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Kazim Ali

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Ramadan in Ramallah

Posted: 08/02/11 07:38 PM ET

What I promised was a set of reflections on practicing Ramadan in the so-called "Holy Land." My plan was to come to a city in the West Bank for the first part, then return to East Jerusalem before heading north to some of the cities in Galilee with large Muslim populations before finally returning to Al-Aqsa, the Far Mosque, for the end of the month.

But for three reasons, I couldn't even begin.

Firstly, what is the "Holy Land?" And what, at the moment, is holy about it? Everyone has a different narrative about what happened here since 1948 if you don't keep your eyes and your ears open you commit the error of thinking you understand the place. As I crossed and recrossed the "Green Line" -- the actual border of the State of Israel -- and crossed and recrossed the Separation Barrier (in most places constructed inside Palestinian territories) I found myself changing not only my affect but my actual language as well -- the "West Bank" became "the Occupied Palestinian Territories" or "Palestine," while some of the Jewish settlers I met with used the phrase "Judea and Samaria," linguistically staking their claim on the place.

Secondly, after several weeks of traveling in the area -- scorchingly hot -- I didn't even know if I was going to be able to fast. And if I didn't fast then how would I be able to write about it intellectually and viscerally?

Which brings me to the third and biggest problem: I have already written about fasting. A lot.

For two different Ramadans I kept personal reflections of my fasting experiences. One year I wrote a little poetic journal in a spiral notebook. I thought about myself as a plant in a pot, wilting and finding out new things about the world around me by so doing. Fasting -- a restraint from food, water and other physical pleasures during daylight hours -- teaches you something about the body's desire but also the body's interrelationship with the physical world around it beyond the mere question of consumption. It is a lesson we, in the age of disappearing natural resources and unsustainable ways of living and interacting with the ecosystem (including one another), need badly to learn.

Later I was invited to keep a daily blog of my fasting experience. Here I really tried to engage with the "hows" and "whys" of a month-long fasting practice. One day of fasting is enough for most peope but to continue day after day, week after week, through a full cycle of the moon effects a whole cycle of change in the cells and skin and organs of the body. After all, if the moon exerts enough pull to lift the very oceans toward it then what does it do to the blood and fluids of the individual human body?

Both my diary and blog have been collected and published as a book called "Fasting for Ramadan: Notes from a Spiritual Practice." So what could I add about the experience that I haven't already said? It is beside the point, of course. Because fasting is experiential. Meaning it is different every time. Because you are different -- at a different place in your life, in different physical condition -- like me at the moment, in a completely different geographical reality: in the tan and brown hills of Palestine, marked by olive tree orchards and settlements, humming with Ramallah's urban life.

But Ramadan is different as well. Since it is fastened to the lunar calendar it moves back about ten days each solar year. When I kept my little fasting notebook, I was fasting in late September, in the cool last days of summer and beginning of autumn, the death of green plants and beginning of hibernation. When I blogged a couple years later it was the end of August, the students were coming back from vacation, sleepy summer was winding down and the town was coming alive again. And then now: Ramadan in early August, everything around me fulminating green an abundance of vegetables and fruit and honey available at the little farmers market designed to allow local Palestinian growers to compete with the larger grocery stores which carry primarily Israeli and foreign produce.

In terms of being in such a politically vexed place -- vexed meaning difficult but also meaning angry -- I must remember also that fasting is a turning away from "received" knowledge and an embracing of the knowledge of the body itself. With each passing day it becomes harder and harder to believe that the conflict in this part of the world has anything to do with religion, though religion has been used as the excuse for it. I have broken bread with too many Israelis and too many Palestinians together to give much credence to that excuse. Though the various issues are still confusing to me -- how can we achieve reconciliation? What kinds of restorative justice can be offered to those who lost their land, their livelihood and their right to return home? -- I sense all around me a bright optimism, a firm hope in a better future.

But thinking through these things didn't help me with the most essential issue to the matter at hand -- in this blistering heavy heat, should I juice fast instead? Perhaps drink water only? Should I ease into the fast?

Ramadan answers your questions for you. Here, unlike at home in the U.S., the clock moves back an hour to give you a little more darkness at the end of the day. The hotel I am staying at has offered to serve me an early morning breakfast at four o'clock. On the streets the vendors are selling high-energy food to get one through a day of fasting, for example sweet tamarind juice and katayif, small whole-grain pancakes made with dates and walnuts.

There was a moment in the evening, fast-breaking time, when the streets were ghostly empty. Restaurants were open late so we went to one called Ziryab. I had a fattoush salad and an onion soup as well as a glass of limonana, delicious mint-infused lemonade. When we emerged, refreshed, the streets were full and bustling, as if at mid-day. The difference was that instead of the unrelenting pressure of the noon sun we were greeted with cool gusts of mountain air.

It doesn't matter where you are or what you think you know about the world or about yourself. A fast with an opening and closing will always hold you. Begin.