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Fasting and Fasting

Some of you are probably unaware, but we are just around the corner from the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month in which it is forbidden to eat, drink, smoke or have sex during daylight hours. The purpose, according to one Muslim friend, is to discipline yourself, so you know by the end of the month that you know you can do without “Earthly Pleasures.” It is supposed to be difficult for the first 3 to 5 days, after which, you body becomes accustomed to the daytime fast, and you learn to control your body.

Ramadan is a big deal here in Egypt. Cairo takes on a different feel in a number of significant ways.  First, everything grinds to a halt in the middle of the afternoon, as people take a break from work to nap or relax before sunset, when they will break the fast with the Iftar meal.  Then, right before Iftar, everyone rushes to get home. So people who are irritable because they haven’t eaten, drank, or smoked (or had sex) in 14 hours, all get behind the wheel and squeeze into Cairo’s already crowded streets to be with family and friends to break the fast. What happens next is magical; the streets are completely empty! What was utter chaos 15 minutes prior, now becomes utter tranquility as everyone in town stops to eat, and a city of 18 million feels like it only has 50,000 residents. Of course, it is still Cairo, and people use the empty streets to drive like maniacs. Perhaps they are just really LATE for Iftar. That is why, even with less cars on the road, there are MORE accidents during Iftar, especially the damaging kind.

Each year, our Embassy Motor Pool hosts an Iftar, and it too is a big deal.  Workers from the mission, both American and Egyptian, gather together to break the fast, listen to music (this was my addition to the Iftar this year – the CLO office paid for an oud, drummer & singer trio), and socialize at what is, surprisingly, one of the few mission wide events at the Embassy.  Americans and the higher paid local staff all pay a higher price for the meal ticket, and the lower paid staff are allowed to come at a discounted rate or for free. The goal is that none of the embassy staff will be turned away because they can’t afford a ticket.

Even better, the manager of the motor pool makes it his mission to buy meals for the local police and firemen who are stationed around the embassy.  This year I agreed to help him distribute these meals.  There were 8 of us, all crammed into a pick up truck with meals in plastic bags piled high into the bed of the truck.  We would pull up to one of the police vans, and give a meal to all those piled in the paddy wagon (they were stuffed in tighter than we were).  Eventually, we would draw a crowd of non-police officers also asking for food, at which point all eight of us would scurry back into the truck and pull away, sometimes with hungry fasters running after the truck hoping for a free meal.  Their desperation is understandable; for most of the police that patrol the streets in Cairo, this will be one of the only times they get meat all month.  At least they are provided with some food; I’m sure a few of the truck chasers do not see regular meals.

In honor of the Iftar, and at the suggestion of our Management Officer, I decided to fast for that day.  I woke up at 5:30am to eat breakfast, and though the sun was already creeping over the horizon, I felt the one-hour earlier wake up time was sufficient. I did not eat, drink, or smoke (or have sex) for the entire day. I was slightly lethargic in the afternoon, right about the time when most of my Egyptian colleagues leave for the day during Ramadan. Those on “religious leave plan” take off from work about 3:30pm every day. I understand why. When you are fasting, that is about the time you start to get grumpy, which is not conducive to diplomacy.  Why the Coptic Christians also take off at 3:30pm every day during Ramadan is a question for which I haven’t received a good answer. But, right about the time I started to drag, I cleaned up my in-box, set my “Out of Office Assistant” (we were leaving for Israel that very night), and went to help pass out meals to hungry police officers. The experience of hopping in and out of the crammed pickup truck gave me enough energy to get through the rest of the fast. And as soon as the call to prayer sounded, I also murmured “Alhumdulilah” (Praise God), and scarfed my face with a delicious meal. This was just one day of fasting, but it was extraordinarily humbling. Muslims fast this way for the entire month. I could not imagine waking up early the next day to do it all over again. However, I did have a more challenging 24-hour fast coming up.

Later that night, we boarded our El Al flight to Tel Aviv. Stepping into the El Al security line from the rest of the airport crowded with Egyptians heading to Mecca for Ramadan was like stepping into another country within the airport. The familiar sounding Hebrew was a welcome relief, and whether we were wisked through security because of the diplomatic passports or because we have relatives in Kfar Saba, I’m not sure, but it all felt very comfortable.

We landed in Tel Aviv on the morning of Erev Yom Kippur, and had approximately 10 hours to get to Jerusalem, check into our hotel, and get some food before everything shut down for 24 hours. We wandered through the Machaneh Yahuda shook, and bought food for our pre-fast meal, and a little more to break the fast with the next day, including a kilo of Marzipan chocolate rugula.

We ate a quick meal before the fast started and went to meet friends in the German Colony.  Since nothing was open, and no one was driving, we essentially walked in the middle of what would normally be very busy streets all the way from our hotel. The city was so peaceful.  Without cars, it was if someone had sucked all the noise from the streets, and all that was left was the wind coming from the Judean desert.  As evening services let out, more people joined us in what the Jerusalem locals call “The Walk,” where friends and family meander through the streets, saying hello and exchanging holiday greetings. It was one of those “Only-in-Israel” times, when the sense of community is so strong that you can almost see the bonds before your eyes.

The next morning, we went to the Old City to wander around, get lost a little bit and go to the Western Wall to pray. It was very special to take Shai there, especially for his first Yom Kippur. If he is not going to remember the holiday, I figured he may as well not remember going to the holiest sight in Judaism.  He then proceeded to crap all over himself.

After taking a nap (and cleaning up – not in that order), we headed out to finish the day at Kol Hanishama, a synagogue I used to visit for Shabbat services while I lived in Jerusalem my junior year of college. And while I felt the pangs of hunger, it was nothing compared to past years of fasting. After services, we walked back to the downtown area.  It was getting dark, so I decided to break the fast sitting on a bench with some snacks we brought. It wasn’t with the normal urgency that I normally wolf down a traditional Break the Fast meal; rather, we casually ate some pita and hummous with olives and fruit.

The fast had seemed easy; whether that was a factor of being in the peaceful city of Jerusalem and visiting the Wall with my family, or whether I had “trained” my stomach two days prior with my day-time Ramadan fast, I do not know. But after the fast, I actually felt pretty good. Perhaps it was the combination of the two religions that suited me well, as if, in some small way, my fasting could give hope to the fragile Israeli/Palestinian peace process.  I had been served some “humble pie” by two religions who always seem to be bickering, but have more in common than most care to admit.

Next week, the Secretary of State will be back in the Middle East to help ease the Palestinians and Israelis towards a solution to years of conflict. Perhaps instead of breaking bread together, the two parties should try skipping a meal together.

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