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Break the habit
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 18 - 09 - 2008

At the height of Ramadan, Nashwa Abdel-Tawab discusses with Egyptian youth new spiritual and social habits
"I'm going to pray taraweeh [night prayers] at the mosque this year and do i'tikaf [stay at mosque] in the last 10 days."
"Great, I'd like to join but can we do something practical as well?"
"We can help in packing Ramadan bags and cooking food to distribute among the poor."
"Wow. Let's tell our friends to join us."
This fictional yet no less representative conversation between two Egyptian youth acts as an indicator of the attitude of rewesh, or cool youngsters today towards Ramadan. The choice of topic makes a positive change from young Egyptians' more habitual concerns, which range from love, music and jokes to the latest movies, drugs, smoking and ringtones.
Neither over-serious nor decidedly playful, the majority of young people today are overcoming numerous obstacles in order to fulfil promises they have made to themselves and which they intend to honour this Ramadan.
That is not to say, however, that young Egyptians are en masse espousing tradition. Their religious discourse, for one, breaks from the religious moulds their elders know. For young people it's not about memorising the Quran and hadith while seeking spiritual learning close to home, but rather about espousing an entirely new discourse, one which is very often transmitted via satellite television. Among the shows that have grown hugely popular among young Egyptians is that of young preacher Mustafa Hosni, who via TV and Internet uses cartoons, among other things, to reach out to Muslim youth.
A decade ago, things were different. The elders went to the mosque and only a few youngsters went out of their way to act positively. Young people were either serious about religion or not.
Nowadays, the generation whom many have described as being uprooted from Islamic tradition has begun to espouse Ramadan more broadly. It is no doubt intriguing to watch young Egyptians today still welcoming the holy month, and taking it as an opportunity to change bad habits and find new lifestyles.
"Learning to control habits comes with eating and drinking less," psychologist Ali Suleiman told Al-Ahram Weekly. After all, an average person eats three meals a day, while a fasting person takes only light meals early in the morning and late in the evening followed by a mild exercise, burning up to 200 calories. "If a believer can do that then it will undoubtedly be easier for him or her to control other habits, including smoking, drug abuse and pornography," Suleiman explained.
Habits are conditioned responses, formed through repetition, until actions or reactions become second nature and end up as unconscious behaviour. They can be changed, but they need time and will-power -- both of which are plentiful in Ramadan.
"Ramadan is the month of heightened connection with oneself, people, Allah, and the Quran," said Ahmed Sherif, a 23-year-old freshly graduated pharmacologist. "It is a holy month with an agenda of its own, and that is the attainment of taqwa [piety], whilst fasting and abstaining from the worst habits, and training oneself to be the best one can be. It is a month to initiate an improvement of reputation and character, and for the cultivation of good habits."
Speaking to the Weekly, Sherif admits he was once distant from religion and its rituals. Then at the age of 18, he started to go to the mosque during Ramadan with his brother, where he saw many young people managing to integrate religion into their lives quite simply. He was attracted to such a way of life, and decided to live as a Muslim. He has practised i'tikaf regularly for the last five years. Meanwhile, he enjoys travelling abroad as well. "I changed some of my bad habits and I'm working on others," said Sherif. "Ramadan helps me find the breathing space I need to shift routes."
According to Suleiman, thinking in a particular pattern creates a mental path. This path affects our attitude and behaviour. " A virtuous character emanates from good habits and good habits emanate from resisting negative temptations," Suleiman said. Good habits, unfortunately, seem so much easier to give up than bad habits, while bad habits are easy to fall into but difficult to get out of.
Meanwhile, Suleiman explained that Ramadan is the ideal training period for filtering out bad habits and developing virtue. It is for this reason that Ramadan is referred to by the Prophet Mohamed as a shield against evil and wrongfulness.
Ramadan and i'tikaf, the psychologist added, help one clear the mind. A person usually performs i'tikaf on his own or in a group, turning to Allah by praying the taraweeh, reading the Quran, making zikr (remembrance of Allah) and reciting duaa (supplications). Free from excessive socialising, talking and sleeping will no doubt help one's heart turn towards Allah.
During Ramadan, Sherif is not always at mosque. He also strengthens family ties by paying loved ones visits, while distributing food in slum areas. For Ramadan is also the month of charity par excellence.
Young people take solidarity and charity seriously. One group of young graduates and undergraduates has so far managed to cook for 100 families every day since the start of Ramadan. "Everything is expensive nowadays," 20-year- old student Noha Adham told the Weekly. "Although we are well off, we started to feel the expenses piling up the more we went out together. So we asked ourselves, what about the poor? It's their right to eat as well as we do. So we decided to help."
Adham, her friends and their siblings decided to cook the food themselves. "We developed a new kind of friendship this month, sharing in an activity which was positive, teaching us to meet deadlines and to behave genuinely responsibly," Adham said proudly. "We are all proud. We used to waste our time doing nothing other than sleep, watch TV or chat on the Internet. Now we meet and do something useful for others and for ourselves as well."
Asked whether she believed this change has taken root for good, Adham replied: "I don't want to question the future. I'm happy to be doing this now, and I think we'll keep on doing useful things -- maybe not with the same intensity, but certainly with the same passion." For one, this group of youngsters has already pledged to continue making monthly food bags for 50 families. They will also continue to take orphaned children out on trips, as well as promote blood donation to hospitals.
At the Sheraton Heliopolis residential compound, a new NGO started involving the neighbourhood in such work, rather than keeping it among friends. Representatives rang doorbells and offered residents the opportunity to participate -- most of who accepted. Each building will make food for the needy, and the district's youth are set to gather the food, pack it and then distribute it.
Meanwhile, physical habits are subject to change. Sherine Kamal, aged 21, has worn the hijab only during the month of Ramadan for the third year successively. Each year it has been her decision -- and still she hopes she can wear it for good. "Wearing the hijab is a difficult step to take," Kamal told the Weekly. "Many religious scholars say it's mandatory, while other new religious voices now say it's not. This confuses me. Although I'm convinced with the hijab more and more, what I see around me in this materialistic world forces me to drift from the path I would really like to tread."
However, Kamal wears the hijab during Ramadan because she is fasting. "The prophet said, 'many a faster receives naught from his fast except the pain of hunger and thirst.' So I told myself if you are going to fast, either do it properly or don't. I'll abstain from fashion, while helping boys to fast better in this all-too-materialistic world. And I really do feel happy and free."
Another young woman, Mona Mohamed, 29, found it hard to fast simply because of her addiction to coffee. To begin with she suffered from severe headaches. So she decided to stop drinking coffee throughout the month -- effectively extending her abstention from coffee beyond the mandatory fasting hours. Indeed, 10 days in, when she broke her fast she felt no need for caffeine. "I feel good because I have managed to abstain from unhealthy products such as snacks, cigarettes, caffeine and white sugar," Mohamed told the Weekly. "I not only realise now that I can live without them, but actually feel better. Once you have detoxified your system, the headaches disappear and one is left with more energy than when one was drinking coffee all morning."
So it is that Ramadan becomes an annual event that offers Muslims the chance to improve themselves, while helping them control habits. But can young Muslims sustain good habits for good? Hoda Zakaria, a sociologist, believes that young people, who are busy doing both right and wrong simultaneously, will end up being good in the future, albeit in an unexpected way. "Our kids' lifestyle has changed from ours, and so the youth won't be as we used to be. We live an age of transformation, not evolution. The youth have a fragmented approach to life unlike our holistic one. They will develop their own style and culture as they try to survive the age of globalisation," Zakaria told the Weekly. "No doubt Ramadan and other religious events play the positive role of providing youth with roots to their actions. I see innovation and courage from this generation. So let's wait and see what future they will build."
Meanwhile, let us grab the opportunity, and make a change to at least one habit that we have always singled out. Just pick one habit of yours and confront it head-on during Ramadan. Prepare yourself mentally, of course, as this is a key element to your success. And once you've made your decision, don't look back -- once you emerge victorious, you know you'll never regret it.

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