I chose Ramadan as the holiday to highlight in April not because it is so little known, but in order to share my personal experiences of living in countries where Ramadan is widely celebrated. These observations cover four countries in the world and span nearly 30 years.
First, a basic description of the holiday as I understand it.
Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. During this month followers of Islam are expected to fast from sunup to sundown each day. Because the Islamic calendar is based on the moon, not the sun, the date for Ramadan advances about 12 days each year. This year it begins on April 13 and ends on May 12. Observing the fast during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam.
My first Ramadan experience: Tehran, Iran, 1975 and 1976
My first experience of living in a country where Ramadan was observed was when I lived and worked in Tehran between 1975 and 1977. In both 1975 and 1976, Ramadan fell in late summer months when days are hot and long. Yet observant Muslems rose each morning before sunrise in order to have a meal that would have to tide them over for the entire day. They would refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking for all daylight hours. The most observant would even refrain from swallowing saliva. They would next be able to eat when the sun went down in the evening.
But I must admit that I didn’t see much of the impact in those years. I don’t recall restaurants closing during the day. I do remember one restaurant with windows along the main street pulled their shades down so that no one walking by would have to see patrons inside eating. In the office, we continued to be served tea or soft drinks whenever we requested them. If in our ignorance we offered food or drink to our students, who all continued to attend classes at the same times as in other months, those who were fasting would politely refuse by explaining they were fasting. That was enough for us to realize we shouldn’t have made the offer.
In addition to not being impacted negatively by the reversal of times for normal activities, I also did not see the joyous observations of Ramadan. But more about that later.
My second Ramadan experience: Doha, Qatar, 1988 and 1989
In 1988, Ramadan began in the middle of April. While not summertime, the temperatures in Qatar are hotter from March through November than in any other place I had lived. Not being able to drink water in the heat was a more obvious hardship.
Unfortunately, in Qatar, my view of Ramadan shifted from it being barely visible to it being an inconvenience. All the restaurants closed during the day so that everyone knew daytime fasting was normal. Business hours shifted, too. Offices opened later in the morning to be sure everyone had time for a filling meal before dawn and time to rest before beginning work. Offices did not close for lunch but closed earlier at the end of the day. These changes lessened the impact of normal daytime activities on those who fasted. And that’s where Ramadan began to seem like an inconvenience. Those of us who were not fasting were expected to work normal hours in spite of the fact that we couldn’t schedule meetings with our counterparts outside of the shortened days. It felt a bit like being kept after school because we didn’t take part.
My Ramadan revelation: Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 1996 through 1999
Thankfully, my experience with Ramadan in Abu Dhabi included my eyes being opened by the tradition of iftar, the breaking of the fast at the end of each day in Ramadan. I had heard about iftar in Qatar. We Americans at the embassy even held one for ourselves once. But since we hadn’t gone through the fasting, our iftar was little more than an office dinner.
In Abu Dhabi, we didn’t adjust our working hours during Ramadan, but we did allow local employees who were fasting to arrive later than normal and leave earlier than usual without making official note. Each employee was permitted to handle their personal needs during Ramadan as appropriate. This translated into happy employees, working as it made sense to do with many of them sharing their joy at the daily upcoming iftar when they would be able to get together with family and friends to break the fast. To hear them talk about it, Ramadan sounded like a month of Thanksgivings.
Our Emirati counterparts in the UAE invited members of the embassy staff to join them for iftar. This was an eye-opening experience for me because at each of these events, I could see how joyous getting together with others to share a meal could be, proof of what our local employees were saying.
I also realized the meal included a number of traditions. Because those who fasted had not had any food in their stomachs for several hours, they broke the fast slowly, beginning with fruit juices, to provide the liquid they needed, dates, which are rich in nutrients as well as sugar to give an energy boost, and nuts. Prayers followed this initial breaking of the fast. Hosts provided a separate space for observant Muslims to pray. Once those who prayed rejoined the group, a meal beginning with the most delicious lentil soup I have ever had followed by all types of fish, meat, vegetables, and grains was served. The end of the meal included tea and desserts I rarely saw at other times of the year. I began to look forward to invitations to iftar from my counterparts.
But the iftar meal that touched me the most was one delivered by the wife of one of my employees. Her husband, Mackawee, had been with the embassy since it opened in 1971. His wife, Huda, had worked for the embassy in the past until they married. Both were from Yemen although they rarely traveled there.
Huda called me at the office one day during Ramadan to tell me she didn’t want me to cook anything. She said she would bring a meal for us. That evening, before sunset, Huda arrived with an array of Yemeni foods I had never seen in any restaurant. Mandi—meat and rice with a special blend of spices—zhug—a hot sauce akin to chimichurri, chermoula, and salsa verde—a dish whose name I cannot recall made with fenugreek that Huda showed me how to mix into the rest of the sauce, and much more. There was enough to feed everyone on my block. When I asked if Mackawee would be joining us, she explained that she wanted the meal to be for us, a gift from her because of the many ways she said I had helped her and her husband. She explained that giving gifts to say thanks to those in their lives and to acknowledge their own blessings is an important part of Ramadan.
How I wished I had known that about Ramadan when I lived in Iran and Qatar.
Huda’s generosity to my husand and me prompted me to suggest to other women at the embassy who were not Muslims that we could create our own iftar for the entire embassy staff as a way of sharing in the joy of the holiday. Four others, from Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, joined me in planning a meal with the traditional foods we had all seen at iftar in Abu Dhabi. I was surprised to learn that many of the foods I thought were traditional for all Muslims were not known to everyone. Each country has it’s own traditional food for iftar, so we all were learning as we went.
We identified the day we would observe iftar and invited all the employees, American and local, to join us. As we set out the food, we began to worry that we didn’t have enough. The five of us agreed to hold back to make sure all our guests could eat.
We knew not all the employees would return to the embassy. We were pleasantly surprised by how many did, with their families of course. Again, we worried the food might run out. But after all who had come had served themselves, there was plenty left for the five of us. We dished up food and brought plates to the American staff who were still working in the main building who couldn’t break away to join us. And we invited the Marines to eat. Then the local guards who protected the exterior of the embassy grounds.
And still there was food left over. We dished up plates and brought them out to the local Emirati policemen who guarded the block the embassy was on.
Those of us who grew up in the Christian faith couldn’t help but compare the result with the story of loaves and fishes. We invited the local employees who were still on the embassy grounds to take what still remained home or to deliver to the places where those without families and means were known to congregate.
Ramadan in Yemen, 2000
In 2000, Ramadan fell in early December. The proximity to Thanksgiving made me think it would be special to host a meal at the embassy that combined the traditional food of Ramadan with a traditional Thanksgiving meal. I thought it was a dream too big, but I mentioned how we had held an embassy iftar two years before in Abu Dhabi to my Yemeni secretary, Sumaya, and she took the idea to the local employee association who all agreed we should do the same in Sana’a.
Sumaya and the other local employees spread the word to plan what each employee would bring. The commissary in Yemen had obtained turkeys for Thanksgiving, so finding one for a communal Thanksgiving iftar was no problem. The American employees agreed who would bring mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, green beans, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and pumpkin pies. The Marine guards put up a traditional Yemeni tent on the grounds at the back of the embassy, with cushions lining all sides for people to lean against in the Yemeni style of a mafraj or sitting area. They installed lights inside the tent and a sound system so we could enjoy traditional Arab music in the background.
On the day, families arrived. Wives and children we American staff members had never seen accompanied their husbands. The event continued until late in the evening with everyone smiling as they left.
Observing the joy that comes with the month of Ramadan for those who observe it made me begin to think about the joy I was missing by not taking part in the religious and spiritual traditions of my youth. I hadn’t turned my back on Christianity. I hadn’t claimed that God doesn’t exist. But I had stopped taking part in the community of believers in the tradition of my youth. The generosity shown to me by Huda and the local employees in both the Abu Dhabi and Yemen during Ramadan made what was missing in my life visible.
Once I returned to the US after my year in Yemen, I returned to the community of believers within my Lutheran tradition. And every year when I am reminded that Ramadan is about to begin, I think about the endurance that those who flip-flop day and night for 28 days must have in order to join in the celebrations every evening for those same 28 days. I think of that each time we whinge when we move our clocks ahead one hour as we move from Standard to Daylight Savings Time.
And I thank Huda for sharing her faith with me so that I would reconnect with my own.