My Arabic teacher, Nancy, has asked us to keep our eyes open. You’ll notice all sorts of changes as Ramadan approaches, she said.
From a growing amount of pastries, dried fruit, and special Ramadan lanterns, to clothing vendors shouting something, of which the only word I could decipher was “Ramadan”–Cairenes are seemingly in a frenzy preparing for the month-long holiday.
Ramadan, which is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is the holiest month because it’s when Muhammad Hussein, the prophet of Islam, is believed to have revealed the Koran.
Thinking a month long holiday sounds fun?
From what I’ve learned thus far, a theme of the month is discipline.
“In Ramadan, we don’t only abstain from food, drink, smoking, marital sex, but also we abstain form all kinds of immoral acts and obscenity,”Wrote Dr. Muhammad M. Abu Laylah, a professor at Azhar University, on Islamonline.net.
“Our social, religious, charitable acts are combined in our fasting. So, the month of Ramadan is an intensive course in physical and spiritual hygiene.”
Ok. Really think about this. No water in the 100+ heat and no cigarettes for the chain-smoking taxi-drivers. Though just to clarify, “In Ramadan,” refers to the fasting period–sunrise to sunset only. The prophet specifically permits marital sex outside these hours.
While the fast is a personal challenge, in the land of bowabs (doormen) who monitor all comings and goings, neighbors who all know each other and generations of families who live together, or course the holiday is very community oriented.
As fasting is not an option but required of Muslims (there are exceptions for illnesses, travelers, pregnant women, soldiers and young children) it becomes an obligatory social, as well as religious event.
“(Fasting) for a fixed number of days, but if any of you is ill or on a journey, the same number (should be made up) from other days. And as for those who can fast with difficulty, (i.e. an old man, etc.), they have (a choice either to fast or) to feed a poor person (for every day). But whoever does good of his own accord, it is better for him. And that you fast, it is better for you if only you know.” (2:183-84)
The countdown until August 22nd is on.
This is just the teaser
In the United States we hear all the time about Arabs, other skin-tones and minorities facing scrutiny at airports. I’ve heard open-minded and well-traveled people comment when an Arab or someone dressed in an abaya or headscarf boards their plane.
In the Middle East there is no room for these irrational fears. At the airport Rachel and Edwin (our TA for the trip) both marveled at the diversity of the people around us. A woman in a flowing orange dress stood by the escalator and a family, Asha guessed, of southern Indians wearing beautifully embroidered caps were head of us at the passport check line.
When I got aboard our flight to Syria an old woman was sitting in my seat. She didn’t speak English but she showed me her ticket. Her ticket was a seat that didn’t exist on the plane. An attendant came and ripped up her ticket and she walked toward the front of the plane–to where I don’t know.
After some more communicative gesturing I took my seat next to an Iraqi man and his friend’s son.
In the midst of writing that last sentence, a commotion erupted a few rows back. I man dressed in white with a gold embroidered hat was yelling Arabic words I couldn’t understand. Flight attendants and others were yelling back. Slightly panicked, I shut my laptop, ready to hop off the plane in a second. The man sitting next to me smiled–and gestured his hands–nothing don’t worry. No problem? I asked in Arabic. No problem he agreed, clearly amused by the commotion.
The Iraqi’s name was Abdu and the boy was Amr. They and more family and friends were returning to Baghdad from Saudi Arabia. He took out his camera phone and eagerly showed me pictures from their hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca to see the Kaaba. The Hajj Is the fifth pillar of Islam and required of all faithful Muslims capable of making it. Abdu clicked through pictures of worshippers prostrated before the black stone, his family and friends, all dressed in the traditional white. He showed me his Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stamp in his passport. I was quite jealous.
Communicating anything substantive was hard, but I couldn’t not ask him about Iraq. How is it? What do you think of Americans? His face grew somber, he lost his kind smile. I had trouble understanding him but pretty sure, between gestures and words he said he had a lot and now he has little. We destroyed things. ‘What do you expect me to say’? He clearly conveyed.
I felt awful–guilty. I didn’t have words or eloquence to discuss anything in Arabic. I was so lucky, an America traveling, typing on my laptop on the plane with no real idea what these people had and are going through.
A older woman sitting diagonally in front of me caught my eye. She looked at me staring. It wasn’t a mean stare, more so of wrongdoing. I stared back for a moment, unsure what to do, not wanting to ignore her. Finally I extended my hand. “Ahlan, ismee Lily.” (Hi, my name’s Lily) She took my hand. She didn’t say anything but smiled slightly.
Later, when reopened my laptop she gave me a worried look again. Abdu did too. “Up,” I gestured with my hand and, “down.” It’s fine now–we only have to turn electronics off during takeoff and landing.
I showed Abdu and Amr pictures of my brothers, Sam and Grayson, sister Cady, parents and Cultural Kitchen class at Hosteling International. He wanted me to listen to his music and gave me a headphone to put in my ear. It was the Koran.I offered him one of mine, but he wasn’t willing to part with the Koran for a earful of Noah and the Whale. “Allah,” he said, pointing upwards.
Safely on the ground in Damascus, I gave him my name. the web address for our group blog. Internet? he asked, moving his figures in typing motions. Aiya. (yes) He smiled and said he would go to the web address.
What do the words Islamic blogger bring to mind? Young extremists hacking away on old computers. Youth from poor backgrounds who have turned to Islam after secular dreams failed? Maybe you already know better.
Raya Shokatfard is a 63-year old female blogger for Islamonline.com and lived most of her life in the United States. She came to speak with us at Professor Sullivan’s flat and because of popular demand, spent the majority of the time sharing intimate details of her personal life. Ask some journalistic questions, Carlene chided us an hour or so into the conversation. It was little use–Raya’s story had us hooked.
A native of Iran, Raya’s family migrated to California in 1969 when she was 20 years old. A mini-skirt wearing model who owned a clothing store, drove a Rolls Royce and spent her time at a beach house, religion and modesty, so central to Islam were far from her mind.
At some point, these luxuries grew old. “I have everything but I’m really empty,” she remembers realizing.
Through Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity (she practiced as a Christian seven years) she traveled, still at a loss for what she sought. Then she read the Koran. “It was so plain, so clear. I felt I did find God here,” she told us.
Divorced with two children Shokatfard retreated to the mountains of northern California to home school her children in Islam and lead a more peaceful life. As her understanding of Islam deepened so did her desire to share and combat misconceptions about the religion.
Raya spent 16 years speaking in schools, churches and wherever she was welcomed about Islam. At the same time she operated as a highly successful real-estate agent.
Around September 11th she married a “strict” Egyptian husband with two other wives. He asked her to give up her real estate business–which she said was earning her $30,000-40,000 per month. “When you say you believe don’t you think Allah will test you?” she said of the financial sacrifice.
She also adapted the niqab (face veil) in addition to the hijab (headscarf) and abaya (full-length dress) she already wore. She continued giving lectures in rooms where men and women sat separately–she removed her niqab only facing women. She said she wanted to learn from her husband, who was under Allah. Women are vessels under their husbands, she told us. “Everything he asked me, I did,” she said of her second husband. “He was a very knowledgeable sheikh.
When she could not reach her husband to gain permission, she missed her own lectures.
After September 11th she wanted to do something more. I wanted to expand my audience, she told us.
She came to American University in Cairo and earned her Masters in Communication and Media. During this time she divorced her Egyptian husband–something common in Islam. After graduating in 2007 she was hired by Islamonline.com, the most widely read English Islamic publication. Today accepts a promotion to the position of chief editor
How are you guys grappling with all this? Carlene asked us mid-way through. I think we can talk freely here, she said. Raya has children who grew up in the United States. She spent her life there.
We did not hold back. We asked Raya about polygamy and feminism, her multiple divorces and relationships with her children.
“No matter what I did I was the smartest in everything. I became proud,” she told us. “I had the body of a woman but a mind of a man. When I really looked at characteristics of a believing woman, that is not me.” She described Saudi Arabian women who isolated and insulated themselves from the outside world.
What you’re saying is woman shouldn’t work? Isn’t that a privilege of the elite? I questioned her.
She held firm. It’s not women’s natural role. Their characters suffer. Raya considers her own activism different–not a financial enterprise she is doing the work of Allah.
After the session ended Stephanie Daly and I asked her questions for an article we’re writing about dating (stay tuned!).
Steph wanted a picture with her. Come in, come in, she encouraged me.