What started out as a fairly innocent and thoughtless action has turned into something much more.
Something that I knew very little about came into my life. An opportunity to learn more about it was presented to me. I made a decision to explore it, merely out of curiosity. So, I took one step towards it. That’s it. No big grandiose plan or intentional action, a simple innocent step forward.
This thing I speak about is Islam. The opportunity to learn more came just a few days ago, when Ramadan began. I had made some new friends recently who happen to be Muslim. I decided to fast for three days alongside them.
A key part of this story is also the setting – so let me set the scene for you briefly:
I’m living at a conference center on Lake Geneva, Switzerland for a month with 30 other interns. The conferences are on topics of diversity and cross-cultural relations, peace and reconciliation, climate change and various other agendas that relate to humanitarian work. Us interns come from places like Colombia, Lebanon, Spain, Moldova, Kenya, Korea, Japan, the US and the UK. We range in age from 18 – 31. We live and work together. And have spent countless hours laughing, connecting, growing and most simply and most importantly – sharing our stories.
Islam has been part of my own personal story. As an American the dialogue around Islam started about 12 years ago, when suddenly the words terrorist and Muslim became synonymous. This is how Islam first came into my life. Not exactly the whole story – so, I wanted to learn more than what the media tells me to think and believe. I wanted to hear the personal stories of Islam and also create my own.
My curiosity was born out of a few key things:
Islamaphobia sucks and I want to do something about it.
Global politics, media, various events and in general a lack of understanding and education have demonized Islam. I wanted to very publicly follow Ramadan and tell my personal story, to open up dialogue and inspire curiosity. I wanted my friends to ask, “Why is Vanessa observing Ramadan? What is that about?”
So, here is my Ramadan story…
The first night of Ramadan began by staying up until 1:30am to eat sohour – the late night meal that would last until 3:00am – just before dawn. It is the last opportunity to eat before fasting begins. Before we entered the room where the food was being served for those fasting – I asked my friend Ahmed from Cairo “are you sure it’s ok that I join? I wont be invading?” He assured me, “No, no it’s not like that, not at all.”
We sat around the table, eating cereal, toast, cheese and other late night munchies. I didn’t feel a separation that they were Muslim and I was just a visitor, I felt part of the moment. I was having fun chatting with everyone. A guy from Kosovo played some music in Arabic – it was beautiful and peaceful. They told me that the words were readings from the Quran, but it sounded more like music than the reading of a religious text. – During the 30 days of Ramadan, Muslims are to read the entire Quran broken down into sections for each day. –
With people who I just have met, I felt connected. Others who I had not met before, as they arrived to the kitchen for sahour I felt a sense of community. I asked a lot of questions, and they answered. I started to realize they were amused that I was there, just as I was intrigued by the whole experience. One intern, Kawthar from Lebanon, said “thank you, it is so sweet of you to fast with us.” I didn’t see it that way, but gave her a hug and thanked her all the same.
In the morning we each would start our own personal fasting journey, and here in the late hours of the night while others slept – we sat together – preparing for our fast. We stayed up until 3:15 the time for fajr the first prayer of the day – just before sunrise.
— Fasting – Day 1 —
Where do I begin? Being hungry sucks. The natural urge of “oh I’m hungry, I should get something to eat” occurred a few times and I had to remind myself no, I am fasting. I had to circle back and connect myself with my intention – I made a decision to fast. I made observations of myself. I had trouble concentrating and thinking clearly. A few times I put together sentences that seemed longwinded and unclear. My mind seemed to drift out of focus easily.
In these moments – an empathy towards those who are hungry came to mind. How can we expect kids who are growing up without enough to eat, be able to function, think clearly and live to their highest potential? The distraction of not having enough energy to feed my brain reduced my effectiveness with simple tasks. Napping seemed like a good idea. Maybe when we label people lazy, they just aren’t getting enough proper nutrition. Maybe when people living in poverty never can pull themselves out of it, is due to hunger that holds them back. With this empathy also came a sense of duty – to be an ally and speak out for those who cant speak up for themselves because hunger consumes their day.
— Fasting – Day 2 —
At this conference each meal is buffet style – 3 large meals a day plus snacks in between. We are well fed. The kitchen here tries to make enough without having tons of extra. A few times they ran out of my favorite things before I got to the dining hall. I started to feel a sense of urgency to get enough of what I wanted. I found myself loading up my tray with far more than I could eat and inevitably some would go in the trash.
Now, as I fasted, I thought of the food I had thrown out. I thought of the empty stomachs around the world that would gladly had eaten that food. I thought about the campaigns in the United States that encourage people to not finish their plates (at restaurants) to combat obesity. I thought about the waste and the injustice.
I thought about how quickly I eat and don’t stop to really savor each bite. As I fasted during the day, my mind would drift to thinking about what I would eat later, and how delicious it seemed. I reflected on what I had for dessert a few nights ago and how I had not appreciated it enough. I promised to eat more slowly and with more gratitude at the after sunset meal – iftar.
That night at iftar I put only enough on my plate that I could finish. I drank a few glasses of water before I started to eat, and half way through my plate, I sat back and took a rest. Living with consciousness and intention felt good.
— Fasting – Day 3 —
I had committed to fasting for 3 full days. On the last day, I felt a bit attached to the experience and considered continuing. If I stopped fasting I worried that I wouldn’t be as connected with my friends. I wondered, if I stopped fasting would I forget the lessons I was learning? I didn’t want to lose that; I wanted to keep connected to it in some way. So, I found a way.
We work long hours, and in some moments while I was fasting I really felt exhausted and overwhelmed. If I were to start eating again, then I would volunteer myself to the rest who were still fasting, and be a support person. I would have more strength and endurance, and therefore could offer myself up to those who had less energy. I also would wait to eat my evening meal at 9:30 with everyone who was fasting. I had so enjoyed the intimacy of the meals, and wanted to be there with them. I also decided to continue not drinking any wine or beer, to continue living with intention and time for reflection.
I broke my fast and ate lunch on the 4th day. As I walked through the line to get my food, I felt patient. If the food ran out, that would be ok. If there was nothing that I liked, I wouldn’t eat food just to eat it; I would leave it for others and I could be ok with a little less. Patience, generosity and acceptance came more naturally.
While I ate lunch, one of the other interns in the group, Ciara from Ireland – told me she was also going to fast. I thought to continue fasting and share the experience with her as well. Then another intern – Nicole from Taiwan – also decided to fast. Next it was Sean from Minnesota and Kelly from South Korea.
When I began my fast, it was a simple step towards my friends. Now others were taking a step forward too. With our collective steps we were all stepping closer to each other.
Iftar was filled with more and more friends. As we ate we learned words in Arabic and how to say the “break the fast” prayer. We discussed the Quran and, of course political issues. Instead of feeling a separation of those who were Muslim and those who were not it turned into – if our friends were fasting, we would fast with them. If we didn’t fast, we join them and spend time together. We didn’t separate; we merely joined in or adapted ourselves to the others, and in the process created community.
The spirit of Ramadan had brought us all together.
The experience of fasting had inspired reflection and gave me perspective.
My thoughts operated from a place of empathy and compassion.
I felt patient and made decisions with more thoughtfulness.
My actions were made with intention.
Friends seemed more like family.
A religion that had once seemed so foreign and distant, had welcomed me.
Overall, a sense of peacefulness and love filled me.
Feelings of wanting and needing, faded away and I felt content, satisfied and grateful for all that I had.
The lessons I can extract from this could go on for pages and pages. The effect it has had on my life will go on for as long as I live. I will never be able to delete these memories. I wont be able to forget the people, or the experience of my first Ramadan. No matter how many bombs go off, how many wars happen or lunatics wrongfully use Islam to justify their actions – I will always have my Ramadan experience. It has become part of my story. It will bring me back to Islam and what it is and what it is not. I can’t watch the news and associate terrorism with Islam – because Muslims are not terrorists and terrorists are not Muslim. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Some say that Ramadan is about bringing one’s self closer to God. Whether you believe in God or not, whether you have a faith or not, no matter how you define your beliefs or what your thoughts are on religion – seeing life through eyes of empathy, compassion, community, connectedness, love, and gratitude seems like a pretty good way to go about things.
Thank you to my new friends, and teachers for sharing with me. There are many many but especially immense gratitude and lots of love to Rana, Mohammed, Ahmed and Ashraf. May this not be the last Ramadan we share together, Insha’Allah. I love you!