Recognizing our likenesses even in superficial traditions can chip away at the sense of “otherness” that prevents connection. With Syria on the brink, will anyone dispute that the West and the Middle East need better connection?
Let me share some random observations after my third Ramadan in an Islamic country, not intended for provocation, but instead to highlight similarities between the Western world and a region whose culture is often painted in bogeyman colors.
Jordan’s emerged from its Ramadan coma: a month of iftar overeating that can cause hangovers rivaling any brought on by booze. The Muslim holy month is marked by daytime fasting and abstinence from simple pleasures, ostensibly to bring one closer to God through patience and resisting temptation.
Most Muslims use Ramadan as a time to focus on prayer and family. Jordan becomes a slower, gentler place for the duration. Reminiscent of the Catholic Advent of my childhood (the near-month run-up to Christmas), these seasons are intended to bring the faithful closer to the lives of their respective prophets, emulating austerity and generosity, a time to contemplate.
Somewhere in mid-twentieth century America, Christmas exploded from it’s religious shell (albeit one coated in localized, secular traditions) and became a full-throttle social whirl, with its muscular commercial underpinnings squeezing religiosity to a holiday footnote. Meatless Fridays and Sunday High Mass took a back seat to Macy’s sales, office holiday parties and professional tree decorators.
Is the same happening to Ramadan?
Glittery Ramadan decorations, rarely seen three years ago, now twinkle in apartment windows in most Amman neighborhoods. The displays could compete with the most decked-out American suburbs, electrified crescent moons and colorful lanterns replacing reindeer and Santa.
Roadside tent-shops pop up weeks before Ramadan, hawking ornaments and lights, with peak sales happening just before Eid. Until recently, vendors were few and far between. This year they were everywhere.
“People like decorating their homes ahead of Ramadan. It adds to the special atmosphere of the month. I decorate the windows and the rooms,” shopper Elham Assaas told The Jordan Times. All her neighbors decorate their houses, “At night, the whole locality lights up. It’s a beautiful sight.”
Daily fasts break with evening iftars, increasingly lavish affairs which spiral upwards in cost in part due to genuine Arabic hospitality which insists on including extended family, neighbors, new friends and co-workers. My local friends hemorrhage savings to underwrite the month of communal feasting. Corporations and societies host catered feasts at swanky venues with live entertainment and luxurious giveaways.
Is this what The Prophet MPBOH intended?
Ramadan concludes with Eid al-Fitr, the “light at the end of the tunnel after a long and difficult month,” according to the Al Bawaba website. The faithful rise early and tuck into a modest breakfast before prayers. Everyone dresses in their best clothes (spending on holiday outfits soars during Ramadan, with shops running sales and special promotions).
Afterwards come visits to friends and relatives, where more food is served. Think Christmas dinner, but supersized. Gifts are also exchanged.
The world’s great religions all weave traditions of music, food, and gifting into their spiritual celebrations. Does the shifting emphasis from simple to splendiferous diminish underlying spirituality, or is amped up consumerism equally tainting all aspects of life?
What I’m observing here is that contemporary forces (urbanization, access to global markets, the never-changing aspiration of parents wanting to bring joy and privilege to the next generation) conspire to soften the edges of those things that set cultures apart, including our most sacred holidays.
Watching some of the surface trappings and traditions of Ramadan become interchangeable with those of modern Christmas makes me oddly hopeful. The late Andrew Masondo, national commissar of the African National Congress, once said “Understand the differences; act on the commonalities.”
Curse ubiquitous food chains and cookie-cutter mall couture, but this shared commercial schmaltz might be the grease to shift how we view one another. And a focus on on our samenesses, however trifling, is a solid beginning.
Images of Ramadan items from EidWay