Lessons of Ramadan

Every Ramadan I have experienced has been unique.

Part of it has to do with the calendar; Ramadan moves like a pseudopod, traversing the seasons so that we hardly notice its drift. A dozen years ago, we were fasting through short days and cool weather. Now in Dubai, the length of days doesn’t change much (we’re at the 25th parallel, not the 44th) but for Emiratis, these are long days indeed. And for all of us, they are hot.

Newspaper articles profile the laboring faithful: gardeners, water-delivery men, and a hundred other occupations that require long days of physical work, and the (mostly men) who come from around the world to work here. In photos they smile, undaunted, pleased to fast for Allah’s sake. There is little mention that most of these men face greater hardships than a total fast and grunt labor in 100+ degrees Fahrenheit; most are here without families. Their wives and children, if they have them, live “back home.” Many of these men live in dormitory-style housing, sharing sleeping quarters and making close friends, ersatz families, of otherwise total strangers. They live this way, day in and out, for years on end, saving their vacation days and trying to scrape together money for some sort of someday–marriage, a house in their home country, a trip back to see family and treat everyone with a generosity that exudes success abroad.

Last week, M’barek invited a few gentlemen to break the day’s fast with us. I cooked the Moroccan soup, but the rest of the meal was catered, as we’d just returned from Oman, and it was trouble enough trying to clear the dust and clean the floors without worrying about putting out a proper spread by Moroccan standards of hospitality. Five men joined our dinner table. Most had been here two years, and it sounded nearly as though our home, our little villa that my husband likes to complain about, might well be the first house whose threshold they have been invited to cross in all that time. And yet, these men are not hidden from society in their work. They put on kind and helpful faces and bear all sorts of ill treatment at their jobs, from all of us–Americans, British, Europeans, and Arabs of all stripes. They speak in low, gentle voices and the things they do at work make our lives easier, safer, cleaner, better. And most days, we walk past them, hardly thinking to look them in the eye, much less smile, offer a quick gesture of acknowledgement, or (God forbid) say “Thanks.”

They managed nearly to obliterate a big pot of soup (no worries; I’d cooked a double batch, just in case), and then plowed into the Arab food I’d arranged on the kitchen counters: salads, hummus, kebabs of lamb and chicken, grilled prawns, fried fish, chicken wings, rice, lamb with green beans in tomato sauce. Piles of Lebanese bread. Three rounds of sweet green tea with mint. Spiced coffee. Juices. Dates. Custards. A platter of fruits.

When all was said and done, M’barek drove the young men home. They took leftovers back with them to their accommodation, and I’m sure they finished off the food with others in their housing, probably that same night. I’m ashamed and almost certainly correct when I guess we would have wasted more than two-thirds of those same leftovers, had we packed them into the refrigerator. I like Arab food, but we are a strange and picky little family when we break our fast, preferring just soup, a little fruit, exceedingly simple salad, a boiled egg and a skewer of grilled meat. We would no doubt grimace at the platters of food for a night or two, and then dump them unceremoniously (and shamefully) into an old grocery bag and heave that into the dumpster down the street. Happily, we know our limits and don’t overcook for Ramadan. These men were our only guests this year, and our small refrigerator remains deceptively empty, suggesting we hardly eat a thing all month. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet them, invite them, share a meal with them and hear their stories, and I am even more thankful that they saved us the shame of wasting so much food.

So, yes, it has been a lonely Ramadan, terribly so. We’ve missed the Saturday get-togethers of Fox Valley Islamic Society, the Friday nights spent breaking fast in smaller (though still large) groups of friends, and the occasional mid-week meet-up at one house or another. I miss the company of dearest friends in the kitchen, making final preparations on a great spread of food and cheering one another on to the end of another successful fast. Even the “I could never do that,” or the well-wishes and kindness of my boss and co-workers, none of whom are Muslim. Lots of people say it here, even many Muslims, but it isn’t an intimate expression.

And this Eid al Fitr, we aren’t planning to celebrate in the usual way. Before, I would make a lovely breakfast and decorate the table with wrapped gifts. We would wake early, break our fast, open gifts and get ready for congregational Eid prayers and the celebration–at a roller rink, no less! With a smoke machine, cotton candy, slushies and a disco ball! This year, we will wake and have breakfast, cross the street for prayers, and then likely spend the holidays–because we are in a Muslim country, and we get days off for Eid–exploring a new corner of the city, drinking and snacking as we like, perhaps picnicking on the beach or at Safa Park, if we can handle the heat.

I am a disappointment this Ramadan. I read books for pleasure, not a lot of Quran. I listen to Tarawih prayers over the loudspeaker, but have not participated regularly. I cower in the cool and shade of the house, sleeping in far too late and making things far too easy for myself. I didn’t look for the lesson, as I have in Ramadans past.

But this year, it seems possible that this loneliness, the tiny taste of it, is itself a lesson. I, with my phones and Internet and car and driver’s license, with my access to bookstores and time to peruse them, with my air-conditioned days and swimming-pool nights, with e-mail and Facebook and all sorts of ways to stay in touch with loved ones, could still feel stung by loneliness in the holiest of months. Muslim mystics contemplate the Divine Names as attribute of Allah, tiny reflections of His all-encompassing Wholeness that we strive to experience. Just as we experience only a hint of a suggestion of an attribute of the Divine, we have been graced this month with just a hint of a suggestion of the loneliness that can be had in this world, and the deep and abiding perseverance that so many manage in its face. My share of this loneliness is hardly a whiff, and I need to remember and be thankful for that–and do what little I can to relieve the loneliness of others I meet on my path.

One last little thing: we have a few days left of this month of generosity. Please consider giving whatever you have to give–money, food, clothing, company, kindness–during these final days of Ramadan when our generosity is magnified. Somalia is waiting, and so are your neighbors, friends, extended family. Or anyone you encounter needing even the smallest or simplest act of kindness. I’m not fool enough to imagine we can change the anonymous face of a city of the size and makeup of Dubai, but I know that what I miss most about my home community is the individual warmth and kindness of each person I remember fondly.

I wish you all the blessings of a holy month, the forgiveness of the Night of Destiny, and a wonderful year between today and next Ramadan.

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4 responses to “Lessons of Ramadan

  • bcastleton

    As always, I love your posts and the peek they offer into your lives so far away. Though I didn’t fast this year, I remember all the years when Ramadan was a focal point of my year. I think you are correct; there are many lessons of Ramadan and coping with change and isolation is one of them. You and M’Barek offered those young men a memory, not just a meal. There is now a space in their minds filled with kindness, compassion, and connectivity. That is huge.

  • Rachel

    I have many thoughts while reading this, not the least of which is that I would love to hear about your first experiences with Ramadan. When you have the time…

    Second, while I’m often heard to say “change is good; life experience comes with change and this is good!”, I will be the first to admit that I will groan and complain through the growing pains.

    Finally, I’ve often found myself the loneliest and most disconnected through these times. Usually while surrounded by the most people. Those closest to you other than your children and husband are not sharing in this experience, just seeing it through your eyes. That makes it rather isolating.

    Having recently had a significant nursing experience, I wanted to talk about it with others, but found that no one else could understand because they were not there, couldn’t see, smell, or hear what I did. Yet I didn’t want to attend the debriefing that was set up for those that DID go through the shared experience. The loneliness and disconnect were profound and confusing. It wasn’t until several days later, a small bit of that experience shared with a loved one prompted me to finally cry…and connection was made.

    Food is another profound way we make those connections. A shared meal can be so intimate if we allow it to be. I’ve babbled enough and likely have not made sense. You’ve given me food for thought, and reminded me that I still need to do something for my fellow man in Africa.

  • Taha

    You have been added and now occupy the number two spot on my google reader list, although I object to your nom de plume…if you’re old, that makes me…old. ugh.

    Talking about celebrating holidays, we don’t know what we’re doing for Eid II. We’re sad because you are “Off the Farm.”

  • Jean Lemke

    Lovely post Jo, despite hearing of your disappointments. Have been thinking of you often during this Ramadan season.

    And I love that you used the word ersatz. You don’t see that lovely word often!

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