Muslim for a Day
The day I visited a mosque during Ramadan
One of the things that I love so much about traveling is the opportunity to throw away past prejudices and assumptions and learn about other’s points of views in real-time for myself. When we do this as travelers, we are able to humanize people and reduce the extreme cultural barriers that have been ingrained and indoctrinated in us from our youth. I watched a documentary by Anthony Bourdain (rest well Anthony) in Israel recently that illustrates this beautifully.
In our Western society we have become more and more accustomed to building separation between the East and the West. This is especially true since the tragedy of 9/11, a date that we will all remember forever regardless of our nationality, ethnicity, or creed. We are told by the news, politicians, and even teachers at times, that we are far too different and will never be able to understand one another. Sadly, I think that this is an image that has been falsely implanted in our minds. In my opinion, one of the reasons that we have so many issues is because people do not take the time to really attempt at understanding the other’s culture. Some might say that this is inevitable in that there are not a lot of opportunities for first-hand interaction between people who do not travel, but I believe differently. Realistically in the 21st century, the world is more global than ever. There has never been a time in history when so many opportunities were available for the people who want and have the means to pursue them. These range from just down the street from your home to the opposite side of the globe. If I have learned one thing while traveling, it is about how similar people are fundamentally around the world. People might be worlds apart culturally, but they all still have to eat, take care of their families, work, play sports in the yard, you know normal people stuff.
I would be wrong if I did not admit that there are some justifiable cultural perceptions out there, but I still believe more of it comes from misunderstanding than anything else. That being said, one of the things that I attempt to do when I travel is to achieve true cultural immersion. I realize this style of traveling is not for everyone, but I attempt to achieve this by eating local, acting local, and participating in local cultural. In line with my style of traveling, I am usually open to participating in cultural events if I am welcome. I believe: to immerse yourself in someone else’s life to try to better understand who they are as a person, as a people, or even a religion will change your life even if you don’t necessarily agree with them.
As many of you know the month of Ramadan has recently come to a conclusion. It ended nearly two months ago now, to be more precise. Ramadan is a fasting period that all Muslims are required to observe once a year, unless they meet one of the exclusions. It is often a period of cultural tension, long and hot days, but it can also be a period of religious reflection, becoming closer to God, and for deepening your understanding of faith. In Ramadan, Muslims are required not to eat from dawn until sundown, unless they fall into a category of people who may be excused from fasting such as women who are pregnant or nursing. People who are sick, elderly, and/or traveling can also abstain from fasting, but all are required to make it up when their situations return to normal. There are many other more specific rules that they must observe during the day, but the central theme is that no food must be eaten during these hours. Thus, it is a true fast. At sundown every night during Ramadan, there is a prayer and meal called the Itfar (إفطار ), which I will tell you about later. This itfar, is essentially the breaking of the fast for a particular day in Ramadan.
Some of the rules of Ramadan that might seem strange to non-Muslims: To have a fast you must (1) Abstain from intercourse with your husband or wife, (2) must not intentionally vomit. (3) Additionally, one cannot swallow anything, not even their own spit.
Some more can-dos: You can (1) apply eyeliner and/or eye drops, (2) wash your mouth and face, (3) taste food as long as nothing is swallowed, (4) breath in different scents.
All of these were taken from the Islamic Association of Raleigh website. They have an overview of Ramadan, if you’d like to read more.
I am no stranger to fasting periods as I was raised in the Catholic church and the period of Lent is practiced between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. Although the Catholic way of fasting is very different, the concept is still the same. Furthermore, in most holy books of different world religions, fasting of some sort, is observed. I think that the root of fasting is nearly the same in all religions, even for the non-religious people who fast, it can purify you, humble you, and make you appreciate things more.
So, I read an article recently that inspired me to take a deeper look at my experience in a mosque during Ramadan. The article was by a non-Muslim American girl named Elizabeth. After returning home from a recent traveling stint she decided to try to travel around for a few days wearing a full Burqa, exposing only her eyes, to experience what kind of responses and reactions she would get. She wondered if people would treat her differently. I recommend reading her article when you get a chance to see the outcome. It is here, on Dave’s Travel Corner (A great travel blog). In the past, I wrote an article comparing Muslim women to Nuns, which was an interesting self-study for me related to this topic. So reading about Elizabeth’s experience was of interest to me.
In order to develop a better understanding for the practices of Islam and teachings of the Qur’an, I decided to fast for one day of Ramadan. In the past, I’ve read a few Suras (chapters) of the Qur’an, but still have more to go before understanding more about the religion. Being that I was traveling, I first had to find a mosque in the city. Once I knew where one was, the only thing that I had to do was not eat and wait for the azan, which is also known as the Islamic call to prayer.
I had been in the town of Zaragoza for almost a week and I wanted to immerse myself in a few more things before leaving as I knew I would be leaving Spain soon.
I woke up around 9 am, not knowing what I would do for the day. At this point, I had not yet decided that I would go to the mosque for itfar, although the thought had crossed my mind. It was already hot in the morning as the summer temperatures in Zaragoza can reach a scorching 35-40ºC (roughly 90-100ºF). This particular day, I think that it was around 95ºF, even sitting in my room I couldn’t stop sweating. Spain’s current Ramadan weather is in many ways similar to that of what I would expect in Morocco and other North African countries, only slightly cooler.
In line with these rules of Ramadan, I knew the founding principles were basically no food, no drink, and swallow nothing. I thought about it. I hadn’t eaten. I had no plans. I pondered what they would think of me. Then, I reflected on my reasons for traveling. I thought to the many travel quotes that often run through my head and why I am continuously motivated to leave my easy, safe, and consistent life at home. One of the quotes that seemed to resonate on this particular day was the one that rhetorically asks a person, if they aren’t going to try local foods, speak local languages, or try to understand new perspectives, then why travel at all? It hit me. I needed to do this. I would fast, then head to the mosque in the early evening for the azan and itfar.
Fast-forward a few hours to the early afternoon. I spent the day writing posts as I was traveling around Spain with REAJ (via Big Blog Exchange) and I wanted to catch up on the previous few days of traveling. I additionally passed some time working on my social media accounts and responding to emails. A typical day in my life. A blogger’s life, I guess. There was something lacking this particular day though: food and drink. It was looming.
In life you rarely realize how much you miss things until you do not actually have them. This is true with people, pets, and obviously the necessities of food and water. This is something that we rarely appreciate until we have gone without for any significant period of time. Obviously a couple of hours during a day is incomparable to longer extents without these things, but you get the point. We get hungry and thirsty and start to realize it. Honestly, I don’t think that most of us in the West have ever known what it means to be truly hungry, but fasting yourself helps you to appreciate that situation more.
When it was time for me to begin making my way to the mosque I took a shower, which was one of the allowances during the fast. I dressed as modestly as I could, but I came to the realization that I would be an obvious foreigner either way. I had jeans and a t-shirt, no North African gear or traditional garbs and dressings. I had nearly entered the mosque the day before when I passed it on the street, but I am glad that I didn’t as I was wearing shorts. In my remembrance of past Christian church experiences, we have become increasingly accustomed to dressing for comfort rather than religiously, but most Muslims and mosques have retained the idea of conservative dress. So, had I entered, I may have been asked to leave, or been stared at with discontent.
I decided to stop at a grocery store on the way to get my food for breaking the fast. Little did I know that when the itfar was made, I would be fed generously. I purchased my usually daily go-to budget meal bread and meat. Only this time, I chose to abstain from pork products. I chose Turkey. Walking through the store, I noticed many Muslims shopping. They were surely itching to break the fast with their families. I wondered were they struggling through it? Getting some kind of life-changing experience? Or, this just another day in the park for them?
As I made my long walk to the mosque, I had plenty of time for reflection, a good thirty minutes of it at least. I also had room for temptation. For one, I gradually looked down to the food in my hand. I was not overly hungry for some reason, but I was just not used to abstaining myself from food. It was strange to have food in hand and not eat it, but not in this situation it was not without reason. I’ve come to realize that many of the ‘strange’ things that you put yourself through often turn out being something good for you in some way even if you do not realize it at the time. While walking, I thought about my reasoning for doing what I was doing. What significance it this fasting period has to the Muslim people and how it would affect me.
Arriving at the mosque, I felt foreign. I sat at the entrance for a few minutes. I entered slightly, then walked away. I didn’t know how to just walk inside. My mindset was that I wanted to just ‘observe’ so I only wanted to enter at the time of prayer, but I was really just stalling. I walked the block a few times. I watched from a distance as many men and women Muslims made their way, then disappeared into its doors. One of them even stared at me, then asked me smiling if I was looking for something. I never told him, but I was in fact looking for something: it was an experience.
Shortly after, I finally entered. I removed my shoes, then placed them in a holding box with the food that I had purchased. I meekly made my way down the corridor. I saw a man in front of my washing his hands, so I thought I should do the same. The men that I passed greeted me with typical Arabic phrases. I reciprocated and turned the corner into the small L-shaped room that was their room of prayer. Lined with old and worn out green carpets, I witnessed different men from an array of countries sitting in reverence and waiting for the Imam to initiate the call to prayer, or azan. The majority of the men in the room, I assumed to be from North Africa, likely Moroccan based off of their features. However, there were black Africans in the room as well as one other man who looked European. Perhaps there were 20-25 people in total. I found a spot on the floor and rested my back against the wall.
Looking around, most of the men were referent. Some of them were reading from the Qur’an, others sitting quietly in their own spaces. I thought to flip through one of the Qur’an books, but it wouldn’t do me much good as I cannot read Arabic, yet at least. I reflected on some prayers that I remembered from my youth and prepared myself for a new religious experience. Moments later, the Imam said something and there was a mad rush towards the front of the room. Startled at first, I looked around trying to find the source of the movement. Apparently, the time was officially sundown and the fast could be broken. In the front of the room on lined mats were dates and bananas. Cups of milk were also there. By the time that I arrived in the front, there were little things left. I ate some banana, and sat for a second. I felt a tap on the shoulder. One of the men noticed that I had not received any milk. He took his glass and offered it to me. How generous, I thought to myself.
A short time later, the food mats were removed and everyone started to line up. I followed suit. The front line filled up quick, so I took my spot on the second. I lined up with a moderate space between myself and the person next to me, as if I needed space to do calisthenics or something. (Joke.) The man to my left grabbed my arm and instructed me to come closer and to touch our feet together, almost locking our pinky toes. I knew Muslims were close, but this was a new level of personal space for me touching toes with complete strangers. The imam was already well into his azan and we all stood just listening to the words. I had heard the azan many times before in different countries, so I was fairly familiar with some of the words and phrases, such as Allahu Akbar Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah Ash-hadu anna Muħammadan-Rasulullah. Meaning: God is greatest, I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship except for God, and I bear witness that the Prophet Muhammed is the messenger of God, which are some of the most important words to the Muslim people. Outside of these three lines, I knew nothing more.
Once he completed the azan, he began to recite prayers. In Islamic prayer, I had only witnessed a prayer service one time in Istanbul and occasionally seen people praying in my travels. So, I knew next to nothing about praying like a Muslim or what to do or say. I basically followed the people next to me as they moved through the prayer. Instead of reciting the words that they did, I used my own words for prayer. In so doing this prayer, I further realized the significance of submitting to God in religious beliefs. Islam literally means submission to God in Arabic. Interestingly enough, full prostration is not something that is unique to Islam or the Muslim people. Early Christians and Jews also were required to prostrate before the Lord, it is in fact mentioned multiple times in the Bible as well. However, this is something that is rarely practiced in Western Christianity, although there are some sects of Christianity, such as Eastern Orthodox, that still prostrate in prayer. On occasion, Orthodox Christians also wear similar clothes to middle Eastern Muslims, especially the women.
After the prayer, I was preparing myself to leave, when I realized that the initial food offering was but a snack. The others behind me were already gathering around mats that were large-rectangular shaped. Possibly big enough for about 10-12 people at each, sitting side by side. I was signaled to sit at one of the mats, so I did not protest. The men to my sides introduced themselves in typical fashion. I noticed when I was in Morocco last year that it is quite common to say Asalamu alaikum, or Oaulakimu salam, then touch your chest where your heart is signaling that you hold them dear to you. All of these people did that.
The people who worked at the mosque and their children began to bring around food and place it in the center of the mats. They brought out chocolate pastries and fruits at first. There were cartons of fruit juice on the mat already. I reached to pour some juice for myself, and my the guy to my right told me to wait for the milk that would soon come. Soon it did, and it was fantastic. It was a special type, almost homemade tasting, with a hint of cinnamon and some other complimentary flavors. They handed me a hard-boiled egg, then a bowl of some soup. There was a tray of some lentil flavored casserole as well. All had much better-than-restaurant-quality flavor, and I will never forget that meal.
After finishing the milk, I reached again for some juice. The carton was being used by one of the people sitting next to me. It was almost empty, but he stopped pouring and shared the rest of it with me. Next, we were to clean up after ourselves. Cleaning was a group effort at this particular mosque. I picked up some of the things from my neighbor while he continued eating. I did this to show appreciation for him sharing with me. By the time I returned with a napkin to pick up the egg shells from the hard-boiled egg that I had eaten, he was already cleaning it up with his bare hands.
I expressed my appreciation and said my goodbyes to the people who sat with me, and then made my way back to my shoes.
I walked toward the center of the town and found a bench. I sat there with my unnecessary food, reflecting over the experience that I had just completed. It was unique. It was nothing like I expected, as I really did not know what to expect anyway. It was different, but in a good way. I learned that for the religious folk, there is more than one way to connect to a higher power. You do not have to be of one religion to worship with it nor do you have to understand everything that is going on. I smiled, vitalized, and remembered why it is important to try new things.Follow my journey. Subscribe to my newsletter.