It’s a bit strange that, as a westerner, as an atheist (lapsed-Protestant), I choose to observe Ramadan while in the middle East. Especially when, even here in Ramallah, you will find many Christians and many Muslims even who are not observing Ramadan. Of my Palestinian friends, all of whom are Muslim, I think only about half are fasting. So, why do I want to fast?
Well, there are two reasons. First, I think if you’re in a place, you should make an effort to be in that place, to actively live in a way appropriate to the place that you’re in, and by doing so it makes it much more possible to understand and be sensitive to what’s going on around you. Fasting allows me to, in a very small way, get inside the culture here. And I think it lets me ask questions which would be difficult and more hypocritically for me to ask otherwise. For example – if Ramadan is all about charity and thinking about the poor and those who are struggling, like the hunger strikers, why is everyone gorging themselves on sweets every evening? I’ve heard “because you need strength and the sweets give you strength”, but seriously, that doesn’t make sense – sweets give you short term energy, what you need for fasting is a lot of fat or complex carbohydrates in your stomach (which is why my favorite pre-Ramadan breakfast snack, or sahour, is leftover mansef). Pushing a little harder, I’ve heard from several people that Ramadan here has at least partially lost its religious-cultural significance of concern for the poor and the struggling – that mostly people just complain about how hard it is, and don’t realize that while fasting is hard, there are those who have it a lot harder.
This brings me to the second reason I’m fasting – because at least some of the reasons Muslims are asked to fast during Ramadan are really good reasons. Fasting asks you to repeat in your own body the suffering of those who don’t have enough to eat, those whose course in life requires them to live uncomfortably in their bodies. So whenever I feel thirsty, I just think of Akram Rikhawi and wonder how he feels, 103 days on hunger strike. I’ve also found myself a lot more than usual thinking about the poor who have humanitarian concerns – people going to bed hungry, people who can’t afford basic medicine. Because my primary concern with conflict is justice and the way strength can be mobilized for a just case, I don’t tend to think much about humanitarian problems. After all, if my concerns were humanitarian, I wouldn’t be in Palestine, but somewhere much farther down the human development index. The Palestinian Territories are not at the bottom, although they are closer to the bottom than the top, rather the key concern here is that Palestinians live about 100 places lower on the HDI than Israelis – that’s colonization, that’s apartheid, and that’s the principle that needs to be reversed here to set an example for the world. But fasting reminds me that for those who go to bed hungry, my high minded ideals of anti-colonialism and the threat of a good example don’t feed their kids. For the first time in years I find myself wanting to give to charity, to give to the mosques which are serving huge amounts of food to the poor this month.
As it turns out, fasting is not that difficult for me. Partially because I don’t have to go to work, so I can wake up at noon and sleep through half the fast. Also, fasting helps me focus on the thing I’m doing, because normally I’m always thinking about food, drinking water, drinking coffee, eating bread etc… It was extremely difficult the first day (some of you may have seen the comedy facebook photos), but since then, it’s been fairly easy.
I should take the opportunity while I’m here to see more than just Ramallah during Ramadan. I’ve heard the old city of Jerusalem is beautiful during Ramadan at night, and I also am feeling the need to go to Akka, to see the beach where my grandfather sailed a home-made boat so many years ago.