First, I want to wish all my Muslim friends, and anyone else reading this, whether Muslim or not, a warm, sweet, satisfying and delightful Ramadan.
For those of you who don’t live in a Muslim country, which means probably most people reading this, you may not know that today is the second day of Ramadan here in Oman.
If you live in a big American city, all you might notice that cabs drive worse than ever, and your driver may be irritable. Well, he’s probably fasting. Most taxi drivers in NYC are Muslims: Pakistanis, Egyptians, Maghrebis, West Africans, etc. And those poor guys with the food carts!
Because the Islamic year is based on a lunar calendar, every year sees holidays just a little bit earlier. The month of Ramadan is no exception. In 2010 Ramadan began in mid-August. This year it’s the beginning of August. 2009 was beginning of September. All dates are vague anyway and no one knows until the night before. The month begins with the sighting of the moon, and this still means a couple of old, respectable guys in the desert peering out into the distance. Tradition!
All holidays, at least here in Oman, and certainly in the rest of the Gulf, are announced only a day or two before. You can forget about buying those 14 day advance airline tickets. So while it keeps westerners off balance, it’s kind of nice. Keeps things fresh somehow.
While the concept of Ramadan usually means no eating or drinking to most westerners, it’s way more than that.
From dawn to dusk, no eating at all, no drinking (even water,) no smoking, no sex, no gossip, no lies, no music. No oral medications! Injections only! But there must be exceptions to that. After dusk it’s time to eat and drink, then pray. Then eat more and you can smoke too. No sex except with your lawful spouse. That means no sex with boyfriends/girlfriends even though they supposedly don’t exist in any case, but that is balderdash of course. The no sex rule is taken very seriously though. Music is frowned on all the time during Ramadan, at least here in Oman, but it can be found. Still not supposed to gossip or lie. Or make a spectacle out of oneself.
To put it in our terms, it’s like a meditation retreat with lots of praying. Ramadan is about humility, charity, forgiveness, patience….The month focuses on prayer and contemplation of God. It’s very personal and also reinforces strong bonds between you, your family, friends, tribe, and other Muslims.
It’s good for women to cover their hair, and I do if I’m in a village, although not in Salalah. The idea behind this is to stop anyone feeling jealous if you have nice hair, and not to show yourself sexy in any way because if someone finds themselves thinking about you and your hair then they have broken their fast. You are your brother’s keeper.
As important as it is for you personally to fast, you must not do anything to harm others fasting. And since fasting is more than food and drink, you must take care not to arouse in others the same emotions that you are trying to sublimate in yourself.
And charitable acts are expected now, whether feeding the poor, volunteering with the elderly or handicapped (sorry, I forget the current mot de jour,) contributing to care of famine victims in Somalia, or what have you.
As dusk approaches, and the time for sundown prayer approaches, people gather for Iftar, breaking the fast. In Oman this is usually a couple of dates and a tiny coffee and then, as your system gets a grip, you go and pray together, washing yourselves first.
After prayers, which, incidently, are done en masse five times a day, with all your family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, strangers, etc, it’s time to eat.
Then it’s a big meal, with lots of tea, and sweets and smoking, and and and…..Then you are free for the night.
Some countries party all night and sleep all day. Oman doesn’t. It’s almost a normal schedule, just an hour of so later than usual.
Despite some initial grumpiness (everyone has to come to grips with it, and the first couple days are hard,) most people like Ramadan. They say it’s only for one month! Imagine us, a culture with the attention span of gnats, saying fasting all day is only for one month!
In the West, some holidays repeat every year, like Christmas. The others, like Easter, are known years in advance to people who care about them. In any case, they are mostly one-day holidays, with the exception of the week between Christmas and New Years, and even that one is not universal. Not like Ramadan or Eid. The best we have otherwise are the (faire le pont) long weekends. And those are not universal either. Imagine having 7-10 day stretches of holiday, where all businesses close, and having several of these a year. And then the entire month of Ramadan, where even though people insist it’s “work as normal,” not a lot gets done…
But to me the biggest difference is the sense of belonging people have here. It might bug them much of the time, and lots of people want the freedom of the individual lifestyle, at least when they think about and romanticize it. Its true that everyone here knows your business and butts in and judges you, but you also feel part of something larger, and supported, and cared for. Even for men groaning under responsibility, they have so many support systems, familial, tribal, government, etc, that it’s simply a different experience than we have. Where we might have more freedom, and even the people who butt in don’t have society’s sanction to butt in, for most of us, we are islands unto ourselves. If we mess up, we’re hosed.
I don’t think either system is perfect, but I think they both have great points. I’m not really part of the Omani system, so I can’t really understand it. Ramadan is a lonely time to be a foreigner here, unless you have a family. I thoroughly enjoy my anonymity in New York and my freedom of course. But I also love the sense of belonging I get here, even if it’s actually relatively minimal. Too much of it would choke me anyway. To me, what I have already seems like a lot. Alhamdulilah.