Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Top 5 Things I Did Not Know About the Holy Month of Ramadhan

I was reading up on Ramadhan to prepare for fasting with my community, and it is incredible just how little I know about Islam. Sad, really. And when I wanted to get an American Muslim’s perspective on how Ramadhan is spent and some advice on fasting, I was equally amazed to take stock and realize there was a shocking lack of Muslims in my crew. I always considered myself an equal opportunity friend-er, but, obviously, something is eskew when the hundreds of friends on facebook or otherwise, fail to reflect that almost a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim (granted, America’s make up is only 1% Muslim, but still). So I stalked the few peeps I do have for some advice and perspective, and I remain confident that two years in the world’s largest Muslim country will shift those scales just fine. 

Here is a little background about Ramadhan:

First off, Ramadhan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. It is when it is believed the Holy Quran was revealed to Muhammad. During this month, Muslims fast (fasting is called puasa in Indonesia), pray, and try to focus on being better people overall. In Indonesia, school days are shortened, and there is a lot of napping. 

Fasting is also one of the five pillars of Islam. Below is a reminder if you forgot your Global Studies. I, for one, was too busy focusing on Mr. Dahnke’s bonus questions involving movie trivia to retain such important info. Fact: I got the highest test score on one of the 9th grade Global Studies exams by correctly answering the following bonus question: “In what city’s airport does Kevin’s mom meet John Candy in “Home Alone”? American education at its best. Anyway…

The Five Pillars
1)  To witness that there is no god but God (Allah) and that Muhammad is His Prophet
2)  To perform the required prayers five times a day
3)  To pay the zakat (alms giving to the poor)
4)  To fast the month of Ramadhan
5)  To perform the pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca (if able).

Here are the top 5 things I did not know about Ramadhan, but probably should have:

1)   In addition to fasting (puasa) from food from sunrise to sunset, Muslims are also not allowed to drink anything, including water. I somehow missed the memo on this, and when I found out, I knew this would be the real challenge. I would wager to guess that at any given moment, my chin generates more perspiration than all the bodies in my village combined, so not being able to replenish fluids at will was particularly daunting. 

2)  Some individuals are exempt from fasting: the elderly, the mentally ill, those who are sick, those traveling, pregnant women, and women who are menstruating (although the last four are expected to make up their days fasting at another time, and most pregnant women I know still fast). Children are also exempt, but, in my village, most children also fast - if not the whole day, then half day. 

So, when I think about caving at all when I am a tad bit parched, I can look at the 55lb 8-yr-old playing cards across from me and maintain a little perspective on my own self-restraint. If pregnant women and children can do this, I should be able to nut up and power through (thanks to Feldman for bringing this phrase back to our lives). 

This is similar to that time I was afraid to ride my bike across the Golden Gate Bridge and seriously considered turning back when a 6-yr-old breezily pedaled past me and onto the gusty pathway without any care at all. I was forced to cross shakily on my bike, petrified to look any direction but straight ahead, but I did it. It is actually a bit disconcerting how often the worry of being schooled by a pre-teen has determined my choices in life. 

3)  Sahur – This is the meal consumed before the Fajr call to prayer during Ramadhan before the fast begins at sunrise. I am awoken at around 2am most nights by the sound of parading children banging on drums and yelling “Sahur” outside my window. I wonder why they do this so early because my family doesn’t eat Sahur until 3:30am. So I enjoy the ruckus a bit, go back to sleep, wake up again at 3:30am, down as much water as I possibly can, eat, and then go back to sleep almost bursting with rice and tempe. I will not be surprised if during this fasting exercise, I end up gaining weight.   

4)  Buka Puasa or Iftar – At the call for Maghrib at around 5:30pm, Muslims can break the fast. Usually, my host dad will present me with some “es” (wonderfully cold drinks filled with fruit or coconut and loads of sugar), and he will say, “Makan, Mbak”. I opt for charging directly for the kulkas (fridge) and downing a liter or so of cold water before partaking in any food. After a full, hot day of teaching and talking, it truly does taste so good when it touches your lips. This is my favorite part of puasa. You can’t help but be thankful for all the blessings in life and be totally happy with something as simple as a cold glass of water. And each day I get to experience that same contentedness and gratitude. 

5)  In addition to the five daily prayers, during Ramadhan Muslims recite a special prayer called the Taraweeh prayer (Night Prayer). My family goes to the masjid each night along with most of my village. I usually stay at home eating Kit Kats and watching the two English TV stations. Please note that if you see a notification that a piece called “A Few Good Men” will be coming up on the Asian network station, it is most likely not the popular film starring Tom Cruise that my brother-in-law so loves (“Who’s gonna do it, YOU, Lt Weinberg?”). It is a documentary on influential Asian men. I hope I have saved you the 30 minutes I spent sitting on my linoleum floor anticipating this treat. If I’ve reached one person, my efforts were not in vain. 

My experience: Why fast?

Many non-Muslim PCVs have chosen to fast along with their communities in a motion of solidarity. I mostly couldn’t bring myself to teach a room-full of starving and thirsty students without having any idea of how they felt.  

In addition, I wanted to gain an appreciation for the Muslim experience of fasting in America. First off, in Indonesia the entire educational system, government, entertainment industry all take into account that most of the population is fasting, so days are shortened, most restaurants are closed, and popular TV characters are shown praying in the masjid or breaking fast together with Ramadhan incorporated into the storyline. Most of the Indonesian community is mobilizing around this event.

I can only feel for Muslim Americans who have to endure walking past the allure of pizza joints, the beckoning aroma from street vendors, and pretending not to care that co-workers are downing coffee and snacking on office treats right in front of them. Additionally, the day is longer in the U.S. than it is in Indonesia. Indonesians cannot eat from about 4:15am until around 5:30pm when the sun goes down. Being further from the equator, sundown in the U.S. isn’t until around 8pm, so Americans have to stick it out longer. I am not sure I could hack that. From the few Muslim Americans I do know, they don’t seem to have a problem with these things. This only makes me more impressed having had a small taste of the exercise. They know they are fasting for a greater purpose, and they seem to easily withstand jerks like me in the office who persistently badger them to eat Mrs. Field's big cookie, totally unaware that it is Ramadhan. 

Sorry guys. 

My experience: Thoughts so far

During the first week of fasting, even though I was successful in refraining from food and drink during daylight hours, I was finding it tough to stick to the “slow to anger” rule that also accompanies the fasting discipline. Fasting is supposed to make it difficult to be cross with your fellow man because you are experiencing what it is like to be hungry. It helps you empathize with the plight of those around you and makes you more giving, kind, and patient. Well, turns out I am pretty irritable when I have not eaten or drank any water. My tolerance for my fellow man seemed to be decreasing in direct proportion to the amount of my food and water intake*. The grumpiness really hit its peak when I had an uncomfortably angry reaction while watching a scene where Liz Lemon brings the writers of TGS cupcakes with candy bars baked inside. This really awakened a beast from within. So, to lessen the blow, I decided to take a lot of naps and submerge myself in cards and bike rides with the village kids. 

Then, one day when I was lying down for my noon-day nap, something happened. I was full of energy. I was so inspired, I closed the curtains, flipped to Santigold’s “Lights Out” on the ipod, and decided it was time I checked to see if I still had my moves by way of a personal kamar tidur dance party. These moves were once aptly described by a co-worker as "Disney Dancing". After 4 months of living in a Footloose-style community that does not value breaking it down, I am happy to say my Disney Dancing skills have yet to atrophy. In fact, in my later years, my style interestingly reflects a new influence that can only be traced back to the art of semaphore flag signaling. Big, bold movements, people. As I semaphored my way around my bedroom, I thought fondly of and was boundlessly thankful for the never-ending supply of dance party partners I have awaiting me back home (Stamford Fitz's, Highland Fitz kids, DiRagos, NYC crew, etc) and the support they continually give me from half a globe away. So, somehow, even with no food in my stomach, I was full once again.

Now, at day 16, I feel pretty good. I enjoy fasting. I like the challenge, the discipline, and it is easy now to make that choice to transcend what my body wants and subdue any urges. Also, it promotes a clear-headedness and peace of mind. This clear-headedness also helps me make wise decisions. For instance, should I take a mid-day nap after almost falling asleep in my school meeting earlier that day, or should I watch Dirty Dancing Havana Nights? Thanks to Ramadhan fasting, the choice was clear. Why should I succumb to my body’s feeble need for REM? I have proven I am stronger than that. Mind and soul over matter. Who needs sleep when I can learn of the Cuban revolution through the eyes of an unlikely couple destined to inspire each other to grow through dance. 

Yes, Ramadhan brings this strength. Who knows what an additional 13 days will bring? 

For further reading on Ramadhan or Islam in NY, NYU's Islamic Center has some great stuff. Thanks to Saba for the reference:  http://www.icnyu.org/

*I am pretty sure I stole this thought from fellow PVC, Daniel Paulk, so I will send you the Rp 100 for the royalties, Daniel.

1 comment:

  1. Confession: Since time of writing, I must confess I broke fast one day upon the sight of a Pizza Hut in Surabaya. And then I proceeded to eat at the same Pizza Hut again for dinner that night.

    We all have our limits.