Imagining an American Ramadan
Life in Africa
Ramadan is in its second week as I write this. It is now the long middle of the month. During the first few days of Ramadan, everyone is excited because of the change, kind of like the start of the holiday season. People talk about who is fasting and who is not. The 14-, 15- and 16-year-olds who are fasting for the first time feel grown up. The little kids like it because after about two in the afternoon they can get away with everything because their parents and older siblings no longer have the energy to control them. The Koranic students who go from house to house begging for food get more food this month than during most others for the same reason soup kitchens have extra food around Thanksgiving.
And I like it because it is refreshing to see a culture and people devoted to something without taking into account the financial implications or lost work hours. Do not misunderstand me: Ramadan is hard. I fasted for three days last year and was content to never do it again for the rest of my life. The middle two weeks of the month are painful because the end seems so far off. Despite this, I see the benefits that Ramadan provides and think it would be amazing to see what would happen in the United States if Americans fasted for even a week.
Americans always complain about lack of time for themselves and their families. This fasting period would allow everyone to slow down dramatically. After-school soccer practice, happy hour, late afternoon classes and any other late afternoon or evening activities would be canceled for the duration of the fast. People would leave work or school around noon to go home. Because of low energy levels, no major activities could take place and families would sit around and talk to each other.
Malls, corporations, police services and grocery stores would cut their employees to the bare minimum. Most importantly, all this would be done without the guilt that many Americans have when they do take time for their families and themselves. All this was done in respect for God or some other force greater than themselves. It would be blasphemous to calculate the dollar value of lost work hours or worry about the effects of lost school hours. Families would get hours to themselves. People would have time to think. Life would slow down.
Realistically, of course, this would never happen. Long ago, most Christian religions abandoned the practice of fasting because it no longer fit within the Western cultural context. Simplified down from an extended fasting period, I think it would also be interesting to imagine if Americans adopted some form of the Muslim practice of praying five times a day. When I first arrived in Mauritania I found the five-times-a-day prayer excessive. Five times a day, the mosques scream out over their microphones for people to stop what they are doing and pray.
The entire act of praying takes anywhere from five to 20 minutes. It was not this time that bothered me; it was the fact that meetings would stop at sundown for everyone to pray and then resume. I did not understand why they could not just wait five more minutes until the meeting was over to pray. As my life pace transitioned from American speed to Mauritanian speed, I began to appreciate these daily interruptions in routine. The religious aspect is obviously very important. But because I am both an outsider to the religion and a former anthropology major, I see the importance and benefits of the process.
Five times a day people stop whatever they are doing. They wash their face, hands and feet. The actual act of praying is similar to a stretching exercise. They start by standing up really straight, then bend at the waist for a few seconds, then go to a sitting position, bend at the waist again with their head to the ground and then stand up to repeat it between two and four times depending on which prayer it is. This is repeated 17 times throughout the day.
Yet again, this would give Americans the time that they so desperately want. They would stop everything they are doing, thereby realizing that what they are doing is not as vitally important as they think. Then they would refresh themselves by washing their faces and hands and finally doing some stretches. For a minimum of five minutes a day, five times a day, no one could interrupt them, they could not answer the phone or respond to e-mails. Most likely, I know, even this is too much for most Americans, including myself. Now I appreciate Ramadan afternoons and the call to the mosque.
Maite Uranga graduated from Notre Dame in 2000 as an anthropology and government major. She is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Monday, November 25, 2002