It has been 20 days since we flew out of Jeddah for our summer break. It seems as though we’ve traveled to another planet as we’ve re-entered the western world to visit friends and family at different corners of the Earth.
What strikes me most is the lack of Ramadan. When we departed Saudi Arabia, the country was immersed in Ramadan. Even our American school adopted a schedule the last week of school, beginning at 10 a.m. instead of 8, to accommodate for students who had been up late breaking their fast and celebrating with their families.
As we approached this special time of year students would discuss the holiday with eager childish delight. When asked about why they were so looking forward to this month their eyes sparkled with anticipation as they spoke of the time spent with family following a day of fasting. Mouth watering depictions of food were detailed. Students added that they stay up late, even until “2,3 4, or 5 in the morning!” As one student described falling asleep for the day another student interrupted to explain, “But your fast doesn't count unless you get up to pray the required 5 times and if you aren't awake for at least three hours before breaking your fast.” Everyone nodded in agreement. They described their individual journeys toward becoming a month-long faster which, apparently, is expected of these high school students. All of them acknowledged that while there are social and family expectations to fast, it is an individual choice. From what I could see, they were 100% committed to the month of fast, and were genuinely excited about it.
Two little elementary students were discussing their Ramadan fasting status while crossing the playground. They must have been in first or second grade.
“I’m fasting today but my Mom packed me a lunch box in case I can’t handle it”
“Yeah, me too. My Mom told me that if I just can’t take it anymore I should eat my lunch”
There was a vibrancy in the air. Days and nights seemed to change places as the town slept quietly all day with no stores open. Then, at night it all came alive as stores unbolted their doors and people came out onto the street. My husband and son were running errands before we left and were shopping at 2 a.m. with throngs of people on the street and in the stores.
Common working time was 22:00 – 3:00. The holiday permeated every moment of the days. Even the 8th grade promotion at our school started at 20:00 after families, students, and staff gathered together to break the fast over a traditional Iftar meal in the cafeteria.
In my own faith we fast on the first holy day of the month (whether that be Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, depending where you live in the world) for 24 hours. However, depending on circumstances, one might elect to fast anytime during the month to call upon God for extra connection, answers to prayers, or on behalf of another person in need.
My husband and I chose to join the fast with Muslim friends of ours on the first day of Ramadan to support their fast as they made some serious life-changing decisions for their family. It was a beautiful, unifying experience. In what felt like a great act of graciousness, our Muslim friend brought us a “fasting survival kit” that included dates, dried apricots, and holy water from Mecca which were to be used when breaking our fast. After our first day of fast how we relished those treats given to us. It served as additional connection to our friend in her time of need. We ended up continuing to fast with our Muslim friends and students for the rest of the week. It felt good to support them by fasting with them. Students who caught wind of our fast were deeply touched and expressed gratitude for our efforts to understand what they were going through. Responses included “Really? Wow! That is so cool” and “That is so nice. Thank you.”
It was empowering to have two faiths joined together in the power of the fast. It removed walls and brought us together as children of the same God, with the same purpose in life namely love and happiness on this Earth.
We left Saudi Arabia and went to Belgium where I noticed an article in the newspaper about Ramadan and how unacceptable it was for students to miss school and how children below the age of 13 are not capable of fasting for a month. It cast a very judgmental cloud on this sacred month. I was reminded of the two children in the schoolyard who clearly were attempting the fast of their own free will and of my friends and students who were immersed in this special month and I missed them and I felt compassion for them in a world that clearly doesn’t understand them.
In the U.S. there is no mention of Ramadan and I find myself missing it. Additionally, an election year fills the media with drama, rhetoric, and catch phrases that leave me empty and reflective of our life abroad residing in China, the Netherlands and now Saudi Arabia. How grateful I am for these years living in other lands, side by side with the people of our host countries. Though we’ve faced challenges, we have grown and our minds have expanded by learning to appreciate different cultures, mindsets, and ways of life.