Feeling Ramadan

"Look at the cutie baby," my wife told our kids.

As my son and daughter turned their heads, they saw the toddler throwing the can at one of the many stray cats roaming around the streets and neighborhoods. The can hit the cat straight in the stomach.

"Oh my God, Baba, he's hitting that cat," my daughter said. She began crying. 

Feeling like I was having a Waterloo moment, I looked at my wife, who was already getting ready to jump out of the car. I hurried over towards the child to say something to his father.  As I made my way over, to my horror I saw the father handing the child the can and smiling at him as he aimed again for the poor creature, who was clearly just trying to get some sleep.

This time the child missed, and I looked at both the father and child with a stern look and said the only two Arabic words I could put together in that moment: "Haram, haram...'Aib," as I shook my finger disapprovingly (haram meaning forbidden). The child looked bewildered, and the father begrudgingly hauled his son off. The cat went back to his spot to take a nap.

If this were the only time we had witnessed such cruel treatment of these strays, I wouldn't have wasted your time with this story. But the frequency of it is quite shocking here in the Kingdom. It is as if no one has a clue about the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) where he warned that cruelty towards animals could land you in Hellfire, and compassion towards them could open doors to Paradise.

Scathing Saudi Attitudes
I met a local Saudi here who will soon be attending the same graduate program that I went through in Washington D.C. I was introduced to him by the program's director and was asked to serve as his mentor while he is going through the program. In return, he would be a contact for me while in Riyadh. He is on a scholarship from the Saudi government, in which he gets a $1600 stipend in addition to having his tuition, room and board covered. Not a bad way to spend your time in graduate school, I must say. To protect myself, I will call him Kareem. 

Kareem is from the generation of Saudis who have not worked a day in their life and are riding the backs of those who built Saudi Arabia into what it is today. I evaded his offers of eating together in Ramadan as long as possible without seeming offensive to him. The last three days in which I hung out with him and ate suhoor (the morning meal before starting the day's fast)answered a lot of questions for me about the mentality of a large segment of the young and affluent population here.

Kareem picked me up for late night coffee the other night, and we ended up at a gas station that was almost closing. I did not understand their conversation, but within minutes of stepping out of the car Kareem was yelling at the top of his lungs at the gas station attendant. The gas station attendant walked away from him, but Kareem was not relenting. After 15 minutes, a second attendant came out and tried to reason with Kareem.

For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what the problem was. It was almost 2 a.m., and dawn was less than two hours away. Finally, I got out of the car to see if my presence would alter the situation in any way. As the attendants walked away from Kareem, he turned to them and said "'abd, 'abd" while motioning with his hand that he needed gas. 

I was shocked. I had heard the term used one other time when playing basketball with a few Palestinians, who yelled it out at an African American walking by. I felt like punching Kareem in the mouth. As he drove away, I asked why he used the term, and he "swore by God" that he did not use that term.

The literal meaning of 'abd is servant. The religious meaning of 'abd is slave or servant in the service of God. But the context in which Kareem uttered the word means "nigger." Believe it or not, it actually gets worse.

It is customary here for a certain sector of Saudis to refer to the laborers, working class and those with dark skin, as Mohammad. Please do not be fooled into thinking that this is a sign of respect to refer to someone as Mohammad. No, in fact it is used as a derogatory term when they are speaking to someone whom they believe is beneath them. Essentially, instead of learning their name, they classify them as a random "Joe." You can witness this at any counter in any mall when they are ordering something.

Now before some of you conclude that my anecdote is just one more vitriolic critique of the Kingdom, let me explain what was running through my mind after this experience. Here I was, rather depressed and concerned about my degree of spirituality, i.e. my level of interaction with The Creator from a purely ritualistic standpoint, and yet I ended up with a great revelation.

The world over, Muslims are focused on reciting from the Qur'an, saying extra prayers and even pleading with God for forgiveness and mercy during Ramadan. But how many Muslims can truly say they show in practical ways that very same forgiveness, mercy and kindness they want from God towards their fellow humans and creatures on this planet? How many can say they practice the forbidding of wrongdoing and enjoining of good on a daily basis? How many are merciful enough towards even their own family members by actually spending quality time with their children, spouses and other relatives during this holy month?

8/16/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • About Alonzo L. Gaskill
    Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.