Ramadan is the most holiest of holy times for Muslims because it’s the time that the angel Gabriel gave the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad. It’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset every day during the month of Ramadan. (I knew this from earlier visits to the Middle East.)
This year, Ramadan began May 6th when I found myself in Cairo preparing to join a medical convoy to Gaza, and was scheduled to end June 4th (or maybe June 5th depending on the country). Most of my Egyptian family at Pension Roma, my home when I’m in Egypt, are Muslim. They were looking forward to Ramadan.
On the spur of the moment, without much thought or preparation, I decided to join them in their daily fasting. Of course, fasting is only one part of Ramadan; reading the Quran and praying every day is also very important to Muslims during this time. I didn’t plan to read or pray.
So why did I fast?
- To respect my friends. It felt disrespectful to eat or drink when they couldn’t.
- To experience the feeling of emptiness and fasting for myself.
- To challenge myself. Could I abstain from eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset for an entire month? (I like challenges.)
What did I learn?
- For a newbie, fasting is not easy, especially during the first week or two. I experienced headaches, fatigue and very low energy at the beginning. Instead of working on a writing project every afternoon, I napped.
- Surprisingly, the empty feeling in my stomach felt good. By nature, I’m not a foodie who looks forward to cooking or eating. It’s just another bodily function which I must attend to in order to keep my body healthy. My doctor routinely chides me for my bad diet. During Ramadan, I had a good reason for not eating.
- Giving up water in the hot Mediterranean climate is something else. I found it very difficult not to drink water when I was thirsty. By mid-afternoon, my mouth and throat felt like cotton. Yech!
- Appreciating how my internal clock could adjust to the early morning (3 AM) knock on my door to join Yousef and the rest of my Egyptian family for a meal before sunrise. I’ll remember that time together with a special fondness.
- The best part of Ramadan for me was sharing the pre-dawn meal and later breaking the fast with the Iftar meal at sunset with friends and community.
Every afternoon just before sunset, I walked the streets in my Cairo neighborhood and watched people preparing for their Iftar meal. The fast-food guys rushed by on their scooters delivering orders to shopkeepers. Many people took seats on the sidewalk, patiently waiting for the signal from the Mosque that the official time of sunset had arrived and people could eat.
In a restaurant where I frequently ate, everyone was seated and chatting well before the appointed hour. Suddenly, the entire place would fall silent as everyone started eating in unison. Food takes on a new meaning when you’ve been fasting the entire day. The Iftar ritual always began the same way — eating a date or two, and drinking water and juice (mango or date juice). Delicious!
Breaking the fast with friends (new and old) reminded me how lucky we are to have the gift of food, and also that millions of children and families around the world are starving because of war and ungodly sanctions that prevent food delivery. [How can Saudi Arabia hold itself up as a good Muslim country when its actions are directly causing so much death, destruction and starvation to millions of Muslims in Yemen? If I was a practicing Muslim, I would boycott Hajj and Umrah in Mecca until the monarchy in Saudi Arabia aligns its actions with the teachings of the Quran.]
I experienced many, many examples of love and kindness during my first Ramadan. The Cairo shopkeeper (the man in the middle) always asked about my bum leg because he noticed I was limping. Each day he told me he would pray for me, and he encouraged me to pray as well. Then there was the date seller from Aswan (right photo) who introduced me to the most delicious dates I’ve ever tasted. He waved to catch my attention each time I passed, even if I was on the other side of the busy street.
I had the wonderful opportunity to reconnect with very good friends from Gaza now living in the United Arab Emirates, so I decided to spend the last two weeks of Ramadan in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.
On my arrival we headed straight to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi because the sunset was nearly upon us. The Mosque prepares Iftar meals for 30,000 people every day during Ramadan. The Mosque and its beautiful surroundings were only surpassed by the superb organizational efforts to provide a feast on such a grand scale. I was speechless.
Another day we drove out to the sand dunes where we watched the sun slowly sink in the west and ate our Iftar meal on a blanket under the stars. Despite the alarm I felt driving out in the middle of nowhere without another soul in sight and no markings or signs anywhere, the serenity and peaceful surroundings was a heavenly experience beyond anything I’ve known in my 65 years.
Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the month of Ramadan. It feels like every joyous holiday in the world wrapped up into a single day. We woke before dawn and went over to the small neighborhood mosque in Sharjah where everyone was gathering to say their morning prayers. I stood back and watched.
Children in their new clothes reminded me of the excitement and anticipation I experienced every Christmas morning as a child. I learned about the Eid tradition in many families of giving their children a little money to spend on sweets and toys. [And I was reminded that many children in Gaza are going without even this little pleasure because life in Gaza is practically unlivable.]
Fasting this Ramadan gave me time to meditate and think. For me, Ramadan is about sharing love with each other and there’s an abundance of love to go around (more than enough for every man, woman and child on this Planet).
Love is love, whether a Muslim, Jew or Christian shares it. Our world needs much more of it but there are so many examples of people withholding love for the “other”. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Allah – Yahweh – God never intended for any of us to be miserly with our love.
I felt well-loved and cared for during Ramadan. I will always remember my blessings.