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

 

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Generous Neighbors

I have had the joy of living in a predominantly Arab Muslim neighborhood for 15 years.  Here is an article I wrote that was published in the Yemeni American News–it is a reflection of the virtue of Generosity I have learned from my Middle Eastern neighbors, especially during the month of Ramadan.  My Arab neighbors make me a better Greek!

I opened the screen door and gave a hearty shout for my kids to come in for the night and get ready for bed. I love the ebb and flow of our neighborhood in east Dearborn that we have called home for the past 15 years. In the winter all the kids stay indoors and just grow inches taller, and then each spring there is a grand neighborhood reunion where kids pop out of houses like flowers popping out on the little Magnolia tree in our front yard.

And then there’s Ramadan

As is customary in our neighborhood during Ramadan, the time just before sunset gets eerily quiet and we can smell the savory treats being prepared in the houses around us. At dark, my kids come in to get ready for bed and that is just about the same time when we hear a faint knock on the door. This time it was the youngest daughter of one of our Yemeni neighbors with a plate full of piping hot meat and potato sambusas—YUM!

Suddenly my three kids start remembering what they love about Ramadan, being raised to follow Jesus the Messiah in a predominantly Muslim community. It’s not just the warm sambusas, syrupy yellow cake, Lebanese knafeh, or our all-time family favorite—layered, buttery sabayah sprinkled with black sesame seeds. It’s about the blessing of generosity, Ramadan Kareem. The Messiah Jesus teaches us to value generosity and hospitality. Our Muslim neighbors regularly model what that looks like in our community.

To my kids, Ramadan is a time of sharing and abundance. The first Eid al-Fitr etched in their memories is marked with girls in fancy dresses and boys donning daunting swords on their belts. Then there’s the candy, the henna, and even gifts of cash! Being handed dollar bills from neighborhood dads was mind-blowing for my little ones. Our neighbors set the standard high for generosity.

The Plate War continues

Being from a Greek immigrant home, I know how to battle in a plate war. When a dish comes to you full of flavorful favorites, you prepare to give it back fully loaded with more mouth-watering goodness. Bottom line: The plate never gets passed anywhere empty. Last summer during the Islamic month of fasting we got caught in a furious neighborhood plate war. We were preparing to leave on an epic summer road trip to visit family in my home state of Colorado. I was not on top of my game. I got swept under by the generosity of Ramadan. A plate came in from neighbors to the north of us and a second plate got handed to my kids from neighbors to the south. Then, foil-wrapped sabayah came from across the street! My kids and I scrambled to bake our favorite poppy-seed muffins and banana breads to return the plates amidst packing for our trip.   When it was all said and done, we still had one leftover blue floral-trimmed plate. Since then, we have spent the past year passing this plate to various neighbors on all sides, thinking we were returning it. Everyone keeps filling it and passing it back. We finally concluded that we don’t actually know who the mysterious plate belongs to. It is still our goal to return this plate—full, of course—to someone. We have yet to win that battle!

I know that Ramadan isn’t just about late-night feasting. It’s about cultivating both the personal and collective spiritual discipline of fasting in submission to God’s will. Though our own faith calls us to this discipline as well, I must say, that I appreciate a neighborhood where fasting is a topic of conversation among ten-year-olds, and breaking fast is something to share with loved ones and neighbors.DSC_0242

So to all my Muslim friends and neighbors, thank you, for your generosity. Thank you for showing us, plate by plate, the essence of kareem. And if anyone happens to recognize this plate, let me know and I can fill it full of warm, homemade banana bread or Greek-style spinach pie.

Ramadan Kareem!