Growing up the son of a protestant pastor and valuing the role that my Christian faith plays in my own life, it often comes as a surprise to my friends when I tell them that Ramadan is among one of my favorite religious holidays. While Christmas and Easter are seminal to my faith tradition and represent some of my fondest memories growing up, they are one-day celebrations that in the American modern era sometimes lack the communal feel that the holy month of Ramadan offers in the Muslim world.
My first real experience came during "Ramazan" in Turkey which happened to overlap with the American Thanksgiving tradition during my Fulbright year in Ankara. Living in a Turkish university dormitory, my roommates invited me to join in for my very first iftar, or breaking of the fast. After that first night or seeing how everyone else was fasting and having the tenants explained to me, I decided to join in and experienced my first sahur at 3am the next morning before dawn when I was barely hungry.
Over the course of the month I fasted 18 of the 30 days of Ramadan in Turkey and experienced a holiday like I never had before. Celebrations always involve feasts regardless of the religion or occasion, therefore the dichotomy between fasting during the day and feasting at night was truly exhilarating. Trying to remind oneself of the virtues like charity, compassion, and forgiveness while avoiding vices of selfishness and dishonesty listed in the Quran is best achieved when focused on one's life given the need to keep the mind pre-occupied from the hunger pangs experienced during the first few days of fasting. Unlike the Christian tradition of fasting which tends to allow drinking water, the strict observance of not allowing anything to pass one's lips was particularly difficult for me. However I experienced and learned more about Turkish culture and hospitality that month than any other time in Turkey.
Since leaving Turkey over a decade ago, I've continued to celebrate Ramadan with my Muslim friends through invitations to iftars here in the United States and many other places around the world. I've always been amazed how Muslims in America can fast while everyone around them drinks and eats. This year in particular I've been blessed to be a part of several iftar celebrations that have reminded me once again of the joys of Ramadan. The simple act of sharing a meal and traditions such as meditating on the call to prayer may seem natural to Muslims, but to most Americans like myself it represents rare acts of genuine hospitality where nothing is expected in return.
Even to this day I can remember the final days of "Ramazan Bayram" in Turkey which are official holidays where families visit one another similar to the American tradition of Thanksgiving. The strength of communal and familial bonds I experienced with my Turkish roommates as they took me back to their homes and we shared in feast after feast, made me realize the true value of holy days and months throughout the year that allow us to contemplate the supernatural that can transcend the mundane worries of life all around us.
As the world continues around us and we come to the end of Ramadan, I hope we each can reach back to our own moments of calm reflection and serenity to contemplate the broader connections we share as human beings first and foremost. Whether we are Christian, Jews, Muslims or any other religion, we can celebrate the spirit of Ramadan by sharing fellowship with those around us.
I'm grateful to Turkey and my Turkish friends for first introducing me to Ramadan and to my many Muslim friends for continuing the traditions that I have come to love dearly. Ramadan Kareem!