush as you sit there with your First World problems.  Keep slurping.  I’ll be having one of those in just four short months… in December.  And I will remember how hot it was as I was sitting here in my skimpies sweating like a fat hog at a BBQ on a Friday night.

Truthfully, the little complaining I can do doesn’t compare to my poor friends living south of me, Peace Corps Volunteers who have it about thirty degrees worse, and where they live, I hear some great stories about people dossing bed sheets in a bucket of water and hoping  to God they’ll fall asleep before the sheets dry.  Or – and this is true for me, as well – doing your laundry (two weeks worth by hand) only to have most of your clothes dried before you finish.  I even heard one rumor, though I’m not sure if it’s true, that some volunteers would cook eggs on their cement floors on the roof – no gas stove needed.

So yeah, it’s hot.

But heat isn’t so bad.  Heat, I can handle.  I even prefer it over cold and was notorious in college and grad school for keeping my house like a sauna, to the degree that living inside of this Moroccan cement box feels like home.

Combining heat with not eating or drinking water, however, is kind of a different story, and that’s what I wanted to talk about this go around – Ramadan, from my little perspective.

Even though I studied religion for the past ten years before entering Peace Corps (and this should say something about how poorly schooled our American society is on religions that differ from our own), I have to admit that I never really knew what Ramadan was outside of a month-long Muslim religious holiday.  I had no idea that Muslims fast during the sunlight hours from both food and water (and sex).  Or that the month of Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, which is why Ramadan always seemed to take place a different month every year.  I didn’t know that people broke fast eating dates, like the Prophet, or that there were three meals at night between the hours of 7:30 and 4:00 in the morning.  And that all just scratches the surface.  To be honest, I was pretty ignorant about it all.

And I’m sorry to say that I’m not going to educate you now.  I think you should do that on your own.  Google Ramadan, or something.  I definitely think it’s worth checking out, but the history and details of Ramadan aren’t really what I wanted to talk about.  Instead, I’d rather talk about why, as a Christian and as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I chose to participate in my first Ramadan, as well as what it’s actually coming to mean to me.

First, let me say that I’m not actually fully participating in Ramadan.  I’m not Muslim.  I don’t pray toward Mecca or go to the mosque, though I do pray and do regard it as a spiritual experience; or, to word that more appropriately, I do regard it as a form of obedience.  If anything, my half-participation in Ramadan is probably “shwya haram,” a little forbidden, kind of the same way Christians doing a seder meal at Passover is, at the very least, theologically problematic.  That is, we probably shouldn’t lightly incorporate other religious traditions into our own without at least being mindful about why we are doing so.  Then again, when you consider the similarities of the three great religions, their intermingled histories, their focus and care for devotion to Allah (however differently we may understand “care,” “devotion” or even “Allah”), it seems to me that we’re all, always, shwya haram, never quite fully committed to right-living and purpose, try as we might.  But at the end of the day, if we’re caring about each other and submitting ourselves to a purpose greater than our human posturings, we hold on to something worth celebrating in our common aims.

So, for me, part of deciding to do Ramadan this year was about humbling myself, experiencing – in small ways, mind you – this very different religion and culture in a way that intended the utmost of respect and in a way that might teach me a little more about who I am, as well.  And so far, it’s definitely having that kind of impact on me.

When I worked with a church just outside of Nashville the last few years, we made a point to do the so-called “30 Hour Famine” every spring (note: when it was 40 degrees cooler).  Pretty simple concept and pretty typical for most Protestant youth groups, at least across the South.  The basics included no food for thirty hours (but you could drink as much water as you wanted to stay hydrated), mission projects, such as a flooding clean-up project we did, and most importantly, raising money (almost dollar for dollar) to help fight hunger in impoverished communities across the world.  In addition, a lot of that time was focused on prayer and self-reflection, as students came to grapple with the reality that they were blessed as Americans, that starvation was a concept completely foreign to them.  All done over a thirty hour period, usually in the form of a “lock-in” at the Church, and though my friend Maria teased me and rightly pointed out some of the theological problems of “playing junior holocaust” to feel good about ourselves, the experience seemed to be a positive one for everyone involved.

Ramadan, even with its similar focus on charity and submission to God, I’m learning is much, much different.  I came into this with my 30 Hour Famine headlights on, thinking, “Oh, this can’t be too much more difficult than the famine – that was thirty consecutive hours, after all.  This is only half of that.”  The big difference there, of course, is that it’s fifteen hours a day every day for thirty days in the middle of the hottest month of the year, and without water.  No, Philip, this is not the 30 Hour Famine.  It’s harder.  Much harder.

Last night as I was sitting with Avery in his counterpart’s house for El Fitur (the first meal that breaks the fast around half past seven in the evening), I slowly bit into the date and immediately began gulping down mouthfuls of water.  Then, I started to slow down on my gulping to just stop and appreciate the preciousness of water, its necessity for life.  Food, we can survive without for some time, but without water, we wither and die rather quickly.  Holding the glass, a sense of thankfulness just settled over me, and I thought for a moment about a poem I had written a few years back for a Vanderbilt class on eco-concerns: “so, these are the things of a God who makes new, as a drink from his love would replenish like dew, let us wade through the waters we, together, pass through.”   Though the poem itself has strong Christian overtones, I found it pertinent in what was already a heavily religious context.  We thirst.  And we hunger.  For more than simply water and food.  And those gulps I took did more than simply replenish my need for water; they reminded me of how feeble and vulnerable I am.  And in doing so, they replenished my soul, filling me again with gratitude for the one thing we might take for granted the most.

There’s a word I’ve mentioned elsewhere, spoken as we start our meal or start any activity, really: the word, bismillah, or “in the name of God.”  As I bit into my date and began slurping (yes, we slurp here) my soup, that phrase, “in the name of God” carried new meaning for me.  For in the name of God, there is water.  And in the name of God, there is food.  And bundled up in this one little phrase spoken to break fast are the ideas of thanksgiving, humility, and grace.  They say here, Ramadan Kareem, or Ramadan is generous.  The first time I heard that, I laughed out loud wondering, “What’s generous about fasting from food and water?”  But where Ramadan may seem lacking in food and water at times, it’s generous in the very things we may need the most: the reminders to be thankful, to be humble, and to love with grace.

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