Ramadan kareem!

It means “Ramadan be generous,” and for the next thirty days, Muslims around the world will say these words (or a local translation of them) when they meet, in the mosques, in the streets, at intense early morning meals called suhoor, and sunset feasts called iftar.

Between these meals, from first light until the moment the sun touches the horizon, Muslims will abstain from food, drink (yes, even water!), cigarettes, sex, mean words and unkind thoughts. They will likely make extra charitable donations, and probably spend more time than usual reading and reflecting on the Qur’aan. They may go to mosque more often than usual.

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In many Muslim countries, political figures and charitable organizations may hold large nightly iftar feasts for the under-privileged. King Abdullah II of Jordan will join his countrymen at a different mosque every night, praying shoulder to shoulder with other Muslims and sitting in his stocking feet in the front row as the imam preaches on the holy season.

In the West, many Muslim communities will mark the occasion by increasing their outreach efforts. When I lived in Bloomington, Indiana, I used to like to go to the mosque at the end of the day, where local Muslim-owned restaurants took turns delivering sumptuous feasts to be shared by the community. They routinely invited community groups – university students, our Sunday School class that was studying Islam – to join them. The mosque, though, was too small for large-scale outreach. Instead, the Bloomington interfaith community had another long-standing tradition. Area churches and temples, including the Unitarian Universalist Church where I co-coordinated the event, took turns hosting the Muslim community for iftar in our much larger sanctuaries, breaking bread together and learning about each other, as individuals and as religious communities.

After the Unitarian Universalist iftar, the woman coordinating at the mosque’s end called my co-coordinator. There were several Saudi students, she said, who had been in the United States just long enough to have all their worst stereotypes of Americans confirmed. People were unkind, inconsiderate of their religious needs, even outright Islamophobic, and while these young men were determined to finish their degrees at Indiana University, they had already given up on the United States. That changed when they came to iftar with the Unitarian Universalists. There, people asked them questions with polite curiosity, both about themselves and about Islam, and listened with open curiosity and without judgement. “Finally,” they told the woman at the mosque, “we met Americans we agreed with. That iftar has made us reconsider our opinions of America.” The hope of most  mosques hosting such events is that the feeling will go both ways, that non-Muslim Americans will walk away from iftar feeling kinship and compassion for their Muslim neighbors.

The month of Ramadan can also be a time of political statements. M-Power Change, a Muslim online advocacy platform founded by the amazing and somehow controversial racial justice activist Linda Sarsour, and the New York State Immigrant Action Fund are organizing an iftar in front of Trump Tower next week to protest the Islamophobic policies of the Trump Administration. “Let’s remind this President during Ramadan that this is Our New York,” they say. Sometimes a lack of acknowledgement is as jarring, such as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declining to support a Ramadan iftar or celebration at the State Department, the first time in almost twenty years this holiday will not be observed by our diplomats here at home, though embassies around the world are still encouraged to hold iftar dinners and Ramadan observances. Thomas Jefferson is said to have been the first to host an iftar at the U.S. President’s residence, though the modern tradition is credited to First Lady Hillary Clinton; for over twenty years, it has been a symbol of either tolerance or ire, sometimes both.

This time of year always gets me thinking back to my years in the Arab world, of course, and I want to tell two small stories from my Peace Corps Jordan years.

I spent two Ramadans in my little village in the north of Jordan. Ramadan was in September and October then, the days becoming progressively shorter and cooler, and the iftar progressively earlier in the day. The hardest part of Ramadan for me was that, by October, I relied on endless tiny glasses of tea to keep me warm in our unheated school. #firstworldproblems, amirite?

I fasted for most of Ramadan in my first year. When neighbors and students asked me why, I said, “In my faith tradition,” which I had told them was Christianity even though it isn’t exactly, “we are encouraged to experience the faith traditions of others in order to come to an informed decision about what religious tradition is right for you.” Typically this got me a long, thoughtful look, then a gentle shake of the head before they changed the subject.

(In the second year, when I was teaching first, second and third graders, I decided patience in the face of semi-fasting kids was more important than religious experience.)

Near the end of Ramadan, Umm Anis had her baby, a girl they eventually named Siddeen. Nursing mothers are exempt from the fast, but everyone else was fasting. Even her youngest children, though not required, insisted on trying to fast three-quarter days “like a grownup!”

On her first afternoon back in Faiha’, Umm Anis sent her youngest to fetch me to the family room. “I know you’re fasting to understand us better,” she said, “and that’s a good thing. But you’re not fasting for God and your faith. Will you break your fast with me? It’s lonely to eat by myself.”

And so, I didn’t quite fast for all of Ramadan.

from “Becoming Bedouin:Daughter, Teacher, Sister,”
which will appear in Silk Road Review, Vol 18.

Umm Anis lived on one side of me, and her sister Umm Alaa lived on the other.

On afternoon in late fall, I was at her house in the early afternoon for dinner. All the children were eating, but not Umm Alaa. “I’m fasting this week,” she said, “for the days I missed during Ramadan.” 

She was referring to the days she had been menstruating and forbidden from fasting because of the dehydrating effects of menstruation on the body. It had been a few weeks since Ramadan, though, and most of the other women I knew had made up their fast days immediately after the Eid al-Fitr feast days.

Umm Alaa was already explaining further. “Abu Alaa will be home at a regular hour all this week,” she said. Her husband often travelled with his job, and might be away for a week or more at a time. “When he’s here and I can’t fast in the month of Ramadan,” she explained, “Abu Alaa eats with me, so I don’t have to eat alone during the daytime. And when I’m making up my fast days, he does, too, so that I don’t have to fast alone and I have someone to break my fast with at sundown.”

As far as Islamic law is concerned, everyone I know agrees that this is completely wrong, Haraam. All who can fast in Ramadan should do so, that seems to be a universally accepted standard among the observant Muslims I know. 

As far as the laws of the heart are concerned, this is one of the sweetest stories of true romance I know.

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