Friday, January 17, 2014

Eid Mubarak!

I kept waiting for my six months here to be completed; thinking perhaps I would be in a very different place emotionally since I arrived.  It's funny, but in looking back, I don't feel that much different.  I still feel like I'm on vacation!  A long one of course, but I don't feel "settled".   I don't feel at "home" and perhaps that is a good thing!  It has not become ordinary and I continue to look at each day with excitement and anticipation of a new experience; a new insight, a new revelation at life.

This past month has been especially extraordinary as we experienced Ramadan - the holy month of fasting for Muslims.  I had heard the horror stories; it's awful; you can't eat or drink in public, you have to cover your elbows and your knees, you can't eat out, etc... etc....  I however, was not so concerened with what I couldn't do; I wanted to see what they did!  I kept thinking that it would be like our Lent - 40 days of fasting, praying, and almsgiving and I was right!  Although, I have to admit that they are a little more fervent in their practices.  They fast from sun up to sun down from everything including water and they are supposed to actually attend the Mosque each day for evening prayers (normally you can pray in your own home).  They are also supposed to perform acts of charity and help their less fortunate elders.  All of this is to help them draw closer to God by praying more fervently, by practicing self-control and to be more congnizant of reaching out to the poor.  Those basically are the three pillars of Lent for the Catholic Christain - Fasting; Prayer; Almsgiving. 

The difference?  Well for one, I kept thinking how amazing it would be if our entire COUNTRY was united in our observance of Lent.  Where we took it seriously enough to close down our businesses so as to encourage and allow everyone to commit more time to prayer and to God.  Here, every restaurant was closed until sun down.  No one is allowed to drink or eat in public; not even in your car, so as not to tempt one who is fasting.  To do so is punishable by a fine of up to $500 and the police will stop you and issue you the citation!!  It was a bit daunting to see the streets that are lined with restaurants and usually full of people, completely empty.  Traffic was very light during the day and there are many theories as to why, which I will comment on in a minute, but I have to admit, that part was great!!  And when I did happen to be passing by a Mosque in the evening, I was touched by the number of cars parked outside and how many men were going to attend evening prayers.  It reminded me of how daily Mass attendance usually rises during Lent.

I myself admire their devotion; I cannot see into their hearts and therefore I will not judge their actions.  Unfortunately, that is what I found most disturbing; the cynicism of those who do not understand or subscribe to their religion.  They criticize them for holding a feast each night after breaking their fast.  They usually break their fast at sundown with evening prayers followed by an Iftar.  It consists of feasting on dates and water, followed by a delicious dinner.  I found it touching to learn that people will take dates and water to the Mosques each day and leave them there for those who are coming straight from work.   They also donate food which are then put into baskets for the needy to take.  Most restaurants have great Iftar Buffets and everyone benefits from the low prices meant to bring in business that may have been lost during the day.  We attended one and it was delicious!!  But for the most part, they cook delicious meals at home for the Iftar and invite family and friends.  After the Iftar, the continue with another buffet of food and music and fellowship that can last way into the early morning of the following day.  Again, many restaurants hold "all you can eat" buffets that run past midnight in beautiful outdoor tents.  Because of this celebration that can continue so late, many will say that that is why traffic is light; that they will then sleep all day and accomodate their work schedules  so as not to have to endure being awake during the fast of the day.  So where is the "sacrifice" in that??? 

I would say that that kind of practice is only possible for certain people; the wealthy, the self-employed, and not the common person.  A friend told me that she didn't look forward to Ramadan because her Muslim co-workers came in to work without brushing their teeth since they couldn't drink water, were grumpy from not eating, and then would drive like maniacs once they were off in order to go and get something to eat!  That doesn't sound like someone who is up partying all night and sleeping through the day.  And besides; even for those that might accomodate their schedules; we don't know what other changes or small sacrifices it might take; or whether despite their ability to do that, are not spending devout time in prayer or donating money or food to help those less fortunate.  Those sacrifices that are done in the private of their hearts and out of the public eye are the ones that mean the most to God!  So again, I don't attempt to judge; but I love meaning and the intent of what this time is meant to be about and I respect their efforts, for God knows my intent is not always carried out during Lent; my sacrifices are not always what they should be, but I do believe that God honors our efforts.

At the end of Ramadan, everyone is giddy with excitement; the stores are filled with beautiful fruit and candy baskets for gifts; and people are out shopping for new clothes to wear on the day after Ramadan is over - Eid.  As the sun goes down and the moon is spotted, the cannons go off and there is great celebration!  The next day is what I compare to our Easter Sunday - they all dress up and go to the Mosque for prayer; they cook big meals and families all gather and exchange gifts.  They give gifts to their neighbors - I received fresh dates from my friend, who had received them as a gift from her Muslim neighbors, and all the locals gets 5-12 days off to go and vacation and celebrate!  I can only imagine they feel the same type of joy we feel when we awake on Easter Sunday and can enjoy and celebrate with the deeper love for Christ we have hopefully cultivated during our 40 days of Lent.

Yes, maybe for some it's just a religious or cultural obligation; and yes, some will find ways around the sacrificial aspects prescribed.  For some, it is just a time for parties and a reason to buy a new outfit.  Am I talking about Ramadan or am I talking about Easter???  Funny isn't it, that I could be talking about either one. 

The fact is that our devotion to God is personal.  There are ways that are prescribed; traditions, obligations, suggestions at how we can enter more fully into God's presence so as to receive spiritual nourishment and strengthening for the journey, but it still all depends on us.  On the interior of our hearts; the place that only God can truly see. 

What a blessing for me to get to experience it first hand.  I am hoping that by next year I will have made some Muslim friends that would allow me to experience it a little more personally with them; but for now, I can honestly say that I not only survived my first Ramadan...I truly enjoyed it!

P.S. The Grand Mosque hosts an Open House a few times a year where visitors can tour the Mosque and visit different stations that explain different aspects of the Muslim faith.  They have food for you to sample; they have someone chanting parts of the daily prayer, the explain their cleansing rituals, etc...  It was very enlightening and I've posted pictures in my Facebook Album under this link:

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