Part I – Ramadan and a (sort of) White Man’s Search for Meaning :
Right now, I am awake, and sitting in a tiny bed in an apartment that is half empty in the minute hours of the morning. Some would argue that the apartment is half full, and that an apartment that is half full is superior to one that is half empty. I don’t think it makes a huge difference. It is half full (empty) as of about 30 minutes ago, when half of the residents left the apartment (at 4:20 AM) for morning prayer.
I am trying my best to type as quietly as possible – in this room I am not alone, but I am alone in my wakefulness. While views may differ on the character of Steve Jobs, at least he had the foresight to oversee the crafting of personal computing devices that not only embody sex appeal but also employ relatively quiet keyboard mechanisms. That helps in my endeavor.
It is the first night of Ramadan.
Before those residents of a certain disposition left for morning prayer, I woke from my slumbers to participate in a final light meal – Suhoor – before the sun begins to rise and all consumption of either food or water is strictly prohibited. I will be participating in Ramadan this year – I will not be eating or drinking anything between the hours of 4 AM and 7 PM (approximately) for the next 30 (ish) days.
At least that is what I am hoping to do. While I have relatively strong faith in my resolve and strength of mind, I am under no illusions about the ease in which this will be accomplished, nor can I pretend to understand how such an endeavor will affect my day to day activities. I am surrounded by people who will be eating and drinking. They will probably be discourteous about it, as young Americans often are. I have a small group of fellow participants who are also undertaking this endeavor. I think there is strength in numbers – and we are outnumbered. It will be an uphill battle.
I have been asked by many to explain the motivations behind my desire to participate in this practice that I seemingly lack connection to. I am not a Muslim. I don’t even consider myself religious. If anything, I have been strongly drawn toward Buddhism through my recent studies (largely credited to Dale Wright) – but this connection is relatively new, lacking a solid foundation – by no means am I yet a Buddhist.
Why am I participating in this religious practice? And furthermore, this is a practice that I (likely) cannot fully appreciate as my ability to participate in what is arguably the pivotal aspect of this ritual – that of taking part in daily prayer – is hindered by my position as an outsider, who cannot enter the mosque nor pray next to my fellow fasters.
When I was last accosted with inquiries, I was on a small bus, sitting on a bench chair covered in plastic and sweat and lamenting at the discomfort of my situation. I was thinking about my arrival at the apartment. Traversing the two flights of stairs rapidly. Unlocking my door frantically. Entering the air conditioned room and immediately stripping down to nothing but my undergarments – bliss.
My mood was less that perfect. Few would describe the exchange as tactful. After some general discussion on the subject, I was accosted with THE question (read accusation) :
“Kevin – why are you fasting?! You’re not even a Muslim! AND you won’t even be doing it right.”
Insensitivity is a difficult thing to deal with. Especially for one striving to embody the buddhist ideals of equanimity, patience, and respect. Ignorance is similarly trying. Who cares if I am a Muslim, and what the *^%$ does fasting ‘right‘ mean?! When confronted with such an encounter characterized by these things, my patience dwindles and my angry californian vernacular rears its ugly (beautiful?) head:
“Dude – fasting sounds AWESOME! SHUTUP about it.”
Not only was my response short and angry (and in actuality quite a bit more vulgar that shown) – but it was also relatively uncharacteristic. As mentioned earlier, I generally seek to maintain equanimity and patience. A calm demeanor. Those assailed by my response were taken aback.
Given the mindset that one is meant to embody during the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, this was probably not the best exchange through which to start my Ramadan experience.
The truth is that I am not exactly sure what my reasons are for taking part in this practice. Big surprise, right? Just another thing that a recent college graduate lacking direction in life decides to undertake for ambiguous reasons.
But there is something about it that sounds “AWESOME”.
Completely avoiding the theological significance of this time in the Islamic faith, that which is practiced during this month is beautiful. The fasting is metaphoric and an aesthetic representation of the behavior that is meant to be followed during this month. Not only do muslims fast during the day – the idea is that they also abstain from doing all things that are impure or immoral. Now granted, this isn’t to say that during the rest of the year these actions are acceptable. But the idea is that during this month, anything that is even questionable is abstained from. Even those things that we might let slip normally because we don’t think they are all that important are re-conceptualized, and imbibed with the import that is casually ignored throughout the rest of the year. Cursing is prohibited, as is lying, stealing, talking about people behind their backs. Some sects of Islam even prohibit listening to music – something I don’t quite understand and do not intend to follow – but let that underscore the seriousness of this practice.
Part 2 – The Connection (or lack thereof) :
On first glance, these seem like things that we should never do. Stealing is never acceptable. Lying is always morally reprehensible. Talking about people behind their backs is unjustifiable regardless of the calendar month.
But there is a difference between aspirations and realities. Ideals and the concrete.
We live in a time where the line between that which is fiction and that which is reality is nearly indiscernible. It is like the desert border between Oman and Saudi Arabia. In the virtual, there is a demarcation between nations. In reality, no one is willing nor interested in questing through the desert with a GPS device and building a fence along the coordinates depicted on a mutually accepted map. It is all sand. A mile here or there is relatively meaningless. So there is no meaning. So there is no fence.
Communication has been completely overtaken by technology. The majority of our communication now takes place through indirect and technologically facilitated methods.
There is a game that young adults play when communicating. The favored interface is SMS messaging. The game involves communicating with someone while maintaining a facade – the facade can vary depending on the intentions of those playing. Commonly employed is the facade of inattention and distraction. One receives a text message but does not respond immediately. After a calculated amount of time, one responds to the text message. The amount of time is calculated based upon an extremely complex theoretical formula that takes un-countable amounts of statistics and datas into account. It is extremely complex and theoretical and wholly unquantifiable. Yet somehow, the instant that a young adult is given the responsibility of a mobile phone with a text messaging plan, the ability to implement said formula is acquired – and they will implement it with grace and skill that can in no way be explained through reason. In fact, such ability can be uncovered at an even earlier age given access to a computer with some type of messenger client through which one can play the same game, but with a larger keyboard and a bit more flexibility. If we are searching for signs of divine grace and the esoteric, we need not look further than this phenomenon.
Technology has expanded that which is the virtual. The virtual is even more expansive than it was in the past – which doesn’t even seem possible – potentially similar to the ever expanding infinitude of the universe. What I am getting at when I speak of the virtual is that which is in the in between – not fact nor fiction. Unknown yet knowable given the right circumstances.
You receive a response to a message hours after its initial sending – “sorry I was sleeping/busy/myphonewasdead/iheadnoservice…”
All of these things exist in the virtual. Any of them could be true. All of them could be false. Our connections and relationships become virtual – based on things that are unknown yet knowable. The problem is that we have no way of knowing them. David Wallace talks about one of the inherent problems with human interactions – with love. Each of our worlds are individual. They are connected but only ever so delicately. No matter how much time is spent with another person, their world is still mediated through their own mind, thoughts, and experience. Yours is different and always will be. This gap can never be bridged.
What worries me is that the expanding of the virtual in regards to relationships can only push us further from each other, expanding this gap that exists inherently – fundamentally, due to that which is the human condition. This poses many problems, especially for those still waiting for the unification of the working class and the rise of the proletariat – but that is for a different time.
So what does this have to do with Ramadan?
Probably nothing. In fact, my endeavor to fast throughout Ramadan was ended after two weeks due to a variety of factors – namely, that participating in an intensive language program in which you are infantilized by the US state department and given no freedom to control your time and movement is difficult to do while fasting. Furthered by the fact that the main goal of my summer experience was to increase my Arabic language skills as much as possible, and the beginning of fasting (coincidentally?) coincided with a sharp decrease in my studying.
Fasting this summer was not for me as it turned out.
When I stopped fasting, I felt much better, I studied much more, and I was a happier person. Although I did miss the solidarity that I had with those fellow fasters. The 3 in the morning Suhoors with dear friends Joe and Benji, accompanied by story time and great laughs. There were many aspects of the experience that I loved and I am therefore glad that I participated, if only for the first half, but the decision to stop fasting was a good one.
As mentioned above, I was actually having a great time participating in the fast. Besides for times at the Mahad(language institute) when all I wanted to do was sleep but instead was assaulted by language partners, lectures, and national anthem singing practice, the experience was a great one – it was singular, difficult, and uplifting. Participating in something so widespread and communal is an incredible experience and something that is quickly being lost in the modern world.
Our relationships are virtual and individual. We are constantly assaulted by the media – we search for connection with others when sitting alone in the dark and staring at a brightly lit screen, frothing at the mouth over the banal mass marketed products that will finally allow us to express our individuality.
I am not advocating for a religious revival. I am not really advocating for anything specific at this point. If I have to pin it down, I would say that I am advocating for a bit more thought about where the world is going, and why it is going there. The technological revolution has had wonderful repercussions. I can’t dismiss the love that I have for the beautiful machine through which this is being created and made possible. The advances in transportation have made the world a much smaller place, largely beneficial. My ability to travel and see the world without having to traverse the ocean for months on end and face dysentery and pirates can only be praised.
But there seems to be some sort of sheepish herding that is happening – a direction that the we are moving towards simply because that is the direction in which we are moving.
We should be a bit more hesitant. Maybe contemplate a littler longer the things that we write off as out of our hands, a product of our situation, problems for others to solve. Seek to understand the meanings of our actions – the difference between advocacy and opposition, and the message conveyed through passive participation in a culture that we disapprove of.
Things don’t change quickly or easily, but they also don’t change by themselves. Newton’s first law of motion, right?
This said, the status quo is not maintained purely through passivity.
If anything should be feared, it is likely the passive acceptance of that which we believe to be out of our control. The passive belief that those in power know better than we do, are more qualified than we are, have more relevant experience and perspective than we do.
There is no such thing as being qualified. We are all equally as naive and unqualified as anyone else. My 70+ year old grandfather sent me an email the other day telling me that he feels no different than he felt when he was my age. He has a new girlfriend. He is happy.
Okay, I am finishing up, I promise.
One final anecdote :
I arrived in Jordan 2 days ago, and was put in contact with IFES – the International Foundation for Electoral Systems – by a friend of mine. They need help and have offered me an internship for the month. I have accepted, as it is should be a good experience. My first task is to make sure that all of the Jordanian government officials being trained by IFES and receiving money from the US government do not have terrorist links. There is a website run by the US government for this specific task. The great wisdom of the US government has dictated that the only way to run people through this system is to input their names in English. All of the Jordanian officials, weirdly(?), do not have English names. They have Arabic names. So I will transliterate their names from Arabic into English to enter them into the system and prove that they do not have ties to terrorism.
You may be thinking – oh great, Kevin know’s how to transliterate Arabic to English. I bet there is a formal method for that, and he has been studying Arabic so he must know it. This sounds official. There are no loopholes here.
If you are thinking these things, then you have missed much of my sarcasm, and I apologize – you are unable to see my facial expressions and so some of my meaning is swallowed up by the virtual. The truth of the matter is that there is no official way to transliterate. I can literally write their names in English however I would like to. If I end up getting a hit – a possible terrorist (!!! oh no!!!) – well then I just go back and transliterate the name a bit differently, until they are cleared – no ties to terrorism here!
So as a final testament to the great wisdom, experience, and foresight of the ‘leader of the free world’ – you are doing a great job America! Keep up the good work!! I hope that you are paying these people a lot of money!!!
Anyway – these are my thoughts, for what they are worth. I apologize for the length of time that I have let pass since my last post. I hope to be a bit more active these days.
Until next time.