Celebrating Ramadan in Jordan: a reflection

Have you ever just stopped and watched the flow of people around you? Where people go, what they do, when they do it — societies gush and stream with the tides of the people that make them up.
For those who don’t know, Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, where Muslims abstain from food, drink and medication from sunrise to sunset. The month is intended to bring Muslims closer to God by requiring them to abstain from permissible foods and activities at all times — even in a private place where nobody would know if they broke their fast.
As a Muslim living in the United States, I am aware of how out-of-tune the current of my life can be with those around me, especially in the month of Ramadan. Fasting from sunrise to sunset changes the way you plan your day — you’re up earlier to eat before the day starts, but you’ll be exhausted in the evening and hangry in the final hours of twilight. It’s like being someone that drinks freshwater, but who lives on a raft in a salty ocean where everyone else drinks salt water.
Thus, it was naturally a welcome surprise to see Ramadan in Jordan, where, for the first time, fasting was the norm and not the exception. The first day of the month coincided with the first day of our spring break from classes, to ease the transition for those who were fasting. I had to head into the center anyway, and could feel how drowsy the rest of the bus around me was — everyone’s senses were collectively dulled by the exertion of fasting.
My fellow students were given tips on how to manage the month as non-Muslims: Eat in private — most restaurants and cafes will be closed until the evening — avoid restaurants around the time that the fast is broken to dodge the mother of all dinner rushes, and be respectful of professors and internship supervisors who are dealing with the stress of fasting. I, a Muslim student in a Muslim country, had paddled my raft to a freshwater sea.
It was nice, for the first time in my life, for Ramadan to not be defined as a struggle against the norm. It’s a sharp contrast from the way that Muslims in the U.S. have to swim against the flow and try and fulfill their religious obligations against the unforgiving wall of a semi-secular Western society.
And I know what you’re thinking: Yeah! Stick it to the intolerant society! We need to be more diverse and accepting and listen to Muslims about what they want to see in Ramadan! This should be a chance for us to learn and grow as a community and embrace religious minorities!
Yet, as aspirational and well-intentioned as those goals are, they’re also something that I personally struggle with. Yes, community iftars and outreach are awesome experiences, but in my experience they take a lot of work and effort and the fruits are handed out in the form of a cultural novelty to the general public.
As a Muslim, I would want to fast in a Muslim country over the United States 99 times out of 100. I’d rather go where I’m in the majority than try and carve out a place where I’ll forever be a minority, where even if I can find a place to breathe I will have to spend that breath explaining who I am to people, however well-intentioned they may be. Even in the most tolerant and inclusive spaces, Ramadan becomes a month more focused on teaching the people around me than my own spiritual fulfillment. Why try to survive in a saltwater ocean when there is a freshwater sea elsewhere?
It’s a difficult issue because diversity and inclusion are not things we should do away with. We need to value and include everyone, and have conversations about our differences. At the same time, we should consider the toll that work can take on the very people it’s intended to help uplift, and how trying to complete a basic element of your religion can turn into a Sisyphusian task with little to no return for the work and care invested. Filtering saltwater into freshwater is difficult and expensive — and is even more challenging when it feels like you’re being used only to make salt for someone else.
The truth is, that’s only my personal perspective. There are countless other Muslims — including the Islamic Cultural Association here at Allegheny — that are doing the good work of outreach and advocacy on a level I could never and that deserve the support of the wider Allegheny community. It takes great courage to host events and welcome the community during one of the most demanding times of the year.
If you ask this Muslim how his Ramadan’s going, however, he’ll tell you that even in a sea of freshwater his throat is parched by the idea of returning to saltier waters.