By Vicki Garlock
“IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT FASTING”
I admit that I just didn’t get it. Several Muslim friends living in America said they don’t really fast for Ramadan anymore because it just isn’t the same here in the U.S. They claim that Ramadan is so much more fun in their home countries. Fun? Ramadan? Really?
Like most non-Muslims, I associate Ramadan with fasting. Actually, I associate it with a long month of dawn-to-sundown “don’ts.” Don’t eat. Don’t drink anything – not even water. Don’t smoke. Don’t gossip. Don’t chew gum. Don’t lie. Don’t have sex. Sounds like a ton of fun.
I was, therefore, a bit surprised when my friends began sharing lovely Ramadan memories from their childhoods. The sparkle in their eyes and the joy in their voices was reminiscent of American kids talking about Christmas. Don’t get me wrong. Ramadan and Christmas are two completely different holidays, celebrated in widely dissimilar ways, but the positive emotions underlying both traditions were undeniable.
Walking Down Memory Lane
For example, Reda, born and raised in Egypt, shared this memory. Each night after sundown, she, her siblings and their friends would visit their neighbors’ homes carrying lanterns lit with a candle. Today they use battery-operated, made-in-China lanterns, but back then, the light came from a real flame. “All the kids in the building would sing a song, a special song, and the neighbors would give us a Ramadan sweet. It was kind of like trick-or-treat.”
Ali, from Iran, also talks about the nightly celebrations he remembers from childhood. “During the month of Ramadan, night was day. The malls were open, and everyone was walking around shopping and eating. Because you receive blessings by giving iftar, many people would bake special treats and offer them to people passing by.”
Food is important for most faith-based holidays, whatever your tradition. But it is particularly true with Ramadan since everyone has been fasting all day. The Prophet Muhammad broke his fasts with dates, so eating dates is a tradition. Other dried fruits – apricots, figs, or raisins – are often included. Many in Iran break fast after sundown with warm water. Milk with orange blossom water is a favorite in Northern Africa. Myriam, from Morocco, always loved the chebakia – a sweet cookie made from various grains then dipped in honey and sesame seeds. And Maryam, like other Muslim wives and mothers, cooks special Ramadan recipes that her family waits for all year. A friend from Indonesia even admitted to choosing iftars as a child based on which mosque served the best food.
New clothes for the Eid at the end of Ramadan are also part of many celebrations. In America, buying a new suit for little boys or a beautiful beaded abaya for little girls is common. Reda remembers getting her hair styled at the end of Ramadan and buying three new dresses for the three days of Eid. She even got a new pair of pajamas! Myriam, who doesn’t really fast now that she’s in the U.S., still likes to wear a traditional Moroccan kaftan on Eid, “just to get the feel for it.”
And then there’s the moon. The appearance of the new moon signifies the start of the month. Ali shared this wonderful story: “In Iran, families would go up to the roof to hunt for the moon. As soon as the kids saw the crescent of the moon, they would shout ‘Allahu Akbar.’ You could hear the shouts all over the city – first from one rooftop and then from another.” He and his wife, Maryam, tried to maintain that celebratory spirit even after moving to the U.S. with their three young children. “When we moved to Texas, we would take our kids to the local park. There was a tower there. We would all climb it, and they would look for the crescent moon.” And in Egypt, Reda remembers the new moon being hailed in the streets with music, flags, and parades.
It’s about Community
In the end, however, the most important aspect of the food and the fun is sharing it with family and friends. Families spend more time together, and the reduced work/school schedule – especially in Muslim-majority countries – means additional time for socializing. As one friend put it, “In Egypt during Ramadan, every day is a celebration. After breaking the fast, I go and visit my aunts, uncles, and cousins. I stay up playing with my cousins until the time to start fasting, around dawn time.”
In fact, American Muslims who don’t observe Ramadan regularly mention “lack of community” as the primary reason. American Muslims who still observe Ramadan do so because they have found a way to create community.
“Ramadan is a special time of bonding for my family,” says Saim, American-born teenager. “Everyone is expected to be home for iftar at sundown. We eat together every evening. The rest of the year, it’s much more rare that we all sit down together.”
“Ramadan was also a time where you got to hang out with your friends all day because there was no lunch time,” say Myriam. “And school got out early, so we always went to the park, hung out by the beach, and really got a lot of free time because everything slows down.”
Admittedly, there is Fasting
Fasting remains an over-arching theme of Ramadan and a central topic of conversation. For example, there are issues about when, exactly, the fasting period begins and ends. At least three different astronomical definitions of “dawn” are used, and sunset depends on your latitude and longitude. In Muslim-majority countries, public calls to prayer serve as the primary signals. In other countries, some Muslims follow local time while others follow Meccan time. For those in a place where the sun essentially never sets or rises during the month of Ramadan (e.g., Norway in the summer), Muslims can use a nearby time zone. And for Muslims in space? One official recommendation is to fast according to the time zone from which you were launched. And yes, there are apps for these things.
Families also have to sort through fasting practices for their kids. Young children – in the early elementary grades – often fast for part of the day. Some families eat suhoor (the pre-dawn meal) together; others simply let their kids eat breakfast before heading off to school. Once there, kids will fast – no snacks and no lunch – until they get home. In Muslim-majority countries, no food is served, but in the U.S., kids go to lunch in the cafeteria. Maryam used Ramadan as a teaching moment for her children’s classmates in Texas. She would visit the school each year and teach a bit about Ramadan. During lunch, her children and their Muslim schoolmates would go to the library so they wouldn’t have to sit in the cafeteria while the other kids were eating.
As children approach puberty, fasting becomes more adult-like. That means different things in different cultures, and it often means different things for girls and boys, since girls commonly reach puberty two or three years before boys.
Fasting, Faith, and the Family
In short, I’ve discovered that Ramadan is so much more than a month of daytime “no-no’s.” It’s a time to connect with family and friends – to eat, to laugh, to make crafts, or just to relax together. Most importantly, it’s a time to consciously reflect on how to live a life of faith – to discover a sense of peace, to read the Qur’an, to pray, and to contemplate.
“My parents were not practicing, but because we were in school, my sister and brother and I were required to observe Ramadan. When we were younger, the three of us would walk to the mosque together. When I got older, my friends and I would choose a mosque where the message was more meaningful,” says Siti, born and raised in Indonesia.
Ali note, “Recitation of the Qur’an is especially important during Ramadan. We would hold competitions for the kids – with prizes – as they learned to memorize short surahs or a few ayahs.”
“During Ramadan,” says Saim, “everyone in my family comes to the table with a more relaxed and spiritual attitude. The vibe is about living in a conscious way, reflecting on the past year, and strengthening your faith. The talks given by imams are more meditative, and we want to maintain that sense of tranquility for the next year.”
As a raised-Christian American who has never observed Ramadan in a Muslim-majority country, it is still new to me. But I’m getting excited about Ramadan this year, starting June 17. Many Muslim-American friends are willing to share their iftars with me, I have a couple of recipes I’m eager to try, and I may buy myself a special Ramadan outfit. With what I know now, I’m getting into the festivities.
Many thanks to Ali, Maryam, Myriam, Reda, Saim, Siti, and other Muslim friends for sharing their thoughts and memories with me.