A Profane Ramadan

While 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 your honey.

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 desert.

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 call it.)

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.

I 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.

---------------------Ramadan Feast--------------------

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