Sunday, September 27, 2009

Ramadan in Holland

A week ago, a friend who lives in Amsterdam sent an e-mail about participating in Ramadan fasting in order to better understand both the tradition and a German friend of Turkish descent. I found it pretty interesting, and thought the rest of you might, too.

Yesterday was Suikerfeest for those of Islamic tradition here in Holland. "Suikerfeest" roughly translates to "sugar party," and lots more of the candies called "Turkish delight" fill the stores. It's an obvious marker for the rest of us that Ramadan has come to a close.

I, too, just finished the fast of Ramadan, and what really caused me to write this was something a very good friend of mine mentioned. In particular, instead of always seeing religions focus on denial, he expressed that he would like to see a focus on indulging the pleasures and joys of this life. Those thoughts eventually crystallized into something I thought would be worth passing along.

I only did the fasting part – I did not do the mediation/prayer several times a day. Still, going with no water and no food from before twilight starts in the morning until after twilight ends in the evening for a month was pretty intense. At 52 degrees latitude, dusk sometimes didn't end until 9 p.m. Also, I should note that on four separate days I broke my fast a bit early when I was with non-fasting friends so as not to force everyone's evening plans around my own constraints. Additionally, while in Sarajevo, hotel breakfasts started at 6 a.m., which was bit after the call to prayer, which we could hear from a nearby mosque.

Back to the joy vs. denial debate, at first I was thinking – wait, joy is how we should be arranging our whole lives. You know, perhaps, rather than 30 days of joy and pleasure, the goal should be to have as close to 365 days of indulgence as possible. With the perspective that my life is a life of indulgence, does the idea of taking a month out to step back and experience my body differently take a different perspective? Does that make the denial seem better? To me? Not really.
So then I started thinking about the fasting I just completed. It didn't connect to the conversation about denial at all. I pondered that for a while.

Slowly it came to me that maybe it was because denial wasn't a main factor for me. I don't think denial is a main factor for those that follow the fast every year either. Yes, there was some denial going on, but the denial seemed almost incidental. Perhaps a means, not an end?

But again, talking about all that seems very intellectual and abstract. So while connecting to another person and another tradition was certainly a big factor, it is not really down to earth in a day-to-day way, and doesn't really illuminate the denial angle one way or another.

The fast created a very physical experience of learning that even with thirst gnawing at me, I can fill my worldly obligations. Without exactly intending to, I demonstrated to myself that, with focus, I can be rational and level-headed and civil and tend to all of my work-a-day duties even with low blood sugar. But even that was a secondary thing, I think.

After some time, I came to the idea that framing the fast of Ramadan as denial would be a mistake, but an easy one given the seemingly endless focus on guilt and punishment in our historically Christian-dominated culture. By comparison, I don't think we see the fasting portion of the indigenous American "vision quests" as being about the denial aspect; I don't think it makes sense to view the Ramadan fast as denial either.

I think it's our cultural perspective that sometimes makes the tradition seem like some weird abstract analog of a sado-masochism club. As if it were a tradition of getting tied to a big cross, seeing all sorts of beautiful people walking by being intentionally tempting, and only getting untied at dark. Now that I've done it, I see it's not like that at all. (Although of course, there were a few days where that seemed to be almost the case. But not most.)

Now I see it really isn't about denial at all. And certainly it isn't any sort of self-punishment. Rather, in its own little way, it almost is a focus on pleasure. Most days were about indulgence, although admittedly quaint or at least simple ones. The evening tastes were magnified. The first glass of water every night was really an amazing thing all by itself. My wife had great fun taking bigger risks in the kitchen because she knew that I would be the most forgiving audience ever. And every dinner was "King's Cabbage," which was really neat.

The fasting of Ramadan isn't for everyone, but it's a surprisingly interesting tradition. I'd encourage giving it a try for a week or so to get a taste of it. For me, anyway, it was fun.


  1. Yes, I can believe that the fasting is about pleasure, rather than denial, because we appreciate the food and drink SO much more when we've actually gone without it!

  2. I know it's counter to our tortured, guilty reputation, but in actuality a lot of Judaism is focused on joy and the moment. There are brachot (blessings) that traditionally observant Jews say upon seeing a rainbow, experiencing a thunderstorm, etc. all of which focus our attention to the singularity of the moment. And in the month of Adar, we are *commanded* to be joyful. Every nineteen years, there are two Adars, for twice the joy, I suppose!

  3. Wow, thanks for sharing all of that lovely stuff about Judaism. Is the month of Adar fixed, or does it shift according to the Jewish calendar? Hinduism is like that -- Divali, the major good vs. evil, light vs. darkness festival, is falling in mid-October this year, as opposed to early- to mid-November.


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