Monday, August 13, 2012
Once a year, and for 29 or 30 days, Muslims around the world observe the holy month of Ramadan. During that time, they give up food and drink from sun-up to sun-down. And while this is the easiest way to describe what Muslims do during that month, that is not what its all about.
Ramadan is about community, about faith, about piety. It is about caring, sharing and recognising. It is about asking for forgiveness, forgiving, forgetting, and remembering. It is about forgiving those who have done you wrong, and forgetting the wrongs that have been done. It is about remembering Allah and his graces and asking Him for forgiveness. It is about coming together with those you love and sharing a meal, a prayer, an evening, a celebration.
In Lebanon, Ramadan was always a big deal. We, my cousins and I, looked forward to it all year, and the night before it was expected to be confirmed, we stayed up late to be the first to hear the confirmation. We also stayed up late to eat! For as kids, and later as adults, part of the celebration of the month lay in our having an excuse for a late night, or early morning meal. We would get up before the sun, to the sounds of the drummer boy, calling us to our Sohoor. How sad we would be when we would sleep through it, our parents not waking us up, and miss our chance to have a glass of milk and a labneh sandwich before brushing our teeth and heading back under the covers. Sometimes, all we wanted was a cup of water, but that was enough of an excuse to get up. As we grew older and our ability to withhold hunger got stronger, we started preferring sleep to its interruption and ate our last meal of the day as close to bedtime as possible only waking up for a gulp of water from the bottle sitting besides the bed. Now that the sounds of the drummer boy are part of my past, I find myself wishing I had continued waking up to his tune.
The first day of fasting was always the most difficult. We would try to keep ourselves as occupied as possible to make the day go by faster. But alas, those last few minutes were the worst. Sitting at the Iftar table, listening to Koran and waiting for the canon to blast, the minutes seemed to drag and drag. Food was calling, sight and smell; it was sheer temptation.
As kids, I remember we were first allowed to fast "half" days, missing breakfast and then eating at lunch. Then, it was missing breakfast and lunch and enjoying dinner with the family. That brought on being allowed to fast on non-school days. Finally, when we reached puberty we were "adults" and could stay the whole day without food. That was a year worth celebrating, for that year we could flaunt our fasting at school and hold ourselves "higher" than our non-fasting friends. It was an honor and a priviledge to be able to fast during school days, and we were living it up. Our biggest victory those days was when our non-fasting friends would dangle our favorite chocolate infront of us in an attempt to break our will and and have us take a bite and we would hold on tight to our fast and not fall for their tricks. It was mean, when you look back at it, but we were kids, and kids do these things. And, we did not care. We would even sit down at the same table for lunch with them at times and just look the other way, or distract ourselves with conversation.
At times, though, hunger got the best of us and we would "forget" that we were fasting. But as soon as the first taste of food hits our tongue, we would get jolted back to reality. There was one such instance that I can still clearly see in my mind's eye. My cousins and I were at a karate tournament in which they were taking part. After it was done, the organisers passed around with juice and cookie. Who can refuse juice and cookies! So I helped myself to some completely forgetting that there are still many hours to go before I could officially eat. I take a bite and only after I had taken a sip of my juice did I remember, then was reminded again by my cousins, that I was fasting. Oh, the disappointment. I was devastated. Of course I could have moved on and continued fasting, as forgetfulness is forgiven, but I was made to feel so bad that I decided to just take my shame and break my fast early. My cousins continued to tease me about it all that day.
The last day of Ramadan was also the toughest, for you never really knew when the last day was. Just like its onset, its ending has to be confirmed by the sighting of the new moon. And often times we were deceived, hoping for a holiday and a day - or rather three - off from school, and in later years work, only to wake up the next morning and learn that it is still Ramadan. Or, finish our homework the night before only to find out that school is out and that we could have spent our afternoon doing something else, like playing. But Ramadan does end one day and the morning that follows is one of great celebration and many feasts.
For us, it meant a big breakfast and a late lunch at my maternal grandmother's house. These two meals were punctuated with numerous family visits, and equal amounts of eating maamoul. The day began with the phone ringing off the hook, with people competing to be the first to call to furnish Eid greetings, usually waking us up from our restful slumber. As kids, though, we did not mind too much as the excitement was contagious. But as sleeping in became more of a luxury as adults, we started dreading the wake-up calls, and I, for one, started unhooking my phone from the socket.
The visits were typically divided into his and her families. One got to be visited on the first day of the Eid while the other got the second. The following year, the arrangement rotated. The visits were short, ranging between 15 minutes and half an hour; there were so many houses to call upon and not enough time, so we had to keep them short. Of course by the time coffee was ready and the sweets were brought out, it wa time to pick up and leave. As kids, we did not get much time to play as we had to sit with the adults and "make" conversation. But later as teenagers, the brevity of the visits was appreciated; we wanted to move them along to hang out with our friends. By the time we made it to Eid lunch we were so full of maamoul that we had to force ourselves to eat real food.
The third, and last day, of the Eid was reserved for the immediate family. Our parents would take us out to a quiet family lunch and at times amusement park. We would spend the afternoon at home waiting for visitors to knock on our door in their turn. These visitors were usually non-family members.
Not only was the Eid decorated with food and family, there was also the fun attached. The fireworks we were allowed to play with, the new clothes and shoes, and the Eid money. While some families exchange gifts for the Eid, in our family the tradition was to hand out money. That money was then either saved or spent; in my case it was always saved, or rather my parents used to save it! When our reluctance to get dressed and go on these faily visits set in, our parents would use the money as the "carrot" to make us move. Collecting the money was one part of the tradition, comparing who had "made" more at the end of the day was the other. The cousins would huddle and start counting; when we were too young to count, we would compare the colors of the different notes. Fun times!
Then, the Eid would end, and life would go back to normal. The new clothes can now be worn every day, the fireworks would have to be put away, and sweets would go back to being reserved for special occasions. Fasting would have to wait for another year, and school out would have to wait for another holiday, of which there are many in Lebanon.
In the US, for me, Ramadan comes and goes without much fanfare. Every year I spend it in the US I feel like it is slipping farther and farther away from me. My family is far, and my community is non-existent. Even those same friends who used to celebrate it with me in Lebanon seem to be engrossed in other things and forget to bestow their wishes for the month upon me. It is hard being alone during such a holy month and very difficult to make it through on your own. But I push through it and try not to "take it personal" when my friends forget about the Eid and don't ask me how Ramadan is going. I do not make elaborate meals, and often the Eid slips by like any other day. The only reminder that this month is different than any other is my family in Lebanon, and my duty towards them to remember it and towards myself to honor it.