Sunday, August 15, 2010

My First Ramadan

After a full day of teaching and then navigating the streets of Cairo on foot, the moment I walk in the door, all I crave is SILENCE . However, tonight my attention was drawn outside my kitchen window to the laughter echoing through the closed alley below.

Each kitchen window in this building opens into a dark, closed area forming a tall square. Unfortunately, it has become more of a garbage dump down there, and no one will claim the responsibility of clearing it all out. But tonight I wasn't frowning at the trash, I was intensely engaged at the jolly interaction of my fellow neighbor women...my ears opened wide, I just listened. As I leaned out the window, I could see and smell food being prepared as they awaited the hour to break their Ramadan fasts. As minutes ticked away they quickly put the finishing touches on their lavish meals. Their families waited with growling bellies. Their laughter was full of life while they chatted across the alley through their kitchen windows, each one standing by the heat of their stoves. This produced rich aromas of Egyptian spices and juicy meats which then swept into my own kitchen window, causing my mouth to water. As I breathed it in, my tuna salad was looking pretty pathetic. However, I was particularly taken with the community of these families and how they interacted. Everyone was so excited for the few minutes remaining till the sun would finally go down, ending their long fast...that is until tomorrow when it would begin again.

After my own "meal", I decided to head for a sunset stroll. Not thinking about the time, my feet hit the pavement outside right as the sun was going down, and the call to prayer began to echo...silence swallowed the city...this was rare. As I passed the room which serves as home to my building's guard, there sat his family all crammed in a circle on the floor, their feast before them. Right outside the door was a group of men inhaling their food and water...the heat of the day had gotten to them, and they were finally able to indulge their bodies' cries. A few feet away, more men gathered on the floor of an ironing shop breaking their fast together with rice and foul....no one was speaking because their mouths were so full. Even the road's medians with little grass held small groups of people happily celebrating their small feasts together.

As I walked, I found that I could not resist smiling, which I know looked strange. But seeing everyone around me doing the exact same thing, at the exact same moment, was surreal. They had accomplished yet another day of their fast, and they gathered in community to celebrate. For once, there was no distinction between the classes which typically cuts this city at its core. For once, this special time of year united Cairo in celebration, requiring the same from everyone, no matter their family, their status, their reputation or their social standings. The examples of community accompanied by the silent city was breathtaking....even the streets were empty. Once the call to prayer was heard, and the sun was on its way down, the taxi drivers were scene pulling over to curbside snackbars to buy the cigarettes they had been resisting all day...they closed their eyes breathing it in... what a relief for those addicted. It was as if I was viewing these people with a new compassion...once again, my sensitivity for them was taken to a new level...I looked above and whispered "thank you."

What is it that drives this religion to such discipline in the area of resisting the flesh? While discussing fasting with a Muslim man on the train last week, it hit me that fasting is a commandment for Christians as well, it's just not practiced in a form of community the way it is within the realms of Islam. I started to think through why western Christianity today does not encourage prayer and fasting more persistently. Why don't we use this tool more often? The Orthodox Christians in Egypt fast constantly, but once again, it is practiced at a specific time...everyone in it together.

My only personal experience with this practice was at age 13 when I felt led to bring a concern I had been praying about before the Lord through fasting. The exciting result was that this request was ultimately answered very clearly by God. That experience has stuck with me, yet here I sit, 15 years later, never having fasted since. Why? Am I not commanded to do so? There are a variety of heavy burdens on my heart at this moment, yet none of which I considered bringing before the Lord with prayerful fast. As the city of Cairo walks into the this month of fasting, I am challenged in my own faith by their example. My prayer is that I would be open to receive wisdom in properly responding.