Monday, August 31, 2009


Dhaka has turned into a ghost town. The normally chaotic traffic, with its cacophony of horns and shouted expletives, has vanished from the streets, leaving behind only a handful of rickshaws to take command of the empty boulevards. The crush of pedestrians competing for space on the sidewalks has also disappeared, much to the relief of Kristel and me, though we soon start longing for the safety offered in numbers as the dusk gives way to night and the shadows consume our path. Hushed conversations that would ordinarily be lost in the din of daily life spring from the candlelit corners of street stalls as we approach them, their occupants offering us greetings that would have gone unnoticed only an hour ago. I check my watch to confirm the time – 7:35 pm. Iftar has already begun - another day of Ramadan has come to a close.

Pretty suspenseful, eh? But before you applaud my audition for the lead in “I Am Legend II”, I should say that the reality of the situation is a bit less dramatic than portrayed, though no less interesting. The holy month of Ramadan began last week, and for the first time, it has my full attention. In Canada, a country that is overwhelmingly Christian in its religious leanings, the most I would ever hear about Ramadan is a passing reference to it on the radio at its beginning and end. Without any contact with the Muslim communities in Toronto or elsewhere, the month never took on much significance for me. Even in Nigeria, where fully half of the country follows the Muslim faith, I heard little about Ramadan, because my community there was predominantly Christian, and the tensions between the two religions didn’t exactly encourage exploration of each other’s beliefs. But in Bangladesh, it’s a very different situation. With over 80% of the population claiming Islam as their religion, the Muslim community here is the fourth largest in the world, so Ramadan is a very big deal indeed.

The ninth month on the Islamic calendar, Ramadan is the time when the Muslim faithful observe complete abstinence from food and drink from dawn until sunset. From the time of the first morning prayer shortly after 5 am to the evening prayer just before 7:30 pm, nothing can be taken, including water. Other practices deemed ill-natured, such as smoking or having impure thoughts, are also forbidden during this time. The principle that the month emphasizes is a reaffirmation of the spirituality, patience and modesty within each Muslim along with their dedication to Allah. Fasting is not the only manifestation of this observance; a greater number of prayers and good deeds are also performed during this month to atone for past sins and ask for forgiveness.

The timing of Ramadan changes if one is to go by the conventional solar calendar, shifting forward about ten days each year. Its exact start is determined in Bangladesh by the first observation of the waxing crescent moon by the Moon Sighting Committee. Weather conditions this year prevented the committee from completing its task for a day or two, resulting in the start of Ramadan being set for August 23rd. The festival of Eid ul-Fitr (or the Festival of Breaking the Fast) marks the end of Ramadan after 29 or 30 days of fasting and is usually a time of celebration with friends and family.

A typical day of observance for Muslims during Ramadan begins with getting up before dawn to eat the meal that needs to sustain them throughout the day. In addition to the regular set of five prayers that occur throughout the day, an emphasis is also placed on reading the entire Qur’an over the course of the month. Of course, regular life doesn’t stop during this time, so people must continue with their work as they would at any other time of the year, although in recognition of Ramadan, businesses often reduce the hours for their employees and shorten the workday from 9:30 am to 4 pm. With the evening prayer complete, those observing the holy month can then take the Iftar meal to break the fast for the day. Shops and other offices will often shut down during this time to accommodate the prayers and the meal, resulting in the calm and quiet that take over the entire country for a short time. Once the prayers and meal have finished, the shops reopen and the bustle of life returns for the evening.

As someone who is not participating in the fasting, I tip my hat to my colleagues who are observing the practice. Fourteen hours without food or water requires an enormous amount of discipline and takes a huge toll on the body. With temperatures in the country hovering around 30 degrees each day, I would find it next to impossible to abstain from drinking water for the better part of each day. Considering the physical nature of the labour that many people perform, it would seem to require a superhuman reserve of strength to get through each day. Exceptions to the fast are permitted where one’s health could be endangered by going without food or water, though these seem to apply more to those who can’t complete the fast due to pregnancy, age, or illness.

Ramadan also has a way of tipping things upside down for the foreigners who live here. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel guilty about eating and drinking. Because my office is shared with a colleague who acts as a team leader for one of YPSA’s projects, there is a high amount of traffic from team members and other YPSA staff coming to visit. I often find myself strategically ducking behind my desk to make a fake adjustment to my sandal straps while sneaking a biscuit or cracker at the same time. I feel as though my water bottles should be stored in my desk like an alcoholic’s secret stash of gin. None of this pressure comes from my colleagues, of course, who understand that I’m not fasting and encourage me to behave as I usually would. But one can’t help but feel some remorse over indulging when others can only watch.

Kristel and I have also experienced some bizarre moments that would never take place at any other time of the year. On the first day of Ramadan, we travelled by bus from Chittagong to Dhaka. The journey is a relatively long one, averaging about six hours, so the norm for the bus companies is to make a pit stop at one of the roadside restaurant and shopping complexes halfway through the trip. Usually, everyone on the bus makes use of the facilities before heading to the restaurant for a meal, so Kristel and I did the same. This time, though, we looked around and saw all of our fellow travelers returning to the bus without entering the restaurant. We hesitated outside the restaurant, knowing that the entire bus would be waiting for us to have our meal and likely grumbling about our lack of consideration. Seeing our indecision, the restaurant staff came out and pleaded with us to enter, knowing we would be their only business from that bus. Wanting to avoid the label of “bastard bideshis” while still needing to eat something, we arrived at a compromise and smuggled a tin of Pringles on to the bus and crunched as quietly as possible as the bus rolled on to Dhaka.

As the month of Ramadan continues, we expect to experience more moments like this, as the basic needs of food and water continue to compete with the higher needs expressed by the Muslim religion.


Anonymous said...

Fasting. Where did it come from?

It isn't natural, although one might suspect famine brought on by natural disasters [not idiotic politics] might be human memory factors. We recall difficult times to enhance our enjoyment of good times. Without pain there is no laughter.

All religions fast. Christians, especially Catholics, fast during Lent, commemorating the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert fasting. Of course, since the historical Jesus really didn't do anything as stated in the gospels, this is pure theology: Jesus in the desert for 40 days harkens back to the Jewish exodus of 40 years from exile to Promised Land.

Exodus is a Jewish cleansing and atonement experience: after the Jews left Egypt and as Moses was getting his orders on Mount Sinai [Commandments], the people became restless. They wanted to worship the old gods, and not this thundering cloud. So we have the Golden Calf, which pissed God and Moses off.

After punishing the ne'erdowells who perpetrated this outrage, God remained wary of these stubborn desert people. He allowed them to continue their exodus, but now through the desert for 40 years -- you give a little, you take a lot.

Today, the desert experience of Exodus is celebrated by Jews through Passover -- which is not a fasting period but a meal. And by Christians through Lent -- which is a fasting period that ends with resurrection and the new feast of life and light.

For Jews, fasting is tied to the "new year" and "pay back" for the past year's sins. It's about atonement, somewhat similar to Islam's Ramadan. You atone for the old year and prepare for the new year. Interestingly, Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur [2-3 weeks from new year celebrations to the feast of atonement] fall around the same time each year.

Ramadan commemorates the time of revelation -- when Allah dictated the Koran to His Prophet. The Prophet did not eat during this time focusing all his energy on what Allah said, and so his followers recall that experience by fasting and reading the Koran from cover to cover. This is a sacral event: experiencing what The Prophet experienced.

Since one actually relives the experience, and doesn't just recall it as a story, one engages in sacramental activity [sacral event]. For Jews, the Passover meal is a sacrament, reliving the experience that night when liberation from slavery began. For Christians, and especially Catholics, sacramental worship is a reliving the experience, not just a recall or retelling. The Mass or Eucharist of Catholic tradition is a reliving of the last supper, and the body/blood celebrates resurrection -- not just in song/words but in transubstantiated reality.

For Protestants telling the story is enough because the word is the voice of God [hence evangelization overrides sacramental theology].

Most religions practice fasting: Hinduism and Buddhism too. The reason is to feel and experience total human potential.

For pleasure seeking Hindus, the potential to enjoy food to the fullest is enhanced by refraining from eating food for the time being.

For Buddhists, starving oneself puts one on an equal plane with those who do not share as much as we do -- those who starve for a living, not for religious purposes. On a personal level, fasting puts one in the moment. You can obssess about food or you can rise above it. You can obssess about what you don't have and be possessed by desire or you can control your desires and rise above it. Actually, you don't control your desires, you embrace the emptiness and realize it is who you are -- in the moment.

Cleansing, atonement, sacramental reliving,freedom, solidarity with those in want, embracing emptiness at the core of human meaning... the great values associated with fasting.

how fascinating.

sue goes to england said...

i feel a tinge of guilt. (but it, like Ramadan, will pass.)