Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ramadan Begins

The breakfast table: tomato & onion salad, olives, dates, fresh figs, several
breads and pastries, soup, coffee, juice, and water - lots of water.

We’re now a week into Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting that Muslims all over the world observe to commemorate the period when Mohammed received the Qur’an.

From sun-up to sun-down, Muslims (with exceptions for the ill, travelers, nursing mothers and pre-pubescent children) are required to abstain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. There is also an increased emphasis on prayer and alms-giving  during Ramadan. Non-Muslims, like me, are allowed to eat and drink, though respect for the culture requires that you do so privately.

I decided to fast along with my Moroccan friends, though, and it’s been quite an experience. There are many aspects to it:
·         The physical act and bodily response to fasting
·         The breaking of the fast
·         The turning of one’s schedule topsy-turvey
·         The spiritual benefits

Inghayi laz, inghayi fad

These are common expressions, the equivalent of “I'm dying of hunger, I'm dying of thirst.” But everyone, including me, is saying them these days. I found the second and third days to be the worst, and quite difficult, but now my body seems to be acclimating to the regimen. The hardest time for me is in the morning between 10 and 11, after I’ve been up for 4 hours or so. But I’ve been able to continue my running (about 45 minutes every other day), though I time it just before sundown so that I can rehydrate shortly after I finish. And I’ve walked to Kalaa twice this week, about 5 miles round-trip. I’m not sure how manual laborers manage it, though, especially during this August heat.

Rmdan ishka, walakin ihla

I was led to believe that no one would ask me if I was fasting, that it would be a little too personal. On the contrary, once the ritual greetings are out of the way, everyone asks da tuzumt? (Are you fasting?). When I answer, Iyeah, da tuzumgh, I can see they’re both surprised and pleased. Sometimes, a bit incredulous, they’ll follow up with, Kulshi? Walu aman? Walu lmakla? (Everything? No water? No food?). And then they’ll follow up with Rmdan ishka, walakin ihla (Ramadan is hard, but it’s beautiful).

That’s my preeminent perception – everyone loves Ramadan. A big reason, I think, is the breaking of the fast, which happens with breakfast (lftur), about 7:30 in the evening after lmughrb, the sunset call to prayer. There are special dishes served, everyone in the family makes a special effort to be there - of course, since they’re all dying of hunger and thirst! - and, frankly, in this country where togetherness is a chief characteristic, there seems to be even more of it than at other times of year. There’s an eagerness to share the time, too. In the seven days so far, I’ve broken the fast with four different families, two of whom I had never eaten with before. Many families then also have dinner sometime after the last call to prayer, which occurs about 9:00. With my host family, we’ve also been playing a lot of card games, a Ramadan tradition.

One of the things I like about Ramadan is the early meal! It’s a substantial meal, all I really want or need, and I don’t have to wait until the usual dinner time of somewhere between ten and midnight.

A 3:00 a.m. Wake-up Call

I’m finding the hardest part of Ramadan has been the disruption of my normal sleep cycle. I’ve been following the recommended practice of getting up at 3:00 a.m. for shur, a pre-emptive meal with lots of water, which must be completed before the morning call to prayer at 4:00. Then I go back to bed until my alarm rings at 6:30, though in fact I’ve been staying in bed till 7:30. And then I seem to need a long nap in the afternoon. And when I go to sleep at night, and again after shur, I have trouble going to sleep, unheard of for me since my days in the Army, fifty years ago. So will I become accustomed to this, too? Or will Ramadan initiate a permanent change in my sleeping habits? I hope not! Or is adapting to this new sleep schedule part of the spiritual challenge?

Spiritual Benefits

Other than for short periods prior to medical tests, I’ve never fasted before in my life. I do not have any pre-conceived agenda about my fasting. I’m doing it out of curiosity and cultural reasons, rather than some religious or spiritual intent. But I do know that spirituality arises out of discipline and practice, both of which characterize Ramadan, so who knows what the result will be? As part of my practice, I am also using this time to read the Qur’an for the first time. After I wake up in the morning I read one juz’, a traditional division which facilitates reading the entire book in one month. It takes me about 45 minutes each day. I hope it will lead me to a deeper understanding of these people and this culture.

It is fascinating to watch as the whole society submits itself to this single idea. An example: Restaurants are closed most of the day (how do they survive a month of this?). And many businesses are closed for longer than usual in mid-day and, presumably, in the evening for lftur. So productivity (and income) must suffer during this time. But then this is not a society in which work is the pre-eminent value, as it in the States. I have lots to learn. For now, it is enough for me to observe and to submit myself to the discipline of fasting. 

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