M’brouk l-3id, or essentially, happy holiday.
A month ago, when Ramadan first started, I posted on Facebook, “Ramadan Kareem,” which means that Ramadan is generous. A friend commented back on my post, “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” who is the retired Lakers basketball player and hopefully equally known for his role in the movie Airplane! as co-pilot Roger Murdoch.
Though my friend was joking, and I never quite understood what he meant by responding with the name of a Lakers player, I’m now content to repeat his silly mantra: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, indeed. It just seems more fitting to use the name of some American basketball player to describe my Ramadan experience of fasting from food and water for a month than describing it any other way. For as the month dragged on, I was mostly struck by how American and Christian I really am, not that that’s something I’ve forgotten, but when you live in America and go to Church every Sunday, I think you tend to forget all too easily what it means to actually be an American or perhaps even what it means to be a Christian. I mean, you just don’t need to think about it; nothing’s happening that would make you need to ask what it means. It’s only when we’re thrown into this strange new context that we realize the fullness of who we are, like we’re walking around in an MTV pop-up video, and every pop-up screams some stereotype reminding you just how American you are and how that sets you apart from everybody else you’re around. Or to put that another way, perhaps we come to define ourselves best by who we are not rather than by who we think we are.
Or maybe it’s that, when we’re removed from America, we start to grow these ideals in our heads of what America or Christianity should be, and if it’s not, we want it to change. And for me, I want America to be this peace-loving country where we all just get along with each other rather than despise our differences. Come to think of it, I want that for the world: a world where we can agree to disagree, move past that point and work together in love. I know, I know, I sound like a hippy, Peace Corps Volunteer – what’s wrong with me? I think that’s why, for a large part of Ramadan, I found myself writing blogs against the Tea Party or criticizing any form of American fundamentalism, especially within Christianity. When you’re removed from it, you get to look at it from the outside and name what you think it should be and how you think it should work properly. For all of those who have said Peace Corps is like an anthropologist’s dream, the real anthropological experiment, I think, is looking back at your own culture temporarily removed from it. Or at least, those seem to be some of the things Ramadan really brought out of me.
A month ago, anyhow, I stated in a blog that “Ramadan this year [should be] about humbling myself, experiencing – in small ways, mind you – this very different religion and culture in a way that intend[s] the utmost of respect and in a way that might teach me a little more about who I am, as well.” That is, I didn’t go in this hoping to play Jr. Muslim. But I did hope to reflect on how this Muslim holiday in this Muslim country could shape and guide my American, Christian sensibilities, or rather, how might I as an American Christian learn a little bit about myself and about my own sense of holiness if I compare that part of who I am to how Muslims in Morocco understand (or misunderstand) their own sense of holiness? I think that happened, but I don’t think it happened in any of the ways I would have expected.
Case in point, twas the night before l-3id l-ftur (pron. “layed”), the holiday where Muslims break fast and greet one another celebrating that the month has come to an end, and I invited the director of my Dar Chebab over hoping to get an invitation to his house for breaking fast. I asked him, “What should I do tomorrow for the holiday?” He responded, “You should wake up. And then you should eat something.” I cracked up, and he told me he was traveling to Guercif, so he wouldn’t be around for breaking the fast; otherwise, I could’ve joined him. (As an aside, I think it’s worth mentioning that one of my real struggles here, amplified by the Ramadan experience, has been living in a city as a male. Females and people who live in smaller villages get invitations to eat with families to the point that they are overwhelmed by the hospitality – really, it puts America’s southern hospitality to shame. But for whatever reason, people in the city aren’t as welcoming and certainly aren’t as welcoming to males, so if you kind of have to put yourself out there and go the extra mile if you want to make friends, and that’s been difficult for me.)
When Hassan got ready to leave my house, he teased me saying, “Now, since you fasted and prayed, you’re sort of Muslim. Just… sort of.” I smiled back. Even though I knew he was joking, it was probably quite the compliment in some ways for him to say that. And yet, I just thought, “You know, it’s funny you should say that, because this whole experience reminded me just how not-Muslim I am.” On the other hand, at the heart of being Muslim is the notion of submission to God, a submission that very much comes out in the strange and stringent obedience of fasting during Ramadan. That notion of submission is even embedded into the meaning of the word “Muslim.” I think it’s worth mentioning that, even though “submission to God” is not really a phrase we regularly use to describe Christianity, it is something our two religions share deeply, so in that sense, maybe I am – indeed – a little bit of a Muslim. But just a little bit.
Since Ramadan has come to a close, I’ve been on the sleep-schedule roller coaster trying to return to a decent bedtime (my previous bedtime having been four in the morning), and since work won’t kick back up for another week or so, I’ve had ample time to sit and think and plan out the future. Too much time on our hands is something every Peace Corps volunteer has to face at some point or another, and Ramadan is, most certainly, a prime example. Having spent the past few nights thinking about my post-Peace Corps life, I was telling my friend Maria that I was planning in November to sit down and plan my “post-PCV” ten-year plan. Life after Morocco. Ordination. Military Chaplaincy. Ph.D. programs. Fulbright Scholar. Teach for America. I had every option under the sun thought through in vivid detail, or rather, I was planning to think them all through in vivid detail. And then rethink them.
Maria stopped me. She started telling me that I sounded like I was an overdrive with all these plans. Something could happen tomorrow that could change them all. You need to do, take action, not obsess with plans. It’s like when Master Yoda says, “Do or do not; there is no try.”
Actually, Maria had a different metaphor in mind, one not from Star Wars at all. For her, it was like the TLC television show, “Say Yes to the Dress.” In the show, brides-to-be try on upwards of eighty dresses as they plan out their wedding in attempt to find the flawless dress – “You need to ‘say yes to the dress,’ Philip,” Maria chided, “You need to decide which one it’s going to be and put it on, wear it, and be happy with it already.” Because our plans can change. The dress, even if it’s the perfect one, can tear. And being happy is dependent upon our decision to be happy, not on pinning down the flawless plan, or the flawless dress. Those things don’t even exist.
As Ramadan passes and September returns, I have a sense of confidence about who I am I didn’t have a year ago. I’m an American. I’m Christian. I understand more about what that means now. I’m neither Muslim nor Moroccan, though I hold those things close to my heart as though they are like brothers to me. And knowing who I am means understanding that I don’t need to have a clear picture of the future or plan it out in vivid detail. I don’t need to make myself anxious over plans that could easily fall through anyway. And realizing I don’t need those things, that I can – in fact – be comfortable and happy with who I am, gives me the confidence to let who I am grow into who I will be later on, as well.