Axenic Celebrates Ramadan

As a non-Muslim I knew nothing about Ramadan – I’d heard that it involved fasting but was ignorant of any details or of its significance. Realising that it was an important part of the lives of some of my colleagues, I decided to ask them about it. What surprised me – knowing little about Ramadan – was the joy that they clearly felt.

Several members of the Axenic whanau are Muslim. Liam, Mai and Ahmed make a significant contribution to Axenic and I wanted to understand this festival that is clearly so important to them. Celebrating Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam Mai told me. This means that it is one of the five practices that are regarded as central to living a life like that of the prophet Muhammad.

All three of our Muslim colleagues celebrate Ramadan, so I asked them what that involved. The basic fact about Ramadan is that Muslims are supposed to fast from dawn to sunset for the period of Ramadan (roughly one month). Mai explains: “No drinking – not even water – no eating between dawn and sunset.”  Ahmed talked about what it meant for him: “I fast from dawn to sunset – no food, no drink and no smoking. I can handle the rest, even not smoking, but the thing I miss most is my caffeine fix.”

Ahmed explained that traditionally a day during Ramadan will begin with a light breakfast before dawn called suhoor. People will then fast until sunset when they will have a snack, before going to evening prayers and then a large meal called Iftar. “For suhoor I have fava beans and tea just before dawn. I break my fast at sunset with dates.” From talking to the three of them, Iftar is clearly a key event each day. The meal is often shared, usually during weekends here in New Zealand, though, as Ahmed explains: “It’s quite different in Egypt. There we have iftar every day with other people – and often suhoor also. There is often a big tent outside for the neighbourhood with lots of tables of food and shishah, music and dancing.”

Mai clearly enjoys Ramadan – her eyes light up as she talks about it with me. Ramadan is a festival not unlike Christmas – and Mai decorates her house in a way that is recognisable, but subtly different. She talks about the way that she decorates her front and backyards, and inside her house with lights and crescents, and about the special lanterns that are particularly Egyptian. But it is when she talks about the spiritual and religious side of the festival that I really get to see what it means to her. “Ramadan is a month for giving, forgiveness and kindness” she says – echoing one of the other pillars of Islam – charity.  Fasting has been associated with spiritual, mental and ethical renewal since ancient times in both the East and the West – and Ramadan is part of that tradition: “Ramadan is a time to put myself on the right track. A time to focus on yourself internally and your relationship with God and with others.”

Ramadan means a lot to Ahmed as well – on a personal level as well as a religious one. “It means getting together – with all my friends and family. It means mentally refreshing myself and my religious habits. Prayers are longer, and reciting the Quran is a daily activity.”

Liam is more reserved than the other two in describing Ramadan, and it quickly became apparent why. “Ramadan means family.” Liam finds it quite hard celebrating Ramadan in Aotearoa with no family here. “It is painful to break my fast alone. It makes me realise how much I miss my family back in Egypt.” He too describes a process of fasting and spiritual renewal “It’s a time to get closer to God and focus on prayers.” But for Liam it is also not just about religion: “In Egypt, we stay up late – big time.” Liam says. “We go out with friends, hang out at cafes and stay out until maybe 4am.”

If, like me, you are a New Zealander with little contact with Islam, you might wonder what else you should know. Mai is emphatic on one point “What I want people to know is not to be sorry for me for missing out – I celebrate Ramadan willingly and joyfully. I have the choice to do it or not. I won’t judge anyone around me who doesn’t do it.” Ahmed wants us to understand the same point: “It’s most important that people know it’s completely voluntary and we enjoy doing it.”

What, I wondered, could colleagues do to make Ramadan easier “What I’d like is for my kiwi colleagues to not book meetings at the end of the day!” says Mai. “After a day of fasting I can be sleepy or bad-tempered.” Liam agrees the end of the working day can be a challenge. He doesn’t want to inconvenience his kiwi friends and colleagues so he says it is OK for us to eat in front of him during Ramadan, though he admits that sometimes the smell of cooking food is a hard to bear.

Mai and Liam both mentioned that it would be great if more New Zealanders recognised Ramadan and made some small effort. Something as simple as saying “Ramadan kareem” (“Blessed Ramadan” – equivalent to “Merry Christmas”) to your colleagues would mean a lot. I asked Liam how would he feel if Ramadan had more recognition in New Zealand. “It would be amazing! It would make me feel included, part of the community.” And isn’t that what we as members of a tolerant country, want?

Ahmed wishes more Arab and Middle Eastern shops would celebrate Ramadan openly – “So that we can share the experience with our kiwi friends.”

I felt really humbled talking about Ramadan with my colleagues. It’s not often that your colleagues are so open with you about personal matters. And I think that there is much about Ramadan that non-Muslims can find inspiration in. Ramadan asks us: how can we be better versions of ourselves? And as non-Muslim Kiwis, one of the ways we can do that is by being considerate to our colleagues who are celebrating Ramadan, and by celebrating and adopting Ramadan like we have Diwali and Chinese New Year.