Beyond Biryani – Humbling moments in Ramadan

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

Ramadan in India (Source: Arabian Gazette)

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 16, 2015. Click here for the original version

Blessed are the people fasting in Dubai, and a special blessing is for the ones who spend Ramadan with family. It’s as if even the watch observes the holy month, the hours and minutes synchronized to reach the phase of dusk quicker than on regular months.

The Ramadan in the year 2011 was my first in India, without parents, and without a lot other things that otherwise made Ramadan “complete” in my regular Dubai life. The watch was not just going to adhere to a new time zone, it would cover a different experience from dawn to dusk – one that I would miss later.

While I was going to experience first of many things in India, my first Iftar at a mosque in Pune (a city where I received my undergraduate studies and a lot more), provides an endearing reflection on the holy month. Walking through unkempt bushes and an expansive area turned into a landfill for trash, I reached a building that could be passed on as a decrepit villa maintained with middle-class earnings. I was ushered to the floor above – I never wondered if Biryani tasted better on higher altitudes.

For starters, the mosque was a blatant contradiction to my idea of a prayer place I had grown accustomed to – big, spacious, endowed with cushioning carpet, even state-of-the-art and an endless flow of delicious food for Iftar. I compared mosques in Dubai and ranked them on where you got the best Biryani.

With no more than 6-7 large plates shared by men engrossed in supplication, the volunteers at the mosque hustled in and out of the room to fill the plates with snacks and fruits. The plate displayed an exciting array of colours, but colours don’t bring taste after all. I darted my eyes on other plates around, wondering if mine went biryani-less because I didn’t make it on time. Where was the real stuff?! There wasn’t any – looked like everyone was united before God, just before breaking the fast, even in the content of their plates.

As the call for breaking the fast went off, the men first ensured that the dates were equally divided amongst all and then tucked into their plates. The food received their reverence as they carefully peeled the fruits and ate it down to the seeds. The few fried snacks (pakoras) dotted the plate like rare stars in the solar system, spotted by all but touched only to be distributed equally. The plate was cleared of any edible residue – from stray fruit pieces to tiny bits of the crust of snacks that barely carry any flavour.

In stark contrast to my “regular” Iftar in Dubai, the whole eating session spanned barely for 5 minutes. No second servings, no passing around of the extra meat, drinks reserved to just water in a canister rather than a portfolio of water, juice, laban and Rooh Afza in sealed packaging as collectables for home.

Failing to satiate my gastronomical calling, i.e. Biryani, made me realise that the “real stuff” lay not in that which wasn’t in front of me, rather in what was happening around me at the moment. It was in the sharing of what was available and not in the hoarding of what was not. In less than 5 minutes, the men around the plate had fulfilled some of the prophetic traditions – eating from what’s near and ensuring that the neighbour has eaten as much as they did. While many of us in Dubai blatantly go against the spirit of Islam by wasting food, that mosque with few facilities managed food supply efficiently.

It’s worth taking a step back and evaluating how mosques work in India. Most, if not all, depend on philanthropic handouts and donations (through Sadaqah and Zakat) from the public to sponsor activities such as Iftar meals. It wouldn’t be difficult to guess that mosques have their challenges prioritising areas of expense and sponsoring meals only if the donations stream in at a healthy rate.

The holy month of Ramadan spans a mere 30 days, but its wisdom is timeless. There’s much to learn from it and its blessings are open to all. I for once want to learn the simplicity of a fruit amidst the sophistication of Biryani.

The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

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You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.

4 weird things that (apparently) invalidate the fast

Spending 3 important years of my life as a student in India gave me a new perspective on practicing my religion. There’s much that fills me with pride, and things that I believe are flash points for a burgeoning Muslim population in India.

While lies in the middle of the spectrum is humour. Many Muslims – and non-Muslims who have inquired about the traditions and rituals of Ramadan – gave away an innocent and naive understanding of the holy month. While I’m unaware of other societies harbouring similar beliefs, I rely on the consistency of my personal experience to cite India as a place where these things abound. It’s weird, but it’s hilarious!

Here are the top 4 (wrong) rulings that apparently invalidate your fast.

4 – pablo (2)

I know what you’re thinking. You’re trying to recollect all the moments you spent time with someone who was fasting, hoping he/she hadn’t followed this. I empathize with the intention here, but as long as you’re not deliberately trying to sneak in a few drops of water in, a cold shower is just that – refreshing!

3 –

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As a school kid, I saw a friend getting furious at other classmates spraying deodorant all over (yea, we got excited at the smallest things) citing that its fragrance would break his fast. This really infuriated me as it developed a wrong perception of Ramadan and ran this (mis)conception through a religious scholar. He confirmed that ‘smelling’ anything doesn’t affect the fast. I took a whiff of the ittar that the Imam was sporting[PS – Ramadan etiquette requires one to abstain from pronounced extravagance, like dousing oneself perfume and giving everyone a headache.]

2 –

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In an auto-rickshaw ride to the campus, my conversation with the driver drifted into Ramadan that had arrived the same week. The paraphernalia (spot for everything green and shiny) clearly suggested that he should ideally have been fasting. Explaining his reason of abstinence, he said, “Humare dhande mei gaali galoch bahut hoti hai. Toh Roza rakhne ka faayda nahi.” [In our line of business, using abusives and foul language is very common. Keeping the fast is of no use]

Quite funny, because fasting is about self-restraint and developing new habits. While using foul language is against the spirit of Ramadan, a religiously (punnn…) foul-mouthed person can use this month to overcome the hardness of his tongue.

1 – pablo (6)

This takes the cake (after Iftar). At first, I would be dumbstruck at the notion, after about 5 people asked me about this, I realised naivete related to Ramadan is viral. Saliva is a natural formation that lubricates the throat. And thanks to this, it actually allows us to complete our fast without invoking a Thar Desert feeling in our throat. I wonder if there’s anyone who reconciles fasting with this almost impossible requirement.

I’m sure these 4 things are but a mere snapshot of many more misconceptions. What only worries me is that these things can easily become excuses for ignoring the fast.

Have you come across other imaginative reasons that invalidate the fast in your culture? Share it with us in the comments below!