I have been reading back recently over several of the articles I wrote last Ramadan, when I was fasting alongside my Muslim friends in Kano. It was the third year I was fasting, and I had settled into the rhythm of the month. I did not fast this year, though, at points throughout the month I have wished I were. I think it may have made me feel a little bit more in tune with what is happening around me. As I never posted my articles last year, in part because I was never able to find a hard copies of them to include online, I figured, in honour of Ramadan, before it ends in the next few days, I would put up at least two of them right now. “Why, as a Christian, I Fast during Ramadan” published 20 August 2011 and “Under the Mango Tree” published 27 August 2011.
“Why, as a Christian, I Fast During Ramadan”
20 August 2011
Recently, my blog was accessed six times with the search phrase “Is Carmen McCain a Muslim.” I’m not. I’m a devout Christian, but I can understand how some people might be confused. Most of my friends in Kano are Muslim, the people I write about are often Muslims, and this is the third Ramadan have fasted alongside my Muslim friends. When I brought up the issue on Facebook, several Christian friends told me they also had been confused about my religious identity because I had mentioned fasting, and in Christianity, one is not supposed to advertise one’s fast. Although there are also Christian traditions of public fasting, I tried to explain that ultimately I AM fasting with Muslims, but that does not mean I am any less a Christian. I won’t necessarily fast for Ramadan for the rest of my life, neither do I expect other Christians to do the same, though Christians in Bethlehem and other parts of the Arab world have done so for centuries. It is a personal decision I have made for the time being to participate in my community.
Last week, I walked into a Zoo Road studio a few minutes before maghriba with a bag of sliced watermelon. “Are you fasting?” novelist and scriptwriter Nazir Adam Salih asked me. “I am,” I said. “Kina taya mana azumi.” he said. “You are helping us with the fast.” I had not heard it put that way before but his expression felt exactly right. I am not as strict with my fast as a Muslim would be. When I am sick, as I was for the first week of Ramadan this year, I eat without any plans to later “make up” the missed days. But the experience of Ramadan and fasting out of love for my community has been one of the most powerful things in helping me empathize with my Muslim neighbors. This week, I share a piece I wrote three years ago in 2008, during my first Ramadan fast.
Ever since I knew I was going to be in Kano for a year, I thought that I would try to fast during Ramadan. First, I thought it would not be appropriate to eat in front of other people who are fasting, even if it’s just sneaking a meatpie and sachet of water from the canteen to my office at Bayero University; second, I thought it would be good to experience what millions of people, and specifically those around me, experience every year. As I told one of my friends on the first day of Ramadan, “If you are hungry, I will be hungry. If you are thirsty, I too will be thirsty.” The day before the fast began, I bought a book on fasting from an Islamic book seller to better understand fasting from an Islamic perspective—what my friends believe. But ultimately, what I hope to gain out of this is spiritual discipline practiced from the perspective of my own faith. Although not compulsory, fasting is a spiritual discipline in Christianity as well (Jesus fasted for forty days in the desert in preparation for his three years of ministry). I thought that, though I am Christian, I live among Muslims, so I will fast when they fast and pray when they pray. And I will hopefully grow in my own spiritual life.
Today, on the second day of Ramadan, walking wearily across campus to wait for the bus at around 5pm, I thought, maybe I should stop this. It’s not a requirement for me, and I’m finding myself dull, forgetful, distracted, irritable, impatient, on edge. It’s not easy to manifest the Christian “fruits of the spirit,” (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control), when I have not eaten or drunk all day. On further thought, as I was walking from the bus stop to my house clutching two packets of dates and a sliver of watermelon I had bought to break my fast with, I realized that perhaps that is the point of fasting, at least for me. It forces me to realize, humbly, how much of my good spirits, my mostly cheerful demeanor are chemically-based, physical attributes. I have been blessed with good health, with chemical balance, with a fairly even and laid back temper (though my good friends know the exceptions). Peeling back those layers of the physical, one comes closer to the core of one’s being, what is underneath the surface pleasantness—what comes out when there is no protective politeness—and it’s not always very attractive. I have thought often over the past few years of what Christian writer and thinker C.S. Lewis says in his book Mere Christianity, about the difference between human perspective and God’s perspective:
“Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those whom we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with the psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of [Nazi war criminal] Himmler? That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it. Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst out of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first tune, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.”
I meditate on this in relation to fasting. When fasting, those base human characteristics, the instincts, the first reactions, come out more dramatically, and you have to deal with them. You are impatient but you force yourself to speak patiently. You don’t feel gracious but you make yourself be gracious anyway. It becomes a discipline, training and subduing those initial reactions that surface more clearly when you are hungry and tired, and it encourages humility. You don’t have that easy excuse—oh sorry, I haven’t eaten yet today, and I can’t think clearly—because no one else has either. You become weaker and more vulnerable to your community while stronger in your individual will. This is spiritual growth—going beyond one’s personality to something deeper.
At the same time, you also become more aware of the joys of the physical. The pleasure that comes at the end of the day, especially when you are breaking the fast with other people. The lilting greeting “A sha ruwa lafiya,” “Enjoy quenching your thirst”—the sweetness of the crystallized sugar in a dry date when it is the first thing that has touched your tongue all day; the fresh wetness of a tangy orange or sweet watermelon or solid banana; the way the spicy flavours of Hausa shayi detach themselves and come one by one: cardamom, ginger, other flavours that I cannot yet identify. The first burst of energy after the sugar enters your blood stream and the pleasant stuffed feeling when your stomach is extended with tuwon shinkafa and miyan taushe or fried yam and potatoes, peppered tofu and kosai. Denied for 13 or 14 hours a day, the senses are heightened. Listening to the Ramadan service on the radio, the chanted Arabic, the call and response, it reminds me of listening to a mass—Gregorian chants in Latin—or a BBC broadcast of the Nine Lessons in Carols on Christmas eve.
These common elements of our faiths are what I am reminded of at Ramadan. Though Christians and Muslims have many differing religious beliefs we will never be able to agree on, at core, all three Abrahamic religions are linked by what Jesus identified as the “greatest commandments”: First, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” I believe that, beyond our differences, if we encourage each other in love to seek this truth, we will find peace. A sha ruwa lafiya.
27 August 2011
One of my main joys of Ramadan this year, whenever it is not raining in the evening, has been to take a mat outside and sit under the mango tree that grows outside my window. I read or write or just lie staring up at the leaves above me, mind at rest, until the maghriba prayer is called and I reach for my packet of dates. I am close to the dirt there and the strands of grass that find enough sun to poke up under the trees. One evening I moved around the mat for an hour trying to move out of the path of a slow but persistent little snail who seemed to want to follow me wherever I went. Eventually, I placed a leaf into his path and then carried the leaf to a muddy patch far from my mat. A neem tree arches over the wall of my house, branches mingling with those of the mango tree and when I lie under them, I look up through layers and layers of leaves, watch them sway in the breeze, hear them rustling together, merging with the sound of the neighbor children outside the wall and the distant honk of horns on the main road. If I gaze up long enough, I feel like I am floating.
This week, when I spread the mat out under the tree I could see dark clouds billowing in the East and thought I might not make it to maghriba before the rain came. All the same, I piled up fruit in a basket, and took out newspapers, a pen and a notebook. The leaves were mostly silent that evening. The air was still, in anticipation of rain. I lay on the straw mat under the tree, and thought, as the thunder began to break and the first fine droplets filtered through the trees, about the motion of the universe. This flat soil I lie on, this surface of the planet that seems so solid and still, is actually spinning through star studded space. This sun I am waiting to set on my face of the planet, my little patch of ground under the mango tree, is only one star in one galaxy out of a million. The sun does not, in fact, move down towards the horizon. We are the ones, clinging to this fragile planet, who are spinning past fire.
There is a peace in these moments, an awareness of my own smallness, as I listen to the rhythms of the earth. I am both as still as I will ever be and hurtling through space. I am reminded that when we fast we acknowledge our own desires are ephemeral in the vastness of God’s design. We give up pleasures, which we may at times over-indulge, joys, not always necessary for life. This year, I have realized how weighted down we become with loves, which are not ours to own, the heaviness of commitments to unnecessary habits. It is sometimes in the pain of giving up that which we think nourishes us, gives us life, that we float free. In this time of discipline, it is only when the sun passes that we realize the sweetness of its fruit.
One of my favourite music videos is “Patience” by reggae artist Damian Marley and rapper Nas. The musicians quietly ask piercing questions about life, challenging the arrogant presumptions of the privileged about “modern development,” sound-byte answers in the face of eternal mystery. The musicians emerge out of a backdrop with the perspective of a Renaissance painting, camera sweeping through layers of images, through clouds past pyramids, into a mythic African past:
We born not knowing, are we born knowing all?
We growing wiser, are we just growing tall?
Can you read thoughts? can you read palms?
Can you predict the future? can you see storms, coming?
The Earth was flat if you went too far you would fall off
Now the Earth is round, if the shape change again everybody woulda start laugh
The average man can’t prove of most of the things that he chooses to speak of
And still won’t research and find out the root of the truth that you seek of
Scholars teach in universities and claim that they’re smart and cunning
Tell them find a cure when we sneeze and that’s when their nose start running
And the rich get stitched up, when we get cut
Man a heal dem broken bones in the bush with the wet mud
Can you read signs? can you read stars?
Can you make peace? can you fight war?
Can you milk cows, even though you drive cars? huh
Can you survive against all odds, now?
Marley and Nas pace through a shallow river to where it spills over the edge of the world. Galaxies and planets stretch out above them: “Who made up words? who made up numbers?” Nas asks. “And what kind of spell is mankind under?”
I hear the song echo under the mango tree as dusk moves in, and hunger moves towards its end. The first time I broke fast for Ramadan in 2008, a friend took me home for dinner. We walked under the sunset, past the ancient sloping Kano wall grown over with grass, down winding paths through the old city, spitting out date seeds. I sat on a mat under the cloudy sky eating oranges, fried yam, drinking tea, tucking my skirt firmly around my ankles and mayafi around my neck as mosquitos began to bite. I answered in fumbling Hausa, those questions my friend’s mother asked, but I mostly sat quietly under the sky and listened to the chatter of teenage girls, the banter of young men, the good natured laughter of their parents. Above us the clouds scudded past in a darkening sky. After that first evening, I mostly broke fast with musicians and editors and actors on Zoo Road, sharing out quartered oranges and slices of watermelon, crispy kosai and fried potatoes served on a newspaper transparent with oil, hot thick koko sweet with sugar in plastic cups. As my Hausa began to improve, we’d have long conversations in the studios, about film and politics, music and religion. At night, I’d speed home on an achaba, moon rising overhead, as stars began to peak out from beyond the clouds.
Well into my fourth year in Kano, my days have grown busier. This week, as Ramadan draws to a close, I break the fast by myself on this straw mat, waiting for the sun to set or the rain to come, wondering which will come first. It’s good to be under the mango tree, under the leaves, under the clouds, beyond which stretch the stars. I am glad I am not inside with my laptop open to the insistent demands of the internet, emails that must be answered and people on Facebook demanding responses, the guilt-inducing cursor blinking on the blank white page of articles long overdue.
I let my mind sway with the trees. The rain comes before the sun sets. The ink on my page blurs into little wet patches. I slowly stand up and carry the straw mat, my basket of fruit, newspapers and books to shelter. Dark clouds are piled up in the east, blowing in with the approaching night, but in the west where the sun hovers on the horizon, the rain falls through light, glimmering and sparkling to the earth, watering the grass which thrives today and dies tomorrow. So many things we love are fleeting, the raindrops that fall from sky to soil, bushes that grow green and lush now, and fade to brown later, the light which rises with promise each day only to fall into dark. But it’s all beautiful while it lasts.