When I lived in the United States “Ramadan” was a vague concept for me. I did not know any people who practiced Islam. I had a very sketchy understanding of what Ramadan was about and really no direct reason to delve into understanding it better.
With my arrival in Morocco that changed.
What I’m about to share with you through several posts is MY PERSONAL account of Ramadan as seen through the eyes of a western, non-Muslim who suddenly found herself in an Arab country where Ramadan is a BIG DEAL that is observed by the majority of people – some of whom are my new friends and neighbors.
In short, Ramadan was about to impact my life – an unavoidable fact – and I was going to have an opportunity to gain more insight into the reality of the culture and religious practices of the Moroccan people. Looking at Ramadan as a context for me to learn about people allowed me to open my mind and heart to something I had never considered doing before:
Joining them in a three-day “solidarity” fast to see what this holy month of Ramadan was like for THEM. In doing so, I learned a whole lot about MYSELF.
Let’s give a little background. (You can find “oodles” more on Google, so this is just the minimum.) Ramadan is not just a religious holiday; it’s the name of the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar. Perhaps you knew that already, I didn’t. This year Ramadan began (as it always does) with the sighting of the new moon. That event occurred on the evening of Saturday, June 28th and thus Sunday, June 29th was “Ramadan 1.” There was much feasting Saturday night, because the next day, some serious fasting requirements would be in play from approximately 3:30 AM (first call to prayer) until the fourth call to prayer after sundown at approximately 8 PM.
THAT’S 16 AND A HALF HOURS OF FASTING!
And not just for one day – FOR THE WHOLE 30-DAY MONTH OF RAMADAN!
Who would do this? Hundreds of millions of Muslims, worldwide. They take on this “austerity” of abstinence from food, water, tobacco, alcohol and “impure thoughts” as a community, even if they happen to be living in a place on the globe where they hold the minority religious viewpoint. This in itself was intriguing to me and for some reason, beginning Sunday, June 29th, I found myself suddenly awake at 3 or 3:30 in the morning.
So I began to get up and go out in the lovely Mediterranean air – in the dark of night – and sit on my balcony for a few minutes and “join” them, as my neighbors ate their small meals and the men in the neighborhood walked by flashlight to the little mosque around the corner. I got to witness Venus, the Morning Star, as she preceded the Sun’s appearance by a couple of hours, rise right out of the Sea, looking orange and huge as she popped up over the horizon. I witnessed the light of fishing boats and the lights of fishing net markers and saw the caravan of cars taking people to the larger mosque in Oued Laou. And after a few minutes of this harmonization with all around me, I would return to bed.
But the reality of so many people focusing on prayer and inner reflection (and using fasting to catalyze and intensify the process) became more than a curiosity about other religious traditions for me. I began to give some thought about fasting for a day to see what the experience would be like for ME? Could I even do it? I had NEVER gone a day without water before. The times that I had fasted, I’d always drunk MORE water.
It was our Arabic teacher, Ayman, who catalyzed my decision when he asked Tomas and me during our lesson (before he left for Rabat to be with his family for the rest of Ramadan) if we had considered fasting? I replied that I was thinking about it. He encouraged me to do so.
And thus I embarked on my three day “Ramadan Experiment” on the morning of Wednesday, July 9th (Ramadan 11.)
However, I panicked Tuesday evening when I realized that, as a life-long coffee drinker (read addict) who has gone through three days of severe headaches, nausea and extreme exhaustion when attempting to go “cold turkey” in the past – I was definitely NOT up for adding these elements into my Ramadan equation. It was going to be tough enough for me to withdraw from my FOOD AND WATER ADDICTIONS.
So – for the very first (and perhaps ONLY) time in my life – I drank coffee at 3 AM!!
What this choice turned out to represent for me is a “fast” from sleeping on top of everything else. As the lights went out in the neighborhood, after folks had had their small meals, done their first round of prayers and returned to BED, I found myself wide awake from my shot of caffeine with no hope of going back to sleep.
So I began to sit and meditate and watch the sun rise (at 5) and listen to the birds begin to sing and keep tabs on the dogs and the roosters (still no “Moroccan” roosters crowing.) Then I would come inside and peruse the internet, write, read – whatever – until 7:30 or 8, when I would begin to feel tired enough to take my first nap.
This became my favorite part of the whole Ramadan experience – connecting with nature in the early morning hours; it was pure joy for me. I also enjoyed napping.
“Napping” during the day, I learned from those in our community who are Arab and who are familiar with the customs of the people at this time, is very much the norm. In fact, in some places (usually the larger populated areas) some switch day for night and party from sundown to sunrise and then sleep MOST of the day. This is seen as keeping the “letter of the law” but not so much the “spirit” of it.
As with other fasts from my past, I was hungry and thirsty the first and second days. I drew strength from knowing that millions of people were right there with me, feeling hungry and thirsty and grumpy and tired. This feeling of community is seen in the behaviors of people in the streets and reflects a true celebratory tone, in spite of (or perhaps BECAUSE of) the common, voluntary abstinence from physical and mental habits.
However, the lack of food, water and sleep were the easier parts of my fast. Lurking beneath the surface of these habits were certain pernicious ego patterns that began to raise their ugly heads, now that the soft covering of my daily routines was removed. I first noticed a low-grade irritation that wasn’t related to anything in particular. I remembered that Eckhart Tolle had written about a baseline of “irritation and complaining” that makes up many peoples thinking. I hadn’t seen this in myself for a long while, so that was my first indication that my Ramadan process was indeed working.
If that had been all, I would have “gotten off easy.” But there was more. I began to be aware of “control” patterns that I didn’t usually see. Probably, everyone ELSE saw them but I was the one who could DO something about them, so it was important for ME to see them. I “needed to be right.” I “planted flags” and “jousted with windmills” over issues that were so immaterial and irrelevant that they were downright laughable — more laughable once I had “broken” my fast each evening. Once I got through cringing at my “unenlightened” behavior, even I was able to laugh.
Tomas was his usual saintly self – accepting my “sparring matches” as “part of her process,” and understanding that I WAS looking at these inner ogres and trolls and releasing my energetic attachment to them. This inner processing was an extremely valuable part of my Ramadan observance and, in my opinion, reflects the true intention of this ‘holiday” to purify and cleanse our hearts and minds of all that is not compassionate and loving.
After three days of very little sleep, drinking coffee at 3 in the morning, looking at my inner demons and going without food or water (very hard) I have these benefits to report:
I went to bed each night in such a state of gratitude, as I had not known before and hadn’t expected from this experience.
My body felt light (I did lose weight) and supported me up and down the stairs and on my walks, although I did not “push” myself physically.
I unearthed some stubborn mental patterns that I was ready to release, that only showed themselves to me while I was in a vulnerable state from fasting.
On my third day, I did not feel hungry and my mind was at peace. I did not react when someone who said she would do something, did not show up to do it and I graciously initiated “Plan B.” THAT was a big win for me and validated the release work I’d done during the previous days.
I discovered that I don’t need to eat so much food nor do I really need to eat so often. I am carrying this program forward, now that I have “exited” the fast.
I learned the preciousness of water. I believe it is a CRIME to deprive ANYONE of pure, drinkable water. (I will have more to say about this in my next post.)
I have the greatest respect and admiration for my Muslim neighbors and friends who do this year after year for 30 straight days.
And finally, my stated intention to understand and bridge two vastly different cultures became evident in the responses of Muslims, who, upon learning that I was doing the same fasting as they were – to learn more about THEM – were visibly touched.
As I write this on Ramadan 14 (almost halfway through) having slept in until 8 and having drunk coffee at a “reasonable” hour, I have taken only a little food but several glasses of water. My tummy is rumbling and I’m telling it not to worry, food will be there in a bit. I am noticing a fullness, a calmness and a deep satisfaction from all the blessings that I gained by taking on the “Ramadan Experiment” and keeping both the Letter and the Spirit of this holy month of Prayer and Purification.
Addendum August 5, 2014: I enjoyed this short video sent to me by Ayman, our Arabic teacher. It is narrated by an Islamic scholar and talks about the purpose of Ramadan.