Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, lasting 29 or 30 days every year. This is because, unlike the calendar most of the world lives by, the Islamic calendar is ruled by the moon, so Ramadan is pushed back around ten days a year; meaning that in 34 years any Muslim will have celebrated Ramadan every day of the year. Muslims believe that on this month Qur’an was revealed to the prophet, this makes it a holy time of the year in which they refocus their lives towards prayer and spirituality. As a part of this process they fast in a very strict way: refraining from water and food during daylight hours (from the first prayer to the last one); they also abstain from physical contact with their partners and pray more than usual.
Islam is a religion that is meant to be lived in a community; Ramadan is probably the best example of this. Depending on where you travel to, facilities for Ramadan vary, but everywhere you go during this holy month, you’re likely to find Muslims supporting one another during the process: giving each other strength in times of weakness, praying together and celebrating Iftar (the breaking of the fast) in groups at night. This month is supposed to teach them about gratitude, spirituality, discipline, patience; and to even-out the playing field between families and individuals with different incomes. Muslims are expected to cleanse their bodies through fasting, and their spirits and minds through prayer and sacrifice.
THE MIDDLE EAST
I have a crazy and inexplicable passion for this region of the world. I’ve never really been able to explain why, I just know that ever since I first went to Egypt, I’ve been pulled back to the desserts and mosques. Maybe it’s something in the water, or maybe I’ll just never be able to explain it… whatever the reason, I’ve never had the chance to be in the region during Ramadan, but it’s been a dream of mine ever since my Egyptian sister whispered to me on a late night at her house how beautiful it was to see the lanterns light up on the streets, while flocking with all the other women to prayer at 4 in the morning.
It may sound crazy for an Occidental, agnostic girl to want to fast and pray in a tiny Egyptian town for a month; but I want to see what it is, I want to understand it (Weber said that you could only understand -verstehen- something if you saw it from within). Maybe I will someday, until then I’ve been trying to calm my thirst by reading everything I can get my hands on, and by sending long emails to my Muslim friends and family with questions and thoughts; I even got in touch with the (very small) Muslims community in Mexico City….
MEXICANS AND FOOD
I was born and raised in Mexico City, I’ve spent some time abroad, but I’m as Mexican as they come. As many Mediterranean and Latin American cultures, in Mexico most of our social interactions revolve around food. Food is a sign of love and imminence. If you want to spend time with someone: you’ll invite them to eat. If you want to show love: you’ll cook. Families usually have meals together scheduled; and all major holidays have a cooking and eating portion in them, usually the main affair (like Christmas, birthdays and New Year).
Evidently, we’re very sensitive about our food; we expect everyone to like it and gloat about it with pride. Mothers teach their children to eat everything in their plate and show gratitude (regardless of whether they liked it or not, or whether it was too much); businesses conduct lunches with potential employees just as often as they do so with important clients. We’re a culture that revolves around food, and it’s beautiful.
This summer I was given the chance to spend 6 memorable weeks at the Lehigh University campus, with another 100 crazy minds from 52 parts of the world. I ‘ve had international experiences before, but never like this: never this deep and intense.
I’ve been back home for almost a month now, and I still can’t grasp all of what “the villagers” gave to me. We lived, worked, partied and travelled together for the duration of the program. It may sound like a challenge: to adjust after being thrown into such an extreme environment with people you just met, that come from such different backgrounds. I’m sure now: the hardest adjustment has been coming back home after leaving them…
I could go on and on about the Village, but I’ll have time and posts for that later on. This post is about Ramadan; so as you might have figured out by now, there was an Islamic community in the village. They weren’t all Middle Eastern, they came from all over the world, from places like Malaysia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan… and also the Middle East. My roommate was an Emirati girl named Fatima (Fati, as I came to call her) who loved to eat cherries, cranberries, chocolate and blueberries covered with yoghurt with me.
RAMADAN AND THE VILLAGE
This year Ramadan started on the 1st of August, and Eid ul-Fitr (badly translated to “festivity to break the fast”, the day in which Ramadan ends) was on August 30th. We graduated GV on the 6th of August, which means that Muslims had to spend the first days of Ramadan at Lehigh. I never thought that the closest I would get to living this holiday with my family in Egypt would be on a working summer in the US.
My Muslim friends quickly got organized and prepared for Ramadan: they shopped, came up with cooking schedules and treated us all to a delicious feast the first day at Iftar (the time of the night when they brake the fast). They also invited the rest of us to join on some of their traditions, letting us cook with them, answering questions, inviting us for VERY early morning pancakes (the fast started at 3am, so pancakes had to happen before that); the girls even hosted a night in which they taught all others how to put the hijab (scarf) on.
FATI: LET’S DO THIS TOGETHER
I wanted to do the fast, I was certain, but I didn’t really know how to go about it. I realized that I needed to do it while at the Village pretty quickly; not only for my curiosity, but also as a supportive gesture towards Fati. She shared some stories with me about how in Abu Dhabi the whole city comes together for Ramadan, about how she wasn’t used to having so much activity during the day while she was fasting. It was hard for her, and I could see she was struggling, I admired her strength so much, I shook my worries away and told her I would do the fast with her on the fourth day.
She quickly told me I didn’t have to do it, but I explained that I really wanted to; she got excited and was very patient going through the details of what I could and couldn’t do with me: I would not drink, eat, shower, swim or have any physical contact with men from 3am to 8pm… 17 hours.
I’m a researcher at heart, so I kept very close tabs on the changes my body experienced throughout the day. I kept notes on everything, as well as some of my impressions of what was happening around me.
That Thursday started at 7 am. Getting up is usually not too hard for me, but it was challenging to stay up without a shower, a coffee cup or fast-burning carbohydrates. I walked into our first meeting to find a tray filled with muffins and coffee, I shuffled past it with Fati as fast as I could. I had to pinch my stomach hard for the whole first session in order not to pass out right in front of the speakers (I decided to sit on the first row), I honestly have no recollection of what that whole meeting was about.
On the break I went out to the lobby, sprayed some water on my face, careful not to let any touch my mouth, and sat around the lobby for the rest of the sessions. Other non-Muslim villagers were doing the fast that day too; some of them were passed out on the couches. Fati was tired, but far less whiney than me; she was cheerful, telling all our friends to congratulate me, since I was doing the fast with her. I remember that when we finally excited the meetings she said happily “I’m very proud of her”, I just smiled and said “No, I’m proud of you”. That earned me a very hearty hug.
It was around noon when we were free of meetings; and my body was not having it: I was starving for the whole morning (since I woke up and three hours after that), and when the hunger finally eased, my throat felt as though I had swallowed sandpaper, my head was beginning to throb, I was rapidly becoming very sensitive to temperature changes and I felt drained, I had no energy. A couple of friends told me they wanted to go for sushi and I actually joined the discussion of what we were having for lunch (this was a very usual part of my day by that point), settling on the amazing Mexican place down the street. On the walk there I realized I wasn’t eating, which meant I had to sit through a whole meal, without so much as water, it was hard to abstain. Being social was also quite hard, since interacting with people who are eating, while I’m not is not something I usually do, especially in a restaurant setting (in Mexico you usually order something, even if small, since it’s not well seen to just “look at people” while they eat), so the timing in my conversations was off, and my mood was off too. I went back to the dorms.
Nadejda, My good friend from Moldova was planning a trip to the mall, but my head was throbbing, so I initially said no. I walked into my room to find Fatima shuffling through papers as she prepared for an evening- long work round. I walked out and said I was in for the mall. Farrah, my friend from Jordan and Samir, from Singapore, were going too, and they were both fasting, so I figured we could pull it off together.
I walked into the Lehigh valley mall arm in arm with Farrah, as soon as we crossed the door the sweetest cinnamon smell filled our nostrils. I wanted to die: we had walked in through the food court. Farrah made some funny comments and we promised ourselves a huge cinnamon roll whenever we meet again; we passed the food court with her telling me how in Jordan communities come together too, and how her family is the main pillar of support during the process.
I managed to zombie through a couple of stores, getting last minute stuff. My mood gave out on me after that, it took actual physical restrain to keep me from kicking the woman in line in front of me when she decided to longingly look at sticker sets while paying. Air-conditioning had me going from freezing to sweating in seconds, and my head was downright thumping by then. I went to the benches outside and was very entertained by a group of ants eating some spilled soda for a while; but I couldn’t focus on anything for long. Deciding to read was evidently a bad call, since I got very frustrated fast and went back to sulkily staring at the ants.
I was very angry at my friends for being late and got annoyed at questions and loud noises; looking at me and Samir trying to hold a conversation, while waiting for the girls, must have been like seeing a couple of snails trying to lift weights: it just wasn’t happening. By that time (around 5pm), I was no longer hungry, but my mouth felt very dry. The ride back home was hell, but Samir, Farrah and I managed to share some thoughts about how much restrain and discipline it took to get things done and to not snap.
It was diner time when we got home and some people were having sweets and tea, I didn’t greet anyone, I just stormed to my room. Fati was there, she saw me struggling, smiled and said “Common, let’s sleep until Iftar, it will make things better”. It was very hard to fall asleep, but when I did it was a very deep sleep. I woke up at 8:00pm sharp, happy to find out that Iftar was only 17 minutes away, we went down to the kitchen and helped carry some plates and food to the tables where we were eating.
All the other Muslims and people fasting came down fast. I was no longer hungry or thirsty, so I had no idea how to go about eating. Fatma from Yemen and Mahmoud from Egypt quickly explained to me that I needed to drink tea first in big and slow sips; then we had some dates and finally rice, pasta, lentils and soups (there was some chicken and fish as well, but I’m vegetarian, so I didn’t have any). When food finally hit my stomach, it was as though I opened a bottomless abyss: I was so hungry I thought I could have eaten everything there (tables, chairs and people included), but my friends were quick to explain that I had to restrain myself and only eat a little more than what I would usually, in order to avoid sickness and throwing up. That was very hard. I shared some thoughts with Marion from France and Alberto from Spain about how much discipline and strength it took to go for the 17 hours, neither of them napped, which got them all my respect.
My headache, as I had figured out, was due to dehydration, so it went away as soon as I had enough water. But I felt as though I had run a marathon. I was very tired, but I couldn’t sleep, the sugar rush kept me up until four. Finally, it took my body about 48 hours to fully recover, I felt dizzy and my stomach hurt in a weird way for most of the next two days. I also couldn’t eat big amounts of food.
I only fasted for that one day, some of my non-Muslim friends (like Samir) did it for longer and my Muslim friends did it for the whole month. That one day taught me about discipline and self-restrain, it gave me insight to the Islamic traditions and community. It also taught me about gratitude and poverty; I’ve been blessed enough to not experience a single day of hunger in my life… I understood a little of what it felt like by fasting. I can tell you: it’s horrible and very hard. I also learned to appreciate how much food gives to my life aside from nurishing, it’s the one way I know best to socialize and connect. I’m thankful I did it and I’m thankful my friends were there for me.
Eid Mubarak to all, this year I found new love and respect for my Muslim friends and family.