My friends in New Zealand and the United Kingdom are curious about Ramadhan, knowing a little of it, and if I’m asked how it ‘looks’, I would have to respond like this…
For me, little changes apart from one key element. No! I’m not required to ‘be a Muslim’ for a month, and if I choose to not observe Ramadhan it would be a choice that I have the freedom to make. However, if I was to break the Ramadhan fast, that could be offensive to others. Many expats, not used to the demands of Ramadhan in a hot climate, will take water surreptitiously, or behind closed doors, to get them through the daylight hours, so as not to offend anyone.
You don’t have to be living as a European, in the Middle East, as a non-Muslim, in a Muslim society, to understand that while there will be no ‘bowing and scraping before you’, you are accorded a level of personal respect that is quite endearing, and is yours to lose. One certain way to do so, is to dismiss it as an irrelevance to your own lifestyle and culture. You would do so at your peril, because that would mean that you are forgetting you are a guest in their home country and be incredibly antagonistic and disrespectful. Although the level of offence cannot invite a comparison, it would be akin to visiting a friend, and lighting up a cigarette in their no-smoking home environment. It would be a dumb move!
In any case, a wise man would choose a totally different, empathetic attitude to Ramadhan, as most do. Rather than relying on their ability to be discreet, and inoffensive, it is almost easier, and certainly less antagonistic to comply with Ramadhan by not eating from daylight till dusk. And certainly, one of the non-Muslim faculty at the University of Nizwa have commented on the “almost child-like delight”, of her students when she ‘let slip’, that she was doing so. “It was a great moment as the news spread around the room like the ripples from a pebble on the pond, and I’m certain that my doing so was what got us through some really challenging times, knowing we were ‘doing it’ together.
Another big thing you notice about Ramadhan is how regimented each day becomes. However, this is not peculiar in some respects, as prayer times are always published in all forms of the media, and everyone has phone apps telling them the prayer times, and which way to face Mecca. With Ramadhan’s significant disciplinary intrusions into Muslim life, of which there are as many practical aspects as there are of their faith (more on that another time), the day does get ‘portioned up’.
Muslims take a small meal, suhoor, before their first prayer in the morning, the Fajr before sunrise. Then they will go about their daily tasks until the Dhuhr prayer, at midday, when the Sun is at its highest. Work finishes early during Ramadhan, so there is then something of a rush hour on the roads prior to the Asr afternoon prayer. Then, well I think most take a nap (I know I do!), because the streets will be deserted. The Maghrib prayer is when everything comes to life again, and after that they will take their evening meal, iftar and spend time with family and friends until the night prayer, Isha.
Iftar meals are not small, as every matriarch seems intent upon proving she can provide more and better food than anyone else. It’s like having Christmas Dinner everyday for a month, and you know if you don’t workout, you will ‘pile on the pounds!’ Many restaurants will offer free food to the less affluent of their communities. And kids with lights and lamps, celebrating an Egyptian Caliph lighting the way in the search for his son who had been kidnapped by an ogre. In days gone by would play in the streets, but today play in the yard with their fancily decorated lanterns.
So, I will tell my friends, “That’s what it looks like”. And there is always one who will say, “Yes Ray, but what’s it all about?” That’s when I will say, “I’m all talked out mate, but I’ll tell you later”. So that’s me, I will tell you later, what Ramadhan is ‘all about’, from the other side of the fence, next week.