By Wajahat Ali
May 16, 2018
Ramadan is here. By now, many Americans know the basics. It’s the holy month during which healthy and able Muslims are commanded to abstain from food, drink (Not even water? Nope, not even water) and sex from sunrise to sunset and invest in intense prayer, charity and spiritual discipline.
In recent years, Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, has become part of mainstream American society. It is frequently cited in hip-hop and even made an appearance in Eminem’s epic freestyle takedown of President Trump at the BET Awards. In keeping with the tradition started by Thomas Jefferson, Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama hosted community leaders and dignitaries at Ramadan dinners featuring a variety of exquisite Halal meats. (Mr. Trump eliminated that beautiful gathering. That’s not surprising given his belief that “Islam hates us.”)
The holy month is now even linked to the most sacred American tradition, consumerism: Party City has introduced a line of Ramadan decorations featuring mosques, stars and crescent symbols.
But I want more. This Ramadan, I’m in search of something substantive that nurtures my soul and truly transforms America, which is wounded, suffering from a resurgence in open expressions of hate against racial and religious minorities, and politicians who seek to profit off the divides. I know the solution will start at home, so this month, I aspire to evolve into an overweight, middle-aged superhero without a cape, disciplined and mindful, grateful for my privileges, spiritually aware and more compassionate. I’ll try praying for enemies, friends, frenemies and Kanye West.
I must, however, make a confession (I hope the Catholic priests who taught me in high school would approve): I usually end up angry, drained from juggling work and chasing my two hyper toddlers. It’s exhausting. As I do every year, I’ll probably find myself musing: “You know, Buddhism is looking pretty good. It worked out well for the Beastie Boys.”
Yes, intermittent fasting may improve health, but there’s a famous saying that it’s possible to fast the entire month of Ramadan only to end up with nothing more than empty stomachs and thirst. After all, even if you’re not eating or drinking, it’s hard to focus on spirituality when there’s so much in the real world to steal our attention: Will the Supreme Court rule for a Muslim travel ban that will separate millions of people from their families? Will Mr. Trump’s early-morning tweets one day start a war?
Still, taking a page from Melania Trump’s campaign for children, I remain convinced this Ramadan can help Americans of all faiths “be best”: We can emerge from this holy time as the greatest version of ourselves.
The Arabic root for the word Ramadan means “scorched.” The month deliberately disrupts your routine, your comfort and your mode of thinking. You hunger, you thirst, you long for sex, you engage with family members and community members that you’d otherwise avoid and disown.
The disruptions bring pain and annoyance, but they can also create opportunities for growth. I welcome these strictures as an invitation to expand my community and capacity for generosity. This might sound like a Deepak Chopra Hallmark card, but I really do try to practice what I preach.
Try is the key word here. The hassles of everyday life don’t stop during Ramadan.
A few weeks ago, I was driving to the University of William & Mary to give a speech about Ramadan for a Muslim student group and their non-Muslim friends who were fasting in solidarity to raise funds for Rohingya refugees. My right tire blew out on the highway right before the exit. I pulled over to change it, but my suburban dad skills failed and my car jack broke, leaving me upset with myself and stranded on the side of the road.
I tried to flag down a friendly car. For 35 minutes, nobody stopped. With my dead Cellphone in hand, I just stood there, freezing, praying that someone would help me. Finally, a young black driver, who turned out to be a transgender student working on a doctorate, pulled over. The student waved off my profuse thanks by saying, “If it happened to me I hope someone would do the same.”
“Well, no one did except you,” I said, wiping off my numb, dirty face.
There was another reason for stopping, my saviour told me: “I saw a fellow person of colour and around here, well; we all got to help each other.”
I used the student’s phone to call a tow truck, and then we started chatting about life as a transgender person on campus — with me confessing my nervousness about using the correct pronouns and receiving much more credit than I deserved for my efforts.
We were interrupted when a tough-looking white dude with an earring arrived, smiling broadly, to change my tire and jump-start my car. He went above and beyond the call of duty, assuring me that I’d make it to my speaking engagement and taking the time to make sure I knew the best places in town to have dinner afterward.
My small crisis had just created an opportunity to form a tiny, temporary multicultural community. I can find the Ramadan spirit not only in fasts or prayers, but in places like this: on the side of the road in Williamsburg, Va., where a black Trans student and a white man from the South reached out to help a brown Muslim stranger, a fellow American, get his car running.
I’d been so stressed out about my travel woes and my professional obligations that I’d temporarily forgotten the real spirit of Ramadan. But the moment on the side of the road reminded me what this month was about. I don’t need quotes from prophets or Quran verses to explain it. I’ll simply repeat what that kind-hearted student told me: “We all got to help each other.” And maybe that’s how we make America great.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, lawyer and contributing opinion writer.