The Breaking of the Fast: A View of Ramadan from the Inside
October 3, 2007
“Mr. Wade, would you like to wash your feet?” Abdel asked me with a smile from ear to ear, as I was sitting upon his couch leafing through an old Moroccan English teacher’s manual.
“No, Abdel, I think my feet are fine,” I replied. “Thank you though for asking.”
Now that he knew that my feet were clean enough to eat dinner (to say the least of my hands ), Abdel suddenly sat down upon the couch opposite mine and immediately began prodding me with questions about my religious beliefs in rapid fire succession. The man of knowledge moves quickly, and Abdel wasted little time in trying to get me to divulge the grit of American culture and values. I was a guest in Abdel’s home that evening for a Ramadan repast, and he was sure to find out where my spiritual leanings lay.
The evening meal during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is a very sacred occasion that is usually shared in a family setting. This meal is a celebration in all senses, and is ceremonially referred to as “the breaking of the fast,” as it is the first meal that is eaten after abstaining from food and drink for the entire day. I was a guest in Abdel’s home for this occasion, and part of his hospitality was not only a meal, but, intense conversation as well.
“Do you believe in God? Do you believe in Adam and Eve? Do you believe in the creation of the first man?” Abdel’s rapid fire assault continued.
For a second, I lapsed into the stale breaches of common courtesy and nearly jumped into a whole routine about how Christianity and Islam share a common history and, therefore, are actually not too different from each other, like dialects of a common language. I almost said, “Since the Christians and the Muslims both come from the same father, we are really all brothers,” and then embrace my host in show of fraternal grace.
But I didn’t. I could not do it, as I felt that I owed Abdel more than a paltry show of bullshit. I decided to share with him my true feelings, however uncomfortable that may be. He invited me into his home for the evening meal not only to be a good friend and to show me an ancient Islamic custom, but also because he wanted to learn about me and my culture. Cultural exchange is invariably a two way street, and I did not want to squelch on my end of the deal by giving him false information to round off some potentially rough corners. Cross-cultural intercourse does not always have to be smooth to be valuable.
So I stated bluntly something about how I think that the Judeo-Christian/ Muslim creation story is an over simplification of natural processes told in a way that can be easily communicated throughout generations. I overstated my real feelings for the sake of the conversation, as we were in the midst of a very black and white kind of debate and, under these circumstances, any middle ground view could not be communicated successfully. I generally do not care too much for these kinds of conversation, as I often find them to be a baseless jumping ground into either fanaticism or pseudo intellectualism. Both of which I find best to avoid.
“So you think it is a myth?” Abdel asked, seeming a little shocked at my blasphemy.
“You could say that,” I replied.
My host then went into a whole spiel of disjunctive reasoning to try to get me to agree with his point of view and believe that his faith is nothing but the holy truth. But I did not want to play this game. I kept looking at the clock on the wall, urgently awaiting the cry from the mosque that would signal us to break our fast and subsequently end this uncomfortable conversation. Abdel was a man of learning and letters, and I assumed that he would appreciate a conversation with someone who did not view the world as he did, but in this moment he was acting as if he were in the middle of an inter-cultural battle.
Abdel carried on his affront and I, reluctantly, was pushed into a dichotomy in which I either drew my sword and poised a counter argument or retreated into placid agreement- I could not find a middle ground of acquiescence out of this situation. So I cocked my guns, mounted my steed, and jumped headlong into the fray. I stated brashly how many people from my culture can not fully accept the story of creation because we are raised with a more scientific view of how life arose on the planet base upon empirical evidence. I followed this up with a run down of how the human genome is in a constant state of flux and, given enough time and the proper environmental pressures, the genetic make up of any given creature can morph into variant forms. In that moment, I thought that if I could back up my stance- which is one that I usually care very little about asserting, but in the face of my host’s assault I clung to with exaggerated diligence- with a tough line of logic, I could match wits with him, and he would back off.
But my counter assault just seemed to add more fuel to the fire, and, just as our argument was about ready to climax to a boiling point, the crier from the mosque let out the much awaited wail to indicate that it was time for us to eat. Abdel and I stopped our heated debate, looked at each other, looked over the food that was laid before us upon the table, looked at his poor wife who did not seem to know whether to mediate our discussion or get lost, and just smiled. We then changed our seating positions at the table so that we were no longer facing each other head on, but were sitting side by side.
At the call of the crier our conflict immediately dissipated into a blithe setting of warmness and grace, as Abdel gently taught me the Muslim ritual of breaking the fast. He said that we begin the meal by eating a few dates and then move on to the soup.
“We don’t eat all day,” Abdel told me, “so our stomachs are very closed. We drink the soup first because it is warm and opens our stomachs.”
I picked up my steaming soup bowl, which was full of a think brown, chunky liquid, and put it to my lips, drinking down the warm substance with appreciative mirth. This was my first meal with a Muslim family in Morocco, and I have previously been subsisting off of sardines and crackers, as most of the city’s restaurants are closed for Ramadan. The soup did go straight to my stomach and warmed me with feelings of compassion for my host and appreciation for the meal.
“After soup, we then move on to the egg,” Abdel instructed me. “You just take the egg and sprinkle some salt on it and then some . . . some . . . some . . .”
“Cumin ” Abdel’s wife chimed in.
“Yes, cumin ” Abdel said, and we all had a laugh about his wife’s unexpected outburst.
I then reached for a hard boiled egg and sprinkled it with salt and cumin before joyously popping it into my mouth. I love eggs, and usually eat over twenty a week, but I have not been able to eat them for the past three weeks due to the Ramadan ordinances. The taste of this freshly cooked egg reminded me that it had been a long while since I had eaten a good, home-cooked meal. I then sat for a moment just to savor the warmth of the meal and that feeling of wholesome well-being that comes from consuming such hearty food. After eating the egg, I was told that I could now eat everything else that was placed upon the table. So I then filled my stomach with the fried bread, other delicacies, sweets, and tea.
Abdel and I had by now forgotten our previous differences, and were chatting like brothers as we sat side-by-side, picking with virile enthusiasm at the food that covered the table before us. I asked him about the history of Islam, and he told me a little about what it means to be a Muslim.
“Islam is about love and compassion and doing good,” Abdel said. “I think that many people in the west think that us Muslims are terrorist and Islam is a religion about terrorism. But this is not so, Islam is about loving your brother and embracing people who are different than you.”
Abdel and I then smiled at each other, as the cry from the mosque let us know that our evening repast had come to a joyful conclusion.