Friday, September 25, 2009

Ramadan in Baghdad (and Amman)

This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan ran from mid-August to mid-September, which is a brutal time of the year for desert dwellers to abstain from food and water while the sun is up.

I've lived in Kuwait, Palestine and Afghanistan during Ramadan so I was interested to see how Iraqis do things - every place has it's own flavor during Ramadan (haha, flavor - get it). I missed the first week of Ramadan because I was in Cyprus with my brother on my R&R. I felt its full effect upon my return to Amman (transit to get back to Baghdad). Not only was it Ramadan, it was a Friday when my flight from Cyprus landed. It didn't fully hit me until I checked into my hotel and realized that the market next to the hotel was closed. Everything was closed. I'd started my day at 5am with an hour long drive to the airport, and now I wasn't getting any food until sunset at 7:30. So, I ate the crumbled bits of the granola bar that's been traveling with me in my backpack since god knows when for just this type of situation and waited it out. Thankfully, the hotel had a minibar with water. It's one thing to fast because you're Muslim and you're planning on fasting (aka you've eaten suhour); it's something else entirely to find yourself fasting unexpectedly. It tends to make you (or me at least) grumpy.

When I arrived in our Baghdad office the next day I was expecting to find everyone carefully observing Ramadan. We had adjusted our office hours (shaving an hour off the end since people weren't taking lunch breaks) and after my lesson in Amman I was careful to get up early enough to make coffee and have some cereal before the staff started coming in to the office. You can imagine my surprise to discover that less than half of our staff were even fasting. And the ones that weren't fasting had coffee cups at their desks and were taking their usual number of smoke breaks. That never would have gone over in any of the other Muslim countries I have lived and worked in. Given this office vibe, and the infrequency with which I leave the office, Ramadan didn't really effect my day-to-day life much at all this year. Well, except for my trip to Basrah and the Ramadan soap operas...

Every year during Ramadan there is a line up of special, 28 day long, TV series. They are the juciest, most fascinating television of the year in the Islamic world - hot Bedouin knights fight each other with swords in the desert, neighbors discover shocking secrets about each other, and star-crossed lovers pop up all over the place. The plotting, revenge and young love captivate audiences for a month as they gorge themselves on delicious food after the sun has set. AND this year, they had one of the shows with English subtitles on Dubai 1!! Finally, I was able to fully partake in this Ramadan tradition. So, every night that I was able, I rushed upstairs at 6:30 pm to watch, "Sera'a en al Ramal" or "Struggle in the Sands".

Turns out this Ramadan soap, set way back when everyone still lived in the desert in tents with camels (which could mean anytime after the birth of Islam and before 1930) was written by the leader of the UAE. Who knew that leaders of nations had time to write epic poetry? It was a morality story of two enemy Bedouin tribes that eventually reconcile (and of course a story about star-crossed lovers, the devil incarnate, huge bloody battles, honor, revenge, kidnapped girls, etc...).

What I found really interesting about this soap was how much emphasis was placed on the downsides of violence. There were several characters (young, handsome ones too) who spoke fervently of what you lose in battle instead of the honor and glory that are usually espoused. It was a little heavy handed, but a very interesting approach to the story.

Stay tuned - my next installment will be about how my blogging almost ended in a fiery ball of flame on my way back from Basra. ..


نوفل said...

r u in baghdad
i live here
can i meet u

GranntBud said...

hey I saw you were in Afghanistan and now iraq. I was wondering, as someone working at the UNHCR and looking for this type of work in the future, if I could email you and ask a few questions, (Email: particularly regarding your experiences in Afghanistan (i'm working with Afghans in eastern turkey at, so not far from Iraq)

julie mitchell said...

I can't find a blog post that is current and I'm wondering if you are alright? No, we don't know each other...I'm just a 60 year old woman who was looking for a good way to explain the importance of standing witness and your blogs came up in my search for how others explain the need to, at the very least, be aware of what is truly going on in the world...what happens when we don't connect to our humanity. So I guess I'm just curious about someone who walks the walk as you do. What you are doing now and how you feel about Obama getting the Peace Prize?
Mostly I hope you are well...peace julie