Another year, another Ramadan in the Middle East
Trip Start Feb 22, 2007
38Trip End Jul 19, 2008
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Half way through 2005's Ramadan I arrived in Yemen on a Friday morning, fresh-faced and without a word of Arabic, not knowing what kind of world I was stepping in to. That day - my first ever in the Arab world - the city of Sana'a greeted me with an eerie silence; an uncomfortable and inauspicious beginning to a relationship between the city and me that would shape the next year and a half of my life and become a deep and lasting love affair with a people and their culture. Yet for the proceeding two weeks after my first arrival there, I resented the city and its whole-hearted embrace of Ramadan, and I scratched around for nourishment and fluids and ate yesterday's food and drink in unwanted privacy. The city was dead to me in that first Ramadan: no one walked the streets and no shops offered their business. Respite would come each day with the 6pm sunset and the accompanying iftar meal. Yet it held no meaning or resonance for me, just an opportunity to eat fresh food and do so in public.
By last year's Ramadan I was already immersed in, and captivated by, Yemeni culture and its people and their way-of-life. It was an easy decision to fast for Ramadan, as I wanted to experience this important Muslim process with a people whose very being is so unflinchingly shaped by their Islamic faith. I wanted to feel part of both their suffering and their celebration and to experience the wonderful city of Sana'a in a way that had eluded me in my first Ramadan. And indeed, the pre-sunrise meal of suhur presented to me a nocturnal world of a city alive with activity, to which I had been entirely oblivious the previous year. It turned out to be a magical month that brought me closer to the city and to its people, and also brought me closer to some of my fellow students who had also decided to fast. Our lifestyles changed, we became essentially nocturnal creatures, and we built up and shared rituals with one another. And though I am not a Muslim, nor religiously inclined in any way, that year's Ramadan was indeed cathartic.
And so it is upon me again: another year another Ramadan, this time in Syria. As I write this very blog, I am heading into the hour or so before the iftar meal and I have already eaten my first suhur meal this morning at 4am. Already I can tell it is going to be a different kind of experience and, for sure, it will be infinitely more challenging than last year. Firstly, Syrian people are far less religious than their Yemeni counterparts. Indeed, a great many Muslims here will not bother to fast at all. Moreover, there is a considerable Christian population here as opposed to the entirely Muslim city of Sana'a. This does not create, therefore, that wonderful feeling of solidarity that sustained me last year. And, owing to such reasons, Damascus really doesn't seem to transform for Ramadan like Sana'a did. Businesses are still very much open in the day and, at this morning's suhur, the city was by no means alive with activity like Sana'a.
And then there some important practical factors that will perhaps test me the most: firstly, Syria is significantly further north than Yemen and the days are therefore longer; the evenings have almost two hours extra daylight. Secondly, Damascus is considerably hotter than elevated Sana'a, and so the inability to drink water in the day will affect me more. Thirdly, and most crucially, I will not be able to become a nocturnal soul like those of Sana'a, as I am now a working man (yes really, look out for a blog about that in the near future) and will have to maintain a Western schedule. My daily fast, therefore, will last for upwards of 12 waking hours in the true Middle Eastern heat, much of which will be in a testing working environment.
My gosh, I'm almost talking myself out of it as I write. Indeed, if this first day is anything to go by, it's going to be a true test of will and strength: the hunger pangs are strong now as I head towards the last hour before iftar, and I have literally been fantasizing about the feel of water on my lips for the last 10 waking hours. But, as challenging as it may be, so too should it be that much more rewarding in its achievement.
Here's to hoping...