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A global gift
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 09 - 2007

Nashwa Abdel-Tawab discusses how people around the world celebrate the spiritual and religious aspects of Ramadan according to their traditions
Contrary to the protestations of those who insist that festivity in Ramadan runs against its spirit, the ninth moon on the Muslim calendar is as much about community as worship. From dawn to dusk the devout abstain from food, drink and other pleasures -- many spend a large portion of the night praying as well -- but, rather than excessive self- restraint or willful deprivation, the experience is an overwhelmingly healthy one. The rhythm of the day becomes closer to nature, communal meals assert blood and other ties, and a tremendous sense of equality belies class differences all across society. For non-Muslims the message may be translated as a wholly equal-opportunities invitation to set aside one month of the (lunar) year to strengthen the social as well as the psychological-spiritual will, gathering energy for the rest of the year. It is a time to celebrate, too: an aspect of the month that has accommodated the broadest variety of traditions within the same creedal framework. And, like Islam itself, it operates across cultural, geographic, ethnic and language differences.
While in Egypt, the month is marked by fawanis (lanterns), yameesh (dried fruit and nuts in water or milk), intensive charity work -- including "tables of the Merciful" open to all and sundry, the long post-evening taraweeh prayers as well as Oriental-style tents, sometimes including traditional or religious performances. In Turkey the countless minarets of some 77,000 mosques are set alight, a special bread is baked and the fast is normally broken on dates, olives and cheese, with the main dish served only after the maghrib (dusk) prayers. In Iran, supplications are said in Arabic instead of Persian, the minarets are lit, the mosque carpets replaced with new ones, a distinctly Iranian and extremely long form of prayer is undertaken and many spend the last 10 days of the month in the mosque, where Sohour is served on a regular basis. In Russia, the Muslim community of 25 million gather to read the Qur'an in groups, trying to complete it by the end of the month, while Thai Muslims -- a third of the country, start off the month with a fresh halal slaughter to be distributed to family and friends, and keep up the tradition of honouring Qur'anic reciters by carrying them on their shoulders to mark the fact that Ramadan was the month in which the Qur'an was revealed.
In the end, one is compelled to ask, how far does being away from one's own country change the experience of Ramadan?
For Jamilah, a Malaysian Muslim from the village of Merbok who lived in Cairo for seven years studying Islam, the difference is significant. "Of course, there are differences in the food and the way the month is observed. We break our fast on sweet cookies or dates, and then we perform the maghrib prayers in aggregation [ie an extended version of the usual prayer] before having the main dish, which always has curry in it. A different kind of sweet cookie is served after the taraweeh." Invitations to Iftar are rife; and it is the men who cook, usually in a hired kitchen with adjoining feast hall, while the women make desserts. "In Egypt I've missed the family gatherings, of course, but now that I'm leaving for good I can't deny that I will miss the warm ambiance of Ramadan here." As well as Arabic books and the concept of the fanous, Jamilah is introducing many an Egyptian recipe, including Oriental sweets like basbousa and kunafa, to Malaysia. Though she too misses her family during the holy month, Habiba, an Indonesian resident in Egypt, stressed the "glamour" of Egyptian style. "The cheerfulness, sense of community and mode of worship here differ from ours. Over in my village, the tradition is that each house cooks for the whole village for one day, so you need only prepare a feast once, and the sense of community is enhanced." It is a tradition she has tried to replicate here over nine years together with fellow Indonesians as well as Indians, Egyptians and Africans. "Ramadan should bring us together even if we're far from home or from different cultures. It's something we still belong to, and Egypt offers a different meaning of charity work, where people lovingly provide us with food and other requirements needed. The atmosphere of Al-Hussein, I will never forget."
You might miss your particular tradition, but what about Muslims resident in non-Muslim countries? Khaled Mohamed, 19, a freshman in Massachusetts, Boston, misses the Iftar cannon, for example. "There are so many traditions I had never realised I loved so much. Alone with a non-Muslim roommate from Taiwan, Ramadan is just business as usual: no atmosphere, nothing, except for the first day when I gather with other Muslims to share Iftar." It is somewhat dispiriting, he says, to performing taraweeh and dawn prayers alone at this time of year, let alone fasting. "Ramadan is not only about fasting but also about extending relationships and establishing new bonds." And this is why, as well as expressing optimism about conveying a positive image of Islam in America, Mohamed seeks out fellow Muslims as often as possible. "People understand my fasting more and more," he says.
For Dalia Ahmed, resident in England, it is rather a question of replicating the atmosphere of Ramadan at home so that her three sons can identify not only with the religious message but with the Egyptian tradition as well. "I don't want them to grow up isolated from the culture in which I grew up. The idea of Ramadan arriving made me happy as a child and I want them to have that, too." So Ahmed prepares Iftar for Egyptians and other Muslims, especially her children's schoolmates. "They pray at the Islamic Centre where luckily the head is an Egyptian, and they exchange dishes with friends. It's positive in a way because even though Arabs make up only a fifth of the world's Muslims and in Egypt you don't get to see the diversity of traditions and dishes as much as here, where Islam is largely respected. Of course I miss Egypt, but I feel my kids are lucky to experience the universality of Islam."
In fact, Ramadan survives even in outer space. As part of a $1 billion fighter-jet deal between the two countries, a Malaysian, orthopedic specialist, Muszaphar Shukor, together with army dentist Faiz Khaleed as his back-up, is undergoing training in Russia as a candidate for the 11-day space mission to start on 10 October with the launch of the Soyuz TMA-11 spacecraft. This involves fasting while at a distance of 100km from earth. To mark the occasion, the National Fatwa Committee of Malaysia put together a thoroughly researched guide on how to fast and pray in outer space. According to Anan C Mohd, from Malaysia's Department of Islamic Development (JAKIM), the time to begin and end the fast should follow the local time in the city of Baikonur, where the launch will take place. By Muslim law Shukor could, of course, choose to substitute the days during which he will be in space with others at any other time of the year, but it seems his mind is made up on fasting. "Since certain rituals might be difficult due to micro gravity," Mohd explains, "the astronaut can perform them in other ways -- like reciting them in his heart, so long as the intention is pure." Some eight Muslims have already ventured into space, but never during Ramadan. Talk about the universality of Islam!


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