Ramadan, 1425


           Ramadan is the ninth of twelve months in the Muslim year. Since it is a lunar calendar, the length of each month depends on moon sightings. Each month begins with the new moon, which means that each one can be 29 or 30 days long. With twelve months of approximately 354 days, and no leap year compensation, it means that there are eleven fewer days annually, when compared to the reckoning on our Gregorian year. This is what accounts for the fact that Ramadan, like all the other Muslim months and festivals, happens about that many days earlier each year. As a result, Muslims get to experience this and all other holidays during different times of the year.

          Observance of Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam, thereby representing one of the five points on the star you see on the flags of Muslim nations.

          The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Ramadan is the fasting, and that is what would be for me the most difficult aspect of observing it. For Muslims, however, this is not the feature of Ramadan that comes foremost to mind. It is a time of introspection, thinking about Allah, and one's relationships with other people, too. As one friend told me, "You try to devote more time to the spiritual part of you. You should be just to people. You should think about the suffering of people. You give to the poor. Recently, we think a lot about those people killing other people and saying that they are Muslims. If you kill a person you are not a Muslim. We pray for those people."

          Ramadan is also a unifying force among Muslims, because all people are practicing it at the same time. It serves as a test of will, in that other people (non-believers) do not have limitations. But strong Muslims pride themselves on resisting the temptations to eat, drink, smoke, and have sexual relations during daylight hours. They believe that when you demonstrate that you can be stronger than your physical urges, you have more good deeds to your credit with Allah.

          Ramadan is also a time to be in harmony with others. There is a lot of visiting, especially in the evenings, and asking for the forgiveness of friends and family.

          In order to sustain the daily fast, people wake up and complete their morning meal before the sunrise. The month of Ramadan was being observed during December when I was in Morocco in 2000. The fast is, of course, easier during the winter when daylight hours are shorter and days are cooler.

          Business hours are shortened during Ramadan, with offices and banks opening later in the morning and closing earlier in the afternoon. When I first experienced this, in Morocco, I was puzzled because I didn't know all the ramifications of this observance. Why are the banks opened later in the day if everyone's been awake for hours? I wanted to know. Being a morning person, once I am awake, I'm up for the day. Then I came to find out that it is common practice for people to go back to sleep after their pre-dawn meal, which is what accounts for businesses getting a later start. Children, who do not fast, are usually allowed to continue sleeping until they normally awaken.

          Before I came here, I received sage advice from a PCV who had served in an Islamic country: don't take vacation days during Ramadan. Why not? With people working fewer hours and many work projects being curtailed until the month is over, it is already a mini-vacation. I am finding this to be true, of course.

          The school year, which started on the first of October, is not in full swing yet. University classes have not begun, nor have classes at ENS, where I taught last year. But I did get a call from my ENS contact, to the effect that they would like me to teach the American Civilization class again. I am also waiting to hear from ISERI, the Islamic Institute, where I will be teaching English. Characteristically, they told me that they would be in touch to set up the schedule, "after Ramadan."

          If I had been asked to make a list of the food items I would be least likely to find in Mauritania, I might have thought about it for a few minutes and then eventually included matzos on the list. Imagine my surprise, then, just this last week, when I was shopping at my usual super marché and saw a box of matzos - just that one box - on the shelf. It was manufactured in France and contained neither Hebrew writing or the word "matzos" on it. The box was labeled "pain azyme," which translates to "unleavened bread." There is no mention of manufacture under rabbinical supervision, as there usually is on these boxes, but it was unmistakably matzos.

          PCV Kristin got back from her home leave on Saturday, and she came to visit me yesterday evening, bringing with her a bagful of goodies from San Francisco. Since she was "in the neighborhood," she stopped at my house and picked up the supplies that friends Susan and Andrew had gathered at my request: books, postage stamps, notebooks, travel sleep sheet, sandals, mail, and other odds and ends. It was wonderful to get this new infusion of goods. My Teva sandals were falling apart and definitely on their last kilometers.