Reaching out in Ramadan, by guest contributor Vicky

4 Aug

(Originally written for and published on the blog Bethlehem Blogger)

Reaching out in Ramadan

I first heard of Ramadan as a little girl at school in the Middle East. I am not Muslim, and nor is anyone in my family, but I grew up steeped in Islam. I developed a fascination with the mosques our bus passed on the way to school, getting particularly fond of one blue-and-gold construction with an ornate minaret that reminded me of a Chinese pagoda. I liked mosque architecture, especially the curve of the dome against the burning blue sweep of sky, and the way the crescents atop the minarets stood out clear and sharp against the gathering dusk. Inside, I valued the feeling of space. Standing with my feet sinking into the velvety carpets, and looking up to the ornate calligraphy that swirled round the base of the dome, I felt as though at any minute I might take flight. It is a sensation that I still get in traditionally designed mosques today.

Excluding the adhan that came from the mosque nearest our compound, which always sounded as though the imam were doing sports commentary (and trying to drown out every other imam in the town), I loved the call to prayer as well. It seemed to have a haunting quality about it. As an eight year old, I remember standing in my best friend’s garden at sunset, watching all the neighbouring buildings turn pink and listening to the adhan ring out. I was filled with a sensation of longing, almost hunger – but for what?

Hunger is my enduring impression of Islamic spirituality: hunger for justice, hunger for heaven, hunger to know God. The fasting month of Ramadan is a powerful metaphor for all of this. From dawn until dusk, observant Muslims don’t eat or drink. (Children, sick people, and travellers are exempt.)  This year, I am taking part.

One of the many reasons why Muslims fast is to express their solidarity with the poor and hungry in a very visceral way. “We’re doing this by choice,” a Muslim friend told me several years ago. “Imagine what it’s like for all those people who’ve got no choice.” The hunger pangs are meant to teach you of your own fragility and need, and make you respect your responsibilities towards other people. In keeping with the spirit of the fast, I am donating money that I save on my own food to the famine appeal for East Africa. But I could have supported that appeal in any number of ways; it didn’t have to be Ramadan. So why choose to fast?

At its simplest, my fasting is a gesture of friendship. There is no better way to show that you care for someone than through caring about the things that matter to them most. Thanks to my childhood travels and my work in Palestine, I have many Muslim friends. Friends in Manchester who have to put up with their dress sense being a matter of national debate, with some politicians calling for their sartorial choices to be policed in the French fashion. Friends in East Jerusalem who joke grimly that they need to consult a sheikh on whether accidentally swallowing a mouthful of tear gas counts as breaking the fast. Friends in Britain who sometimes walk past a newsstand and see things like this:

The dispiriting thing was that there were so many headlines like this that I spent five minutes deciding which one to use as my illustration. Fortunately somebody has created this thoughtful montage from the Daily Star, so in the end I wasn’t forced to choose between ‘Muslims demand all Brit guys have the snip’ (the Sun) and “‘Stop the car; there’s Madeleine”: witness sees her dragged by Muslim woman’ (the Daily Mail). If any Muslims are foolhardy enough to open any of these papers (hopefully wearing protective gloves while they’re at it), they might find themselves being asked to take part in the weighty national poll featured on the right.

This is poison, and it’s definitely got worse over the past few years. So, as part of the antidote, I am joining my Muslim friends – and I am

not just using ‘friend’ to mean people whom I know personally – in one of their most significant religious observances, as a quiet way of demonstrating that I value them and the faith tradition they hold.

I am not a Muslim. I am a Catholic Christian, and a fairly traditional one at that. One of the saints whom I love and admire the most is Blessed Charles de Foucauld, a wealthy soldier whose conversion to Christianity led him to renounce both war and luxury and settle in the Algerian desert. He spent the rest of his life among Muslims. As a believer in Jesus, he did not try to convert them. He just lived with them. Philosophically and theologically, he did not agree with much of what they believed – but he allowed their belief to bring out the best in him. It was largely their influence that led him from atheism to faith in the first place. You do not have to agree with someone to learn from them or share with them.

The result of this learning and sharing can be quite beautiful. I have seen it in action in the checkpoints in Palestine. Sometimes people get very impatient and angry as they wait, and that leads to them pushing and scrabbling to get ahead. A checkpoint can be a harsh place, with people pouring out their frustration on one another. But sometimes there is a current of quiet and formidable gentleness flowing through the tight-packed press of people. I saw it on Good Friday, one of the holiest days of the Christian calendar, when hundreds of Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem were trying to pass to Jerusalem – along with all the Muslims who wanted to go to al-Aqsa for Friday prayers.

(Palestinian Muslim women wait to cross at Qalandia, Ramadan 2010.)

We waited for hours. The soldiers were screaming. The loudspeakers jarred my head. Sometimes the turnstiles were locked for no reason that we could see. The queue stagnated. The crowd swelled. And just ahead of me was an elderly Muslim man, his misbaha (prayer beads) in hand. The misbaha was made of chunks of ruby-warm carnelian. Slowly he passed it through his fingers, bead by bead. Silently he prayed. He was not alone; looking around, I saw others doing the same. Reaching in my pocket, I brought out my own rosary and began to pray too. A Christian friend joined me. “We pray for all those who are having to lay their dignity down, and we pray for the soldiers…” Behind us, I heard a young Muslim man from Hebron give the ameen.

It was uncomfortable to be packed so closely together, but people were looking out for one another that day. “Please go first.” “Are you thirsty?” Over the coming days, in the heat of the Palestinian summer, everyone will be thirsty at the checkpoint. It will be worst for those who are fasting. I am fasting with them and thirsting with them: for peace, for justice, for a world where the soldiers who stand guard at the checkpoint will one day be forgiven guests at a Palestinian iftar – and for a time when the press ends its demonisation and reports on the Muslims who are working and praying so hard to make this a reality.

This is Ramadan hunger, and a quotation from Charles de Foucauld sums it up for me: “Let us be persons of desire and of prayer.”

See Mati Milstein’s photo essay Checkpoint: Ramadan for some powerful photojournalism from Qalandia. Oh, and send some money in the direction of the East African famine appeal...

Vicky is a British Catholic who grew up in the Middle East. She works in the field of mental health. As a peace worker in Bethlehem (Palestine), she worked across Christian, Muslim, and Jewish communities, focusing on creative arts as a way of coping with trauma. She is currently back in Britain to take an MA in Jewish Studies, and hording coins in a jam jar marked ‘Back to Bethlehem’.

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