Fasting and Feasting: Looking in on Ramadan

Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. (From the Tawrah)

Last month, my husband and I joined our good friends at a beautiful Islamic wedding reception. He went with the men, and I with the women. It was an incredible celebration of dancing, drums, exquisite dresses, and incredible cuisine. It was a time to usher in something new and something beautiful—the union of a husband and wife in their new life together. I admired the abundant display of fruit platters and little cakes and cannolis that donned the back table. They were a vision of sweet, delicious things to IMG_1711come. And though I didn’t understand much of the Arabic conversations going on amongst the ladies at my table, I understood the topic of Ramadan on the lips of many. It seemed as though everyone was anticipating this month of fasting and all that it entails.

Growing up in a Greek Orthodox Christian home, my family practiced 40 days of Lent—a vegan diet, abstaining from meat, dairy and other animal products, in anticipation for the celebration of Easter. Easter is the focal point of the Christian calendar. It is a time to celebrate new life, new hope, redemption, and forgiveness as we 2010 04 04 Easter – Version 2reflect on the path of suffering and victory of Jesus the Messiah. The joy of Easter is intertwined with the fasting that comes before it. As a child, my favorite Easter treats were little chocolate eggs in a colored
candy shell. I remember trying to sneak around the kitchen to curb my chocolate craving during Lent, leading up to a grand resurrection celebration. Then, on the Saturday evening before Easter, we would dress in our best celebratory garb and attend worship services long past midnight. All I could think about was arriving home to feast on all the delicacies and choice foods we had abstained from for forty days. How sweet those treats tasted after waiting so long to eat them!

The guests abstained from celebrating until the bride and groom showed up.

When I lived on my own, away from the community aspect of this Greek Orthodox Lenten practice, I realized quickly that the little chocolate eggs didn’t taste as delectable as they did when I had abstained from them and anticipated them for 40 days. There is a time for fasting and a time for celebrating. Both are important. Jesus the Messiah used the example of a wedding feast when he described fasting to his followers. He explained that when the bridegroom enters the wedding, this is a time for celebrating. How true it was at the wedding we attended last month. We eagerly anticipated the arrival of the bride and groom. We all abstained from celebrating until they showed up.

Fasting brings to the surface our inner reality.  S. Sohaib

Sometimes I fast privately, abstaining from all food and drink, day and night, for a specified amount of time, in order to focus on prayer and listening to God. The growls in my stomach are a reminder to pray. Fasting forces me to depend on God, even before food. After all, Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Fasting teaches me to listen more carefully to the words of God. Fasting is both a spiritual discipline and a physical detox. It is a time to rid our bodies of unhealthy toxins and also expose the dark places in our spirits. According to Qur’an scholar Sohaib Saeed of the Bayyinah Institute, “fasting brings to the surface our inner reality.” This is so true. When we are weak, our true nature comes out.

Version 2I have studied other languages prior to Arabic, and it never occurred to me before to learn the vocabulary to talk about fasting. But in Arabic, and among my Muslim neighbors, fasting is an important topic of conversation. Living in a primarily Muslim community for the last 15 years, I have learned other valuable lessons on fasting. I appreciate the power and joy of fasting in community and breaking fast in community. My family anticipates the month of Ramadan, and not just because we are on the receiving end of the mandate to generously share with one’s neighbors. We, as part of a Muslim community, are impacted greatly by the month of fasting at our kids’ school, at the local places of business, and among friends. During this month, I am grateful to live in a community that pushes me to teach my children about this spiritual discipline at an early age. I love that kids have discussions about fasting on the playground!

Set aside a time to seek God, to embrace our weakness, and to anticipate the sweet celebrating that follows.

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Whether fasting is for 30 days, breaking fast each evening, or whether it is for three days and nights straight, or a restricted diet for 40 days, what matters is the spiritual lessons that come from it: to set aside a time to seek God, to embrace our weakness, and to anticipate our breaking of fast, and the sweet celebrating that follows—like when the bride and groom show up to the wedding feast!

Published in the Yemeni American News, June 2017

 

A New Song: In Celebration of World Arabic Language Day

Tallou Hababena  (طلّوا حبابنا) and a New Hairdo 

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I sat robed in a black plastic cape, my wet hair combed over my face for precise styling. Sometimes a new hairdo from my long-time Lebanese stylist, Toufic, at First Impression Hair Salon, involves cake and tea with his lovely wife, or buying a box of Girl Scout cookies from one of his daughters. As he snips and trims with precision and care, Toufic always fills me in on the latest news of his family, his country and the unrest of the region. I also like to freshen up my rudimentary Arabic skills with him and learn a new phrase or two. But it was unusually quiet this Thursday morning without the standard news from the “Old Country” rattling on in the background. That set me up for the perfect moment to inquire about Tallou Hababena.  Tallou Hababena was the new song my daughter had been fervently practicing with her low intermediate Arabic class at her school. They had to memorize the song and perform a traditional debke dance in preparation for the UN World Arabic Language Day, which is recognized globally and annually on December 18.

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Inspiration to Research

A new song sums up graduate studies at Wayne State University. From the Psalms I am reminded that God is my strength and my song. This spiritual strength has carried me through the incredible combination of the increased academic challenges of fulltime graduate school and the physical weariness due to my current leukemia treatment. I have battled chronic leukemia (CML) for fifteen years, but my current treatment, Sprycel, is more toxic to my system and regularly challenges me with increased fatigue and dizziness. Being simultaneously on Sprycel and on a scholarship has pushed me to the edge of vulnerability and gratitude. I have been soaring to new heights and needing new strengths to do it. During my most difficult struggles I find hope through inspiring song lyrics. My source of inspiration has become my focus of research, new songs. Expression through song is powerful because it can be personal, social, spiritual, and cultural. A song can stir a heart, inspire a nation, or lull a child.

Contributing to the inspiration is the cultural and linguistic information contained within authentic music and lyrics. Song lyrics are a great resource for gaining cultural perspectives and memorizing new language forms. With my Spanish students, we print song lyrics and then research idioms, dialects, themes, styles, metaphors and verb tenses found in each new song. Through this wealth of cultural insight, my desire is to make life-long language learning meaningful and inspiring for myself, and for those that I teach and coach.

ps-40-3The Comprehension Quandary

So, as I sat at First Impression, my thoughts shifted from my studies back to my daughter’s Arabic song. Tallou Hababena had become my new challenge. My daughter had come to me weeks before with the Arabic script and the notecards she was using to transcribe the lyrics into English. Even though she didn’t understand the words, she was trying to prepare her best for her class performance.

As a family we want to position ourselves to engage the language and culture in our community. I’m training to be a Language Learning Coach. I am researching music for language learning purposes. I got all fired up. There was no way my girl was going to sing a song she didn’t understand in celebration of language! We went into full-on meaning-making mode: My husband acquired the translation of Tallou Hababena from a friend. We had watched various YouTube videos that helped us figure out that this song was about a songbird, nature, and the beautiful mountains of Lebanon. We knew that that title meant Come our Love. But something was missing. Why this song? How did it stir the hearts of its hearers?

Longing for Home

touficToufic felt free to enlighten me. With scissors in one hand and a comb in the other, and my wet hair in my face, his face lit up at the mention of Tallou Hababena by the prominent Lebanese singer Wadih El-Safi. “Kids wake up whistling this song. It’s a song about home. When someone has been gone, far away, for too long, their loved ones back in the villages wait for them to come home…” As Toufic burst into spontaneous song, my mind wandered to my family and loved ones far away, and how I wished I could be with them, especially at Christmastime. Tallou Hababena was in essence a version of I’ll be home for Christmas…if only in my dreams… Only this song had a beat you could clap along with, which I did, under my plastic cape! Even though I couldn’t understand all of Toufic’s words, I understood the powerful longing for my home and family back in Colorado.

My husband and I joked that before winter vacation most parents back in my hometown in Colorado were probably watching Christmas concerts, with their kids donned with jingle bells and red sweaters. But we beamed as our daughter and her 6th grade Arabic class walked onto the stage and began swaying their arms, stomping the debke, and singing along to Tallou Hababena (mostly) in unison. We were in full celebration of World Arabic Language Day, and Tallou Hababena would mark a new memory for us.

That’s the power of song. I have songs that mark some of my best memories, and some of the saddest ceremonies; songs of crying out to God Most High, songs that inspire, refresh, celebrate, and worship. I want to praise God with words and with my life, in more than one language, and I want to help others do the same.

~He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God~    a Psalm of David

(This article was published in the Yemeni American News, January, 2017)