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Ramadan in Dakar

A rainy Sunday in Dakar, just a day after Eid al Fitr, the end of the Muslim period of fasting and the 9th anniversary of Nine-Eleven. What a juxtaposition of worlds. It's been fascinating to experience Ramadan in Senegal.

Senegal is a country that's over 80% Muslim. Though I must have experienced it in Indonesia as well, it either didn't strike me or I just don't remember it. But in the Muslim countries of West Africa, there's no missing it.

Ramadan begins with the sighting of the first dim sliver of the newly waxing moon, and because it's at the discretion of local religious bodies unique to each Muslim country, Ramadan often begins a day earlier in one country than another. Once begun it lasts a month. Ramadan is the period of fasting: the day begins with prayers before dawn, after which no one eats or drinks while the sun is in the sky. These facts weren't new to me, but experiencing it – and I tried fasting myself a few days as well – is much more impressive. The real challenge in the tropics is not drinking water, and the urge to have a sip just to wet your lips begins as early as 10 AM. Not eating begins to hit you around 2 PM if you're in the habit of eating lunch. By mid-afternoon you're feeling weak and by early evening everyone is positively grumpy. Friends warned us about late-afternoon traffic, when a nation of fasters is weary and irritable, but still behind the wheel.

Ramadan is more than just an exercise in privation; I found it's a time of community and sharing. You break fast at the end of the day at a meal called an iftar, when friends and family gather to eat together. You break fast by first eating a date, and follow it with warm, sugary tea or coffee. Then you pray, and only then do you share a meal. I also found the fasting in community engenders a powerful sense of solidarity and brotherhood/sisterhood.

Lastly, it turns out Ramadan is somewhat a period of introspection and reflection, when you take a pause from your regular activities and dedicate the month to prayer and shared meals with family. I find that the most endearing aspect of Ramadan.

It hardly bears mentioning, since it's not a surprise, but Senegal's version of Islam is anything but radical, and as far as I could tell, the whole period of Ramadan was a time of peace and introspection. How beautiful and important a reminder when the demagogues back home are hoping to profit politically by creating a polemic around the “threat” of Islam. Phooey to all the hate-mongering associated with the “Ground Zero Mosque” and similar; at the moment we most need to show our ability to rise above the fray, we show the world just how unable we are to do so. Nine years after Nine-Eleven, our national character is tested and found wanting. Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace, and it becomes obvious when we simply experience it rather than relying on our leaders to interpret it for us.

Image of moon courtesy of Muslim Voices.


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