Having spent my entire life in the United States, the romantic descriptions of the commemoration of Ramadan in the Middle East described by my parents completely eluded me. They described streets illuminated with green and white strings of lights, evening bazaars selling everything from lettuce to oriental rugs, and crowds of people flocking to enjoy a late night snack of shawarma, manaeesh, falafel. Yum.
When I started fasting, Ramadan was a time that meant I couldn't eat my Cheetos until after sunset. Even worse than not being able to eat my Cheetos, was the onerous task of explaining to my classmates, and sometimes teachers, why this 4th grader was engaging in what appeared to be an extreme act of asceticism and self-denial. As I grew older, my understanding of fasting, too, matured. Fasting was about developing empathy for the impoverished and cultivating a merciful heart. However, even with age, the feeling of isolation associated with fasting didn't really subside. Though occasional news stories about how Southern California Muslims commenced the month of fasting were exciting, and it was always awesome when a professor, employer, or friend would ask if you were able to complete your tasks given your fasting, the reality was that no one around me could conceive of what it took to simply get through the day while maintaining productive.
No biggie. I've been doing it since 4th grade.
Through the years, I've found solidarity in participating in the communal religious and social activities that come along with Ramadan. Moreover, I do feel that I have developed compassion for the impoverished who don't have the comfort of knowing a feast awaits at the end of the day. On the whole, however, fasting maintains a solitary activity, a lonely toil for the day, before spending a few hours in the evening with loved ones breaking the fast, attending the mosque, socializing, eating, eating, and more eating.
This Ramadan is not my first away from home, but it is my first in a country where it is publicly commemorated. I've heard from American friends who spent Ramadan in Egypt or Lebanon for example, that the experience just wasn't the same; it was too easy. People slept all day and didn't flock to the mosques in the evenings to experience some communal spirituality. I never understood their gripes. That kind of Ramadan sounded like a pretty sweet deal to me.
Here in Singapore, where only 15 percent of a small island of five million people is Muslim, Ramadan is commemorated in all the ways described by parents and friends above. The end of the month of fasting, Eid al-Fitr, is a public holiday. When walking at night through the streets upon streets of the Ramadan night market of Geylang, I saw lights, food, people... I not only understood what my parents had described to me, I felt part of a grand celebration that I had never experienced before. It felt like Christmas. My Muslim Christmas. Besides the night markets, it is both delightful and hilarious for my husband and I to see the special Ramadan combo meals at Popeye's Chicken and Biscuits (yes, halal!) and Ramadan soda displays ala Super Bowl Sunday in grocery stores; even my bananas wished me a blessed Ramadan.
Then the proverbial light bulb. All of that is unfulfilling. Commemorating Ramadan in such a public way has not made it a more enjoyable experience. It's too easy. What I used to value primarily about Ramadan was the cultivation of empathy and mercy, and to some extent participating in communal practice. But now I know that what I love most is the solitary and lonely struggle. The arduous toil. The test of patience. Enduring the grumbling stomach and lightheadedness, and the quiet whispers asking God to help me make it through the day. It's both exhausting and empowering. The Quran speaks about this:
"Do you think that you will enter Heaven before God tests those of you who strive hard and makes evident those who are patient?" [ Quran 3:142]
I've realized that the fast is not about simply developing empathy; that's just scratching the surface. Ramadan is about developing a thick skin for life's struggles:
"We shall certainly test you with fear and hunger -- as well as loss of property, souls and crops. Give good news to those who are patient in adversity." [Quran 2:155]
If I can deny myself my basic needs and endure the long, hot days, then the possibilities for my internal strength are endless. I understand now what the 13th century Sufi master, Jalaluddin Rumi, meant when he wrote, "fasting is Solomon's ring." It is a source of strength, discipline, and preparations for the inevitable and lonely struggles of life.
The result of this struggle?
"A table descends to your tents, Jesus' table.
Expect to see it when you fast, this table
spread with other food, better than the broth of cabbages."
(Open Secret, Jalaluddin Rumi)