Friday, August 12, 2011

The Contemplative Month of Ramadan

Meeting on the street
We have been back in the KRG, Iraq, going on two weeks now and are almost midway through Ramadan, which I understand ends at sunset on August 29. On August 30 Eid Al-Fitr begins -- a holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan.  The entire community comes together for special prayers, visiting friends and family, and generally enjoying time together as they wish each other "Eid Mubarak" (Happy Eid).  You will not be surprised to learn that much of the celebration includes lots of eating and drinking.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Since arriving back on August 3 I've successfully fasted from food; I confess that I am drinking water to avoid dehydration during these August days when the temperature reaches 115-120 degrees  (and ok, I have a cup of coffee in the morning).  Like my neighbors, I await sunset when the fast ends and I enjoy the meal of the day.
Nearing sunset
Because days are spent without food or drink, as you can imagine, there is a much slower pace of life during this month.  Our office closes at 2:00 during Ramadan and the Access to Justice Project team has suspended our Mobile Legal Clinic outreach visits for the month.  Stores, markets and the like generally open mid to late afternoon; there are generally fewer cars and fewer pedestrians on the streets; and the chant of prayer is heard more frequently from the loudspeakers of the mosques.
The normally bustling neighborhood bakery in the morning
The same bakery late afternoon
I've noticed that women tend to dress more conservatively during Ramadan.  Many who do not normally wear headscarves during the rest of the year cover their heads and even wear more somber clothing -- but nothing compared to women in other parts of the Middle East.  I'm currently reading a book that was published in 2003 titled Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, a previous bestseller.  One website summarizes the book as follows:

Every Thursday morning for two years in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Azar Nafisi, a bold and inspired teacher, secretly gathered seven of her most committed female students to read forbidden Western classics. Some came from conservative and religious families, others were progressive and secular; some had spent time in jail. They were shy and uncomfortable at first, unaccustomed to being asked to speak their minds, but soon they removed their veils and began to speak more freely — their stories intertwining with the novels they were reading by Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov. As Islamic morality squads staged arbitrary raids in Tehran, as fundamentalists seized hold of the universities and a blind censor stifled artistic expression, the women in Nafisi’s living room spoke not only of the books they were reading but also about themselves, their dreams and disappointments.

Ms.Nafisi describes how the colors of the women's clothes under their black coverings -- vivid yellows, oranges, reds -- reflect the women's personalities.  Happily, Kurdistan is not Iran; there is a history of colorful dress here and, as I've mentioned before, blue jeans are de rigueur for young women in Suly.
Fabric and clothing store down the street from our house
Which is not to say that traditional values are not honored.  Each morning this week, breaking the otherwise quiet atmosphere, there have been traffic jams outside Heartland's office and I hear whoops and cries through my office window from the dozens of people, mostly men, gathered across the street.  When I asked some of our staff members what was going on, I was told that they were there to pick up the government entitlement for marriage -- the equivalent of about $5000 available to encourage marriage (and perhaps as well as a way to distribute government funds). 
Gathering outside government office building for "marriage funds"

When I was in the United States last month, I spent a long weekend at the house of my lovely friend, Deirdre Martini, who each year gathers women in the restructuring industry to come and share fun, food and fellowship (even though I am no longer in that world, Deirdre has graciously continued to include me).  So many of my friends were there, old and new, and we ate, drank, laughed, talked, sunbathed, swam -- such a contrast to the way our sisters in some of the world are forced to exist. Again I'm reminded not to take things for granted.  Naturally a number of people were curious about my time here.  One of the things I talked about was the experience of working children, the importance of the drop in centers and their need for puzzles, coloring books, etc.  In response, Leslie Berkoff provided me with a box of things that I've brought back here for the kids.  Thanks so much Leslie!

So the pace of life here, which is normally much slower than in the United States or London, is even more so now and will be until the end of the month.  As intended, this quietude of Ramadan does create a time and space for spiritual reflection, a time to cease some worldly things (though I must admit I miss passing each day on my way home from work the group of men playing dominoes) and a reminder of things taken for granted by those of us who are incredibly fortunate (to have, for example, three meals each day).
Playing dominoes

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