Hungry for Ramadan

sleep_desk.jpgDespite the fact that I have been blogging and writing about the Muslim American experience for many years, I am quite private about my religious beliefs in the workplace. (That is, until my boss Googles my somewhat unique name and sees what I’ve been up to!) I suspect many Muslim Americans keep their faith close to their chest as well. While it is easy to downplay religion during most of the year, there is no way the fasting Muslim can hide it during Ramadan. So how do fasting and the office mix?
In my experience at least, they mix fairly well. Of course, it depends on what kind of job you have, but for the average white-collar employee, I’ve found that most people are understanding and accomodating. You might have to miss (or tolerate) a few company luncheons and birthday parties, and engage in water cooler talk without the water, but otherwise it’s not too bad. The biggest inconvenience has been rescheduling or cancelling corporate lunches. (Though in the case of a few Muslim clients, I’ve been able to change them to corporate iftar dinners instead.)

breaking_the_fast.jpgWhile there are aspects of Ramadan that are very personal, it is first and foremost a communal experience. Muslims are encouraged to pray in congregation, visit each other’s homes, and break their fast together at the end of the day. While it is nearly impossible not to do these things in a predominantly Muslim country, Muslims in America have to go out of their way to be among each other.
Unlike Muslims in Europe, Muslim Americans are geographically spread out across the country. With a few exceptions, you generally won’t find Muslim “ghettos” or other high concentrations of Muslims in America. (Even in Dearborn, Michigan–often referred to as the Muslim/Arab capital of America–Muslims number no more than 30 percent of the population.) While in general this is a good thing–Muslims should live among other Americans in order to break down social barriers–it does make a communal practice of Ramadan a bit difficult.
If you’re properly plugged in to the Muslim community, you’ll start getting Evite invitations for iftar meals even before Ramadan starts. (Those valuable weekend slots get snatched up quickly.) Even in a relatively small community like Austin, Texas, our iftar calendar has filled up our Ramadan weekends, with some invitations during the work week as well. These home visits provide a great excuse to build bonds within our community that have lapsed in the past year, and I’m looking forward to reconnecting with a few people who I haven’t seen since last Ramadan.

grocery_store.jpgIn the next few weeks I will be telling you about how spiritually uplifting Ramadan is, and about how I’ve been able to clear my body and mind in order to connect with my Creator. I will share the experience of breaking the fast communally with other Muslims over fresh dates and the most delicious glasses of water I have ever tasted.
But right now, I’m not feeling any of that. I am too distracted by the pull of my shrinking stomach.
As you might imagine, the first days of fasting take some getting used to. You start to realize what a central place food and drink has in one’s life. As soon as you wake up, your reflexes guide you straight for the refrigerator. You might even mistakenly pull your car up into your local Starbucks on the way to work. And God help you if you are a serial snacker–your hand will be continually reaching out for a phantom snack bowl.

living_logos.jpgOne of the disadvantages (depending on how you look at it) of basing Muslim holidays on a lunar calendar is that Ramadan is always on the move. Islamic holidays move backward at the rate of about 10 days per year with respect to the Gregorian calendar. Five years ago, Ramadan was planted firmly in the wintertime, which meant that fasting could end as early as 4 or 5 pm. In another five, however, Ramadan will encroach on summertime, where days stretch on until 9 pm or later. (I began fasting at age 14, when Ramadan was in the middle of summer, so fasting comes pretty easy for me.)
There is, however, a bright side to this holiday mobility. As Ramadan moves slowly through the calendar year, we have multiple opportunities to share Ramadan with other faith traditions and holidays as their paths cross in time. And each time this happens, there is a bit of cross-pollination that goes on that I believe enriches both traditions.