Reflecting on Our First Ramadan in Ankara

Made at our pre-Ramadan party with friends.

This Ramadan has been challenging and it has nothing to do with hunger, thirst, or heat. There is something intangible missing—namely that collective common spirit that I’m accustomed to feeling in either the wider consciousness of a Muslim country or the intentional consciousness of a dedicated minority. Still trying to figure out how to comprehend life in secular Muslim Turkey, being here feels like its own dimension. I see signs of Ramadan—donation requests, iftar buffets, Ramazan pide breads for sale—but I can’t feel it. Seemingly more the exception than the default, fasting feels like a secret only shared with an unknown few. Obviously, fasting is a very personal act of devotion that need not be publicized, but when you’re invited for lunch or offered food and drink in the middle of the day, it starts to feel a bit like the Twilight Zone.

A first attempt and a new addition to our Ramadan home decorations.

Lil’ Z is taking gymnastics lessons at a great academy that happens to be housed in a large shopping mall. If she wasn’t enjoying and progressing well in the class, I would find a way out of frequenting my least favorite destination four times a week. I thought the usual shopping mall annoyances might be turned down a notch for Ramadan, but it was business as usual. Diners, coffee drinkers, and smokers were doing what they always do, but one particular young lady really made me pause. While waiting at a bus stop, she came supported by two young women at her side. Because she put no weight on her bent legs, I immediately thought she sprained her ankle or was injured. But when her friends attempted to sit her up, I realized that she was passing in and out of consciousness. Her head dropped and eyes rolled back. Drool ran from her lips quicker than her friends could open their moist towelette packets to clean it. Though her entourage seemed calm and collected, I had to intervene, fearful that her condition was worse than they perceived. I thought that perhaps her blood sugar was low from fasting or she was severely dehydrated but, to my shock, one of the young men told me in unmistakable English, “She is drunk.” Having lived in a college town for eight years, I’ve seen drunk before—loud drunk, belligerent drunk, staggering drunk. But on the verge of black out drunk in daylight–I’ve never seen. Again my mind goes back to Ramadan.

Ramadan Calendar 2016

Many of the irreligious Turkish friends I’ve met here have made reference to a grandparent who prays. I can understand that a person may consciously reject a choice for themselves, but there seems to be this total unawareness and disconnect from the lives their forefathers lived only two generations prior. Yes, there are many religious Turks as well, but I’m disappointed by how seemingly clueless young people are about Islam. Almost as if a cloud of amnesia descended a few decades ago that reduced Islam to not eating pork and calling God “Allah”, which I hear often. “Ma sha’ Allah” when seeing a cute child, “in sha’ Allah” when speaking of future happenings, or, my favorite, “Allah Allah” for any reason ranging from a spill to a near car accident. I see beautiful mosques all over the city, amazing modest clothing lines, prayer beads for sale in the streets, but I can’t seem to access what Islam means here in Turkey, or at least in Ankara. It’s a discussion I’d like to have, but being religious seems to be tied with supporting a particular political party, so those conversations are muted for fear that an innocent inquiry will turn into a partisan debate.

Mama makes a Ramadan sign too!

As with any reality in the outer world, I’m forced to look inward. Whether fasting as one in a small crowd or one in a million, I need to peer through the fog of my confusion to see the lesson awaiting me, the Teacher beckoning me, and the service demanding me. Ramadan is not something happening to me but rather within me. For more than a decade, even with its challenges, Ramadan is the internal housecleaning that I look forward to every year. Both in and outside of Ramadan, fasting heightens my awareness of God, refines my inner vision, and tempers my connection to the temporal world. As with Islam in general, it’s such a treasure that I hate to see people forfeit or belittle. Our little family is doing what we can to keep our own Ramadan fire aflame because I can’t rely on others here to fan it. With about half of the month left, I have to seek out some virtual love to pull through this month of mercy, so I can end with the cleansing and spiritual recommitment that I always find awaiting me in its last days.

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Nurturing Friendships

Road Trip BuddiesEvery summer, our visits to the United States fly by so quickly. Whether we’ve stayed three weeks or three months, time never seems adequate enough to visit all of our relatives, let alone our friends. This year, however, we received invitations so warm and sincere that they were hard to decline. With pregnancy behind us and Moulay reaching six weeks of age, we didn’t see any harm in taking a few short trips with him. We felt guilty, as if we were stealing time from our family, but they understood that we have special friendships that mean a lot to us, so away we went.

From New York, we headed to Pennsylvania where we met with one of our very first friends in Oman and two families that are very dear to us. Our children played while we snacked and chatted in the park. After a while, we prepared for an epic event—the ultimate Muslim vegan barbeque—with the only other Muslim vegan family we know. It was an amazing meal that included grilled seitan skewers, veggie burgers, barbecued drumsticks, vegan macaroni and cheese, collard greens, potato salad, and kale chips. And if the spread wasn’t satisfying enough, we had German chocolate cupcakes and raw blueberry cheesecake for dessert.

Epic Muslim Vegan BBQ

Our interrupted conversations were unceasing until we put the children to bed. Thereafter, we reconvened in blissful silence for prayer and hot tea. To be able to chat about faith, parenting, popular culture, veganism, and marriage all in the same day felt thoroughly satisfying. I’m sure I slept with a smile on my face that night. The next morning, our hosts were anxious to share their trademark Sunday breakfast with us and we were glad to receive it: homemade sausage biscuits, stewed apples, veggie potato scramble, and more kale chips. They gave us great ideas for developing some of our own family food traditions.

Sunday Breakfast Spread

Lil’ Z loved their cozy home, often commenting on how beautiful it was. Between the amazing food, rich assortment of books, and brightly colored walls, she was smitten. The spacious yard included a sandbox, garden, and plenty of space to freely play with her new friends. Before leaving, she asked if we could live in their home and has been praying for a home of our own ever since. We have yet to find a home base for ourselves but delight in the idea of having a constant space to extend and return the gift of hospitality, as well as a canvas to demonstrate our aesthetic, values, and way of life.

Sandbox Play

From Tampa, we flew to Georgia where we united with friends that we hadn’t seen in about seven years. Our hosts were always close friends of ours and we were eager to not only see each other, but introduce our children to each other. Their children embraced Lil’ Z, just as their parents embraced us. Our friends welcomed us into their home and we stayed up late talking as if no time had passed. We cooked together and hosted a fast-breaking meal in Ramadan with others, including the family of the imam who married us. Sitting with the blessed guests that evening, I felt stifled not knowing where to begin with the dozens of conversations I wanted to have. And all being parents, our words and thoughts were punctuated by the cries, complaints, and needs of our children. The time, albeit short, was just what we needed to rekindle our connection and recommit ourselves to staying in better touch.

Georgia Friends

After a delicious meal and filling conversation, the imam stood to lead us in prayer. He reminded us to ready ourselves and concluded with four words that moved me deeply: “May Allah love you”. Tears filled my eyes remembering the very sweet fellowship of the beloved teachers and friends we reunited with. With them, I was reminded that the singular pursuit of Islam is attaining the love of God and the best friends are those who aid you in that pursuit. To share that common aim with people you love makes for a deep and meaningful friendship. Aside from our genuine connection to each other, we can plug into the same Source and bow down to the same Lord. We may come from varied backgrounds, cultures, and experiences but we share an ethereal bond that makes us like family.

Though scattered in different places, virtual companionship has kept us in contact with our beloved friends but seeking out their physical presence helped to recharge our friendships. As Lil’ Z gets older, we’ll have to help her navigate how to select and sustain her own friendships. Until then, we’ll continue to convey the value of good companionship and the imperative to pursue it, regardless of the effort and energy it entails.

Nature Walk

 

Our American Eid

Henna art

Six years have passed since our last Eid holiday in the United States.  Our first Eid abroad was in Yemen, then Saudi Arabia, followed by Oman, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.  Each country and culture adds their distinct flavor to the religious holiday, but none can compare to the American Eid experience.

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Given the unique circumstances of the Muslim community in America, there is no uniquely American Muslim dress.  Ladies and men swap and borrow both Eastern and Western styles of dress regardless of their ethnic heritage.  Arab, Indian, and African fashions were interspersed amongst American suits and ties, blouses and skirts.  The diversity and festivity of the day was reflected vividly in attire.

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Because Muslims are a minority in the United States, the Eid holiday has to be big and bold enough to rival the religious holidays of others.  Carnivals and festivals following the Eid prayer evidence their desire to make the day memorable.  Horseback riding, inflatable play pens and bungee bouncing replaced cars in the mosque parking.  Stalls for henna painting, ice cream trucks, and bazaar sales wrapped the length of the property.  From prayer to play, the joy was seamless for children and adults alike.

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Renewing My Vegan Vows

Aunt Toukei's yard

I’ve been vegan for almost as long as I’ve been married.  It’s something so second nature and natural to me that I sometimes take it for granted–at least until I’m confronted by others who can’t understand how or why anyone would abstain from meat or dairy.  I’ve already addressed how I adopted a plant-based diet and when answering why I made the transition, I mostly cite the health benefits I experienced.  Most people can understand or relate to my personal reasons even if they choose not to agree, but lately I’ve been reflecting on how my dietary choice is much bigger than me, myself, and my health.

Last week, we drove to Alabama to visit our aunts.  On the long drive, I had ample time to read–a luxury I don’t always have time to enjoy.  The first book I devoured was Plant Powered Men, a collection of interviews and essays by vegan men from around the world compiled by Kathy Divine.  I read about plant-powered athletes, professionals, pioneers, entrepreneurs, and laymen and they reminded me of veganism as a philosophy and its far-reaching impact.

I care about the planet as most people do.  So, knowing that a plant-based diet generates less environmental waste than other diets gives me confidence that I’m not taking a greater share of the planet than need be.  But I’ve also been thinking about the animals I’m not eating.  As we’ve shared before, as Muslim herbivores we don’t hold the consumption of meat and dairy to be absolutely immoral or unethical but rather conditionally immoral or unethical.  The factory farm and dairy industry is pretty messed-up and I don’t think anyone can argue otherwise, irregardless of the manner in which the animals are slaughtered.  It is quite possible that organic, free-range meat and dairy options have a lower environmental impact than the mainstream; however, I still feel some guilt about taking more natural resources than necessary given the current state of our planet and its people.

Black angus cows pasturing

While in Alabama, my aunt’s pasture housed nearly a dozen Black Angus cows, and they were beautiful.  Every morning, after sunrise, they would head far into the pasture out of sight and return in the late afternoon.  The most pregnant of the heifers trailed behind with full udders and a slower gait.  Watching their strong and steady stride, it was hard for me to imagine that their brilliance and majesty would be reduced to steaks and veal.  Even harder to swallow was learning that the majority male calves must be removed from the pasture after reaching a year old; otherwise, the sovereign bull of the pasture will mercilessly annihilate his competition.  When those calves are taken to their fate, their mothers moan and mourn for up to two weeks, and that just breaks my heart.  I feel relieved to not have any part in modern-day animal husbandry.  Many embrace these circumstances as the “circle of life” but I believe that if most people had to face the hard (and sometimes filthy) work that meat consumption entails—rearing, raising, milking, slaughtering, etc.—we’d have much more voluntary vegetarians in the world.  It’s much easier to commodify an animal as a packaged product than a living, breathing, and feeling being.

The second book I consumed during our Southern promenade was Small Acts of Resistance:  How Courage, Tenacity, and Ingenuity Can Change the World by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson.  I’m still processing the stories of extraordinary acts by ordinary people who toppled governments, dictators, and regimes overnight and over decades.  My inner rebel was infuriated, inspired, and ignited.  I’m revisiting my activist roots and realizing the significance of everyday choices.  There’s still alot more for me to digest but for now I’m realizing that discussing my diet is an opportunity to talk about our connectedness to the earth and the way that what we eat affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the lives we lead.  On occasion, I talk to Omanis (in my very limited Arabic) about how my diet affects me but what I eat or don’t eat is much bigger than me.  I need to muster up the courage and garner the vocabulary to articulate it as such.  Here in the US, I can proudly proclaim my vegan status but back in Oman, it’s the last detail I share about myself in most circles.  Somehow and in some way I need to reconcile all of these ideas and continue to steadily walk my path, reliving my pastime favorite motto:  “Live simply so others can simply live”.

From Cheaha:  the highest peak in Alabama