By Khaled Diab
Wednesday 10 August 2011
Ramadan has something of a tendency to bend space and time. For those participating in the fast, especially now that it is summer, the daytime hours crawl by like a snail on tranquilisers, while engaging in daily routines is like running a marathon through a desert of thirst. In contrast, nights are transformed into veritable days, with cafes and restaurants bursting at the seams with patrons late into the night, especially in my hometown Cairo, the world’s top ‘city that never sleeps’, according to a recent survey.
In the Holy Land, the holy month has even resulted in Israelis and Palestinians temporarily living in different time zones, as the Palestinian territories switch to winter time in a bid to make the fast a little easier. Some cynics on both sides might quip that, Ramadan or not, Israelis and Palestinians already figuratively live in different time zones, not to mention on different planets.
But Ramadan, despite being primarily an occasion for Muslims, provides a golden
opportunity for soul searching, reflection and bridge-building in this troubled land. Towards that end, Jews and Christians were invited to attend an interfaith iftar (the meal breaking the fast at sunset) in Haifa where, in addition to feasting, participants provided one another with food for thought as they chewed over questions of tolerance and mutual respect against the backdrop of conflict.
Even Israel’s hard-line prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, who has been a harsh critic of Islam over the years and who warned of an Islamist takeover in Egypt during the early days of the revolution, also tried to get into the spirit of the season with a video in which he wished Palestinian Muslims and Muslims around the world a ‘Ramadan Karim’.
Not to be outdone, the IDF announced the easing of restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza which, though far from adequate, at least allow Palestinians some extra mobility to visit their families during Ramadan. However, the restrictions on men under the age of 45 praying at the al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, are still in place, much to the frustration of Palestinians. As I walked through the old city on Friday morning to take my son to his crèche, it felt eerie to be more or less the only young man on the streets.
Ramadan also illustrates that, despite current political differences, Israelis and Palestinians share a lot of common religious ground. Fasting is common, despite variations, to the three Abrahamic faiths, as well as to other religions around the world.
Although observant Jews only fast a maximum of six days a year, the central fast, on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), the holiest day in Judaism, is a gruelling 25-hour affair. Although even at its toughest, the Ramadan fast last for about 20 hours, it is nonetheless like a whole month of mini Yom Kippurs.
Not only is the word for ‘fasting’ more or less the same in Arabic and Hebrew, Ramadan and Yom Kippur etiquette is surprisingly similar, with non-observant Muslims and Jews generally refraining from eating in public, though Muslims do continue to drive. Moreover, though the pace of life slows considerably during Ramadan, it does not come to a grinding halt as it does during Yom Kippur.
Given the general contemporary distrust between Jews and Muslims, it may surprise many to learn that some Jews actually observe Ramadan. “I kept Ramadan for seven years but I don’t keep it anymore,” says Ya’qub Ibn Yusuf (original name Joshua) from Jerusalem. “Fasting is tough the first few days, but then your body gets the message and adjusts.”
And seeing others eat and drink around him did not bother Ya’qub in the slightest. He likens it to “watching a couple holding hands” – “It doesn’t make you horny – it just makes you happy for them.”
Ya’qub sees no contradiction between being a Sufi and a Jew. In fact, he describes himself as a ‘fairly conservative’ and observant Jew, despite the fact that he dresses in secular garb.
Although political animosity and conflict have driven a wedge between Jews and Muslims, there is nothing ‘New Age’ or novel about such spiritual cross-over or ‘fusion spiritualism’, if you like.
Sufism is a generally inclusive, esoteric form of Islam which has been influenced by a wide range of mystical philosophies, including the Christian monastic tradition, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.
It also had a profound effect on medieval Jewish thought. For example, Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon, the son of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, believed that Sufi practices and doctrines were in the lost tradition of the Biblical prophets and so introduced into Jewish prayer the Sufi dhikr/zikr (the reciting of God’s name), prostration, the stretching out of hands, kneeling, and the ablution of the feet.
Ramadan is not just for the religious, it also has something to offer secularists and the a-religious, like myself. Fasting Ramadan was the only pillar of Islam I ever practised consistently. This might have been because the month carries a secular appeal: fasting is not just a ritual for its own sake but is also about self-discipline, exercising control over your physical urges and empathising with the predicament of the less fortunate.
But I have not fasted for many long years, yet certain aspects of the spirit of Ramadan still inspire my faithless bones. Despite the ready tempers, traffic jams, runaway consumerism and irritability of some, not to mention the Palestinian love for loud nightly fireworks displays, Ramadan is marked by a special spirit of solidarity, camaraderie, unison and communalism.
Ramadan nights have a special enchantment, a kind of festive magic. And it is this dimension of Ramadan which I miss the most when I am in Europe: the delicious delicacies at communal iftars, sentimental soaps and corny comedies on TV, socialising in smoky cafes late into the night, pre-dawn beans on a Cairo street corner. Although Jerusalem is not as lively as sleepless Cairo and most Palestinian Muslims spend Ramadan visiting family and friends, there are still Ramadan nights entertainments to be found here.
Whether you fast or not, are Muslim or not, the social and cultural aspects of Ramadan are open to all to savour.
This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 7 July 2011.