Friday I wrote about “Exploring discomfort: My first day of fasting for Ramadan,” ending at the evening prayers, which I chose to ‘sit out’ and observe from the side. In my experiences in Catholicism, this was the best thing to do when it came time to receive Communion if you weren’t a confirmed (and ‘in communion’) Catholic.*
After the prayers concluded, everyone made their way back toward me and I was joined by Aleem, one of the two elders that I met and spoke with that night. He insisted I eat the soup that was passed around while he talked to me about Islam. After the long day I was happy to sit with him, but I could tell (and I’m sure he did as well), that my attention wasn’t at its sharpest. So we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet up soon to talk more. As the evening meal continued I also met and spoke with Abu-Jamal, another elder at the Islamic Center. He was also very warm and welcoming, telling me his story of growing up in Palestine, fleeing war there to Jordan, only to be caught up in yet another war and fleeing, finally, to England.** Since then, over 40 years ago, he has called England his home.
Abu-Jamal’s cheerful, humble demeanor made me feel right at home, as if I were speaking to an uncle (and not one of my crazy uncles, one of the nice ones). As a white American Buddhist in a predominantly Arab Islamic Center, it could have been quite easy to feel out of place there, not knowing the rituals or language, unsure of what basic manners might be different from what I know. As I mentioned before the fast, I had done a lot of reading, but nothing can quite prepare you for the experience until you’re there. I thought of the Briton who was kicked out of Sri Lanka last summer for having a visible tattoo of the Buddha on his arm, and -thinking of manners vs morals- of the recent response to a NY Times article that seemed to show that meditation makes you more ethical (the response illustrates the fact that we all too often take our way of acting to be the proper way…). The advice we get/give growing up to “be polite” should always be followed with “and be kind to those who are different.”
In any case this time it would be me -and me alone- who was different. Going back to my infrequent Catholic church episodes, I could always sit out Communion without worry, looking around at the others here and there who were also sitting it out. But here I had no idea if others would sit out the evening prayers (none did, just me), or if I might somehow say or do something to upset someone there. Luckily, I didn’t.
In the end my experience was a good one despite – or perhaps in part because of – the various sorts of discomfort I experienced. It’s worth saying that so many of my friends face discomforts like this on a daily basis – those who fast each day for Ramadan; I find it hard to fathom the struggle, but I can appreciate it at least a bit more now, and those who have to walk into places where they must worry about how they look, what they say and do. If nothing else, I can empathize a little bit more with them and, in doing so, seek to change systems of discrimination, racism, and inequality that I might otherwise never see or understand in the slightest.
The evening ended with a short talk on the meaning of Ramadan, the various levels of importance in the first third of the month, the second, and the final. Farhad excused himself to help with dishes and I found myself alone with the gentleman from Nigeria. We spoke of our experiences traveling to England for higher education, both of us working away on PhDs, the joy, privilege and responsibility that comes with teaching, and our longings to return home soon. As we made our way out, Abu-Jamal took my hand one last time, telling me of a new center they had purchased, with plans to be open to all sorts of believers and non-believers in the near future. Reflecting on the people I had seen and met on just that night: Muslims from England, the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia along with one strange fellow from North America (me), I think his hopes will certainly be realized, Insha’Allah (God willing).
* I have seen some priests invite non-Catholics to join in for a blessing, signalling by crossing their arms over the chest instead of taking Communion, and on one occasion a Priest invited everyone up.
** I’m not certain that these were the wars (in the links) he was talking about, but the timeline seems to fit.