A Profane Ramadan
you all were greeting tricker-or-treaters and partying in outlandish
costumes, we here in the Muslim world are buckling down, saying
our prayers, cleansing ourselves of the sins of the year. Though
I had been in Egypt during Ramadan some years ago, I am still
learning more of the month's many do's and don'ts. The basic rule
is that nothing is to pass your lips from sun-up to sun-down,
not a sip of water, not a puff on a cigarette, not a kiss from
Saroudja has removed his gold bracelet and stopped wearing his
favorite cologne; the fast, he informs me, is not just from eating
and drinking but from all earthly pleasures and foibles: looking
at pretty women (during the day at least -- his Imam reassured
him that at night, man and woman are free to take their pleasure),
making oneself up, smelling sweet stuff, thinking naughty things,
dancing to the drums that usually punctuate the traffic blares.
Until I got a cold and my period (two exemptions from fasting),
I had been doing my own version of the fast ö certain days doing
the strict version, other days just eating enough to be able to
jog after work. I'm told ăkind ofä fasting doesnât count. One
day I drank some water to take a pill for my recurring tummy troubles
(I picked up giardia on mission in Kissidougou - evil stuff; I
had a green tongue from sulfur burps and crapped my pants amidst
colleagues on the flight home because the plane had no restroom).
My colleague told me I had broken the fast and might as well go
ahead and eat too. "Fuck off, I haven't eaten all day, don't
tell me I'm not fasting!" I said.
No, fasting doesn't seem to make me a kinder, gentler being, unfortunately.
But while I just have a desk job to struggle through, I cannot
imagine how tough it must be for the manual laborers here, sweating
their last fluids and burning up all their energy swinging axes
with stomachs as empty a black hole, mouths as dry as a pink-sand
Allah is mercy. The sunset call to prayer bursts into air, releasing
everyone from the day's cross. People gather in knots around pots
of sweetened corn lumps washed down with super-sweet ginger and
hibiscus juice, followed by feasts of rice, sauce, meat, and and
fruit. Itâs like starving yourself and then eating a Thanksgiving
dinner every day for a month. While many normally only go to mosque
on Friday afternoons, the main prayer day, now the mosques are
bursting for the break-fast prayers, the way church pews fill
up on Christmas and Easter (the C & E club, as my uncle used to
People are happy when they hear that I am fasting with them, but
confused when they learn I am not Muslim. The month in fact has
made me again thirsty for the fountain of Buddhism. We wake at
5 am and have breakfast, Saroudja takes my "bathmat"
(actually a plastic prayer mat) to the neighborhood mosque, while
I meditate on pillows on my tiled floor, sitting through the maelstrom
of thoughts that keep me constantly running, fearful, anxious·
So here is my life, messy and unresolved, but so what.
My boss calls our office Dallas as life is a
continual soap opera here, most recently starring an Italian aviator
who asked my boss if he could ask me out to dinner and give me
a golden ring (this is after he had taken two pictures of me and
told someone else I was his wife).
He also paid for a 20-year-old nun-in-training to come visit from
the states, then asked me to persuade her to stay (she wanted
to leave immediately because he was living with a local prostitute).
He tried to fire his driver, one of the better of our chauffeurs
-- three times in one day -- perhaps out of jealousy that the
guy, a Guinean, had an American wife while he couldn't keep a
hold of his blondie. The creepiest part was the Hannibal the Cannibal
calmness he often projected, offering me a civilized morning cup
of espresso from his Italian coffee maker. The day before he was
to be fired, he thankfully left quietly, buying his own ticket
back to Europe, without saying goodbye.
It's not the only drama to be swirling around me in these dark,
sacred days. My insane landlord commemorated the first day of
Ramadan by strangling his cousin, supposedly because she said
she needed more than a couple of hours to move out of her apartment
(new neighbors just moved in, an elusive Ivorian family and three
goofy Korean business bachelors who speak neither English nor
French very well, though just enough to ask me if I'm "looking
for a gentleman.") While I felt sorry for her and took photos
of her bruised neck as evidence, I failed to understand why she
had gotten buddy-buddy with him again after he had already beat
her up once and tried to cheat her out of her part of the investment.
They left for Lebanon two days later. Meanwhile, my guardian let
me know that my landlord and the guardian's boss conspired to
cheat money from me by concocting some phony tax.
Meanwhile, my relationship with Saroudja has led to conflicts
with his director. Though the man pins it on everything but us,
the troubles only seemed to start when I came back from the States
with a walkman for Saroudja, confirming to him our friendship
was no longer confined to the ring. Particularly since Saroudja
quit the all-African games saying he could no longer box in a
weight category that he had long outgrown, the director has made
all sorts of trouble for him, banning him from the ring, then
getting mad that he started training at his old club, then telling
him he could come back but refusing to train him and giving his
former captain's duties to another boxer. Only one of the boxers
won a medal at the all-African games and went on to the Afro-Asiatic
games in India. The director blamed the fact the others lost their
combat on Saroudja's not being there.
I have taken it all to heart as if it happened to me, or my own
child, seeing my dream of seeing him take the Olympic gold washed
up on the shore. I felt like I was part of a family there, proud
to sport my team jersey and support them with small donations
of money and equipment. Now I hardly want to go there, instead
running in the park when I can muster the energy and motivation,
which hasnât been often.
I know I can say that it's not my responsibility, that I never
made any promises to help or stay with him. But when you let someone
get as close to you as I have him, their stories of suffering
doesnât just trace the heart's surface and fly away, they get
lodged into a place where you can always feel them, like the princess
pea, until you must do something, somehow.
My comfort in these darker days has been my garden. The way the
first twin melon leaves takes the shape of the pod they just broke
loose from, their little egg in the womb of the soil. Miracles
of miracles! How from each plant's genetic blueprint a distinct,
silent being is unconsciously created. Each with its own likes
and dislikes, different tastes in soil and water; its individual
beauty, whether stout-stalked or lacy-leaved; its own obsessive
occupation, to create food for bees, butterflies or boys, with
the mutual agreement that these creatures will in turn help the
plants perpetuate their own kind.
I marvel at this compelling little square of brown and green,
zucchini tendrils grasping onto onion stems, the tiny fragrant
tangerine volunteer, cherry tomato skins reddening in the sun
hour by hour, my first whiff of fresh young ginger, such a delicious
earthy smell that makes the dried clumps you get in the markets
seem like canned spinach. Even the weed itch, the ant bite somehow
comforts me, in that it tells me I'm alive, feeling· The Buddha
says no watermelons and tomatoes without thunderstorms and sunburns.
recently read a book called "The Road to Hell" about
the negative effects of food aid and foreign charity, which watered
many seeds of doubt planted -- or rather buried -- in my mind...Thinking
of our director's mansion juxtaposed with his glib statements
to a journalist about not being fully funded and how WFP's goal
is to go out of business (because that will mean they would have
met their goal of eradicating world hunger)... hearing stories
about how taxpayer money is thrown around at USAID, ie, being
used to transport a baby grand piano across the Atlantic -- thinking
of the stories, convincing stories, I have written as a WFP reporting
officer glorifying programs I had seen other sides to.
Can I wrestle with the truths of farm subsidies, fatcat aid salaries,
kickbacks, putting food-aids (and expensive ones at that) on humanitarian
hemorrhages, the fact that I may be smart and have potential but
doesn't mean I have the practical skills or knowledge to really
help a place like this? That I may be just another passenger riding
on the charity gravy train, fueled by poverty and suffering, even
though with my "volunteer" status, I'm riding third
class? Will I ever be able to stick with my questions long enough
to see a glimmer of an answer, or will I continue to wander into
seemingly greener pastures, only to be confronted with another
patch of fast-multiplying weeds? I sit with all that and more
in those early morning hours of meditation.
I have, in fact, turned down the chance to renew my contract with
WFP, and thrown myself into the job search. My aim is to work
with microfinance/enterprise or natural resource projects, but
though people seem keen to try to fit me in wherever they can,
without a master's degree or direct experience, my opportunities
so far seem rather limited. Still I continue to look for a crack
in the door to wedge into.
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