The best part of Ramadan

Last week, I met teacher assistant Fahima Ibrahiamkhail as she supervised second-graders clambering on slides and swings during recess. It was the first day at school since Ramadan began Sept. 1, and she was one in a handful of ICS staffers observing the fast. I couldn't help but wonder how she was coping.

[Monitor correspondent Lee Lawrence blogs today.]

Last week, I met teacher assistant Fahima Ibrahiamkhail as she supervised second-graders clambering on slides and swings during recess. It was the first day at school since Ramadan began Sept. 1, and she was one in a handful of ICS staffers observing the fast. I couldn't help but wonder how she was coping.

The Afghan refugee smiled, and in the few moments before two girls asked her to intervene with a boy who'd thrown sand on them, Fahima told me (a bit wistfully I thought) that she would be eating only at 9 that night. After a full day at ICS, she heads to an evening class to improve her English.

A week later I met her again, this time outside the lunch hall. The aroma of food wafted out of the building into the hot midday air.

"What's the hardest part?" I asked.

"This time," she said. "Because you're smelling and you can't eat." By the time she gets to her evening classes, she says, she is dizzy.

But Fahima said this with a gentle smile and light in her; it reminded me of a conversation I had with another Muslim staff member at ICS. At the end of last week, I had run into Hodan Osman, a refugee from Somalia who mans the front desk in the afternoon. It was around four, and Hodan had just finished a day in class at the nearby Agnes Scott College, where she is earning a degree so that she can teach.

When I asked her what the hardest part is, Hodan said it was the period between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., nine to 10 hours after her last meal. No coincidence she knew exactly when the sun was setting that day: "7:59," she said.

The odd part was that, like Fahima, Hodan didn't seem as drained as I imagine I would after a day without any food or water - no mean feat in a climate where the slightest physical effort makes you burst into perspiration. In between answering phone calls to the school, Hodan explained that Ramadan was not just about not letting food or drink pass your lips. The practice of fasting extends to other things like gossip. Even positive things about a person, she said. Don't say them when they are not there - go tell them directly. Basically, she added, Ramadan is about living the way we should be living year round.

I came away thinking that while Ramadan may impose a hardship, its practice of fasting gives Muslims a taste of another, purer way of living. Having witnessed the delight and even the awe with which Hodan spoke of Ramadan, it occurred to me that maybe I had been approaching the subject all wrong. When Fahima pointed to Hibo Hassan and Nazdar Amedi yesterday in the lunch hall as fellow fasters, it occurred to me that the right question might not be "What's the hardest part?" but, rather, "What's the best part?"

Nazdar led off by talking about the morning meal: "When we eat together before the sun gets up, the spirit you get during this month, you feel it. And after Ramadan, when you get together with neighbors."

Nazdar is from Kurdistan and Hibo is from Somalia, yet here they were, sitting across from each other in the lunch hall with only notebooks filling the space between them, talking about the sense of community they enjoy through Ramadan. It is, they said, a sense that extends to their non-Muslim colleagues at ICS - colleagues who step out of sight when they take a drink of water or munch on a snack; colleagues who bring Hibo brownies so she has something to eat the minute the sun sets; colleagues who ask about Islam and wish them "Ramadan Mubarak."

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