By Nasry Esmat
USA. “Can’t you even drink water?” said one of my American friends with a surprised face, I replied with a smile: “No I can’t”. Another friend asked : “Is it ok for you to work while fasting?” I replied by saying : “Yes for sure, I am used to working during Ramadan” , all while in my mind I was wondering if my worst fears were coming true.
For more than 20 years and since I was 7 years old I used to fast during Ramadan as millions of Muslim Egyptians. This year my experience is totally different.
I am now thousands of miles away from home, I am in Los Angeles spending my Daniel Pearl fellowship for journalists from the Middle East working in Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal and it is the first time in my life that I am spending Ramadan out of Cairo.
The conversation in the first lines is example of the discussions I have had during the first day of Ramadan and few weeks before the fasting month.
My worst fears weren’t having to fast for more than 15 hours every day during my fellowship but having to explain what fasting during Ramadan means and how my colleagues will perceive it.
For example, I will not be able to join my colleagues at lunch and I will not be able to have coffee with them which is the best way to get introduced to new people. When I have to tell them why the answer will be “During this month Muslims don’t eat or drink from dawn to sunset”, as one of my friends explained to another.
This last explanation is really scary because it makes Islam more complicated than it really is in the American people’s minds which are still filled with confusing information about this religion because of 9/11 and still read and watch in media about terrorist plots every month. Some Americans believe that mosques help terrorism grow and oppose building it for this reason.
I asked myself: “How will their reaction be when I tell them about my new diet? First I don’t eat pork or drink alcohol in general, then I don’t eat or drink at all, how strange is that?”.
Simplifying fasting doesn’t explain that Muslims are obligated to stop anything considered a sign of bad manner alongside eating and drinking. Fasting itself is a spiritual practice to help believers get more control over themselves to live a better life until they reach the level of enjoying the whole practice and even wish it takes them more than one month to fast.
For the first time in my life I felt that my religious practice can be seen as freaky and weird by people who learn about it from outside. This is similar to the feelings I had when I learned about religious practices in other religions. But never before have I thought about explaining Ramadan to other people, protected by social and cultural shelters in Egypt.
At this moment I discovered how Muslims in Europe might suffer from the same feelings I had which is totally opposite to what we feel in the Muslim world when we consider Ramadan a granted religious practice.
I am so happy that I fast during Ramadan and I believe in the spiritual value it holds. However I learned that I was ignorant to understand what practices of other religions means and to stop consider them freaky.
Anyway, after fasting the first few days of Ramadan I discovered a sad fact … but this is a different story.
To be continued