Vicki Tamoush is a second-generation Arab American who lives in Tustin, California. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California, Irvine and is founder of Interfaith Witnesses. More importantly, Vicki is one of my dearest and longest friends, and one of the most inspirational peace activists I’ve ever met. Her faith is palpable , including her interfaith work, but there’s not a judgmental or self-righteous bone in her body. So, it is a HUGE honor to me that she wrote this guest post, partly in response to my post about Ramadan and mothering.
Please chime in with your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment here.
“How Ramadan Made Me a Better Christian” by Vicki Tamoush
I’m one of those people who always tries to do the right thing. I drive under the speed limit and recycle my aluminums and love my neighbor as myself and you can find me in church on Sundays. My friends are doing the right thing, too, but bad stuff keeps happening all around us and I just couldn’t stand it anymore. So I fasted.
I don’t remember the first time I fasted for a specific intention, but I must have been in my early teens. I suspect it was in solidarity with Cesar Chavez’ fast or in commemoration of the anniversary of one of Gandhi’s fasts…. What I do remember is that it felt different than any other act I’d ever engaged in: I felt like I was praying with my whole body. I loved the feeling of engaging my entire being in prayer.
Growing up Arab American, I was always the only Arab at my church, often the only Christian among a group of Arab friends. I had a unique point of view wherever I went, and I was lucky enough to be exposed to a lot of things that other Christians and other Arab American’s weren’t. During Ramadan, my Muslim friends fasted from before dawn until the moment of sunset. It looked impossibly hard, especially when Ramadan fell in the summertime. The idea of fasting even from water made me look at my Muslim friends as superheroes.
When I was about 22, I moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where my father worked for two years on contract with a large American corporation. I found myself not only the only Christian among my group of friends but one of only a few hundred in the entire country. It was here that I first experienced fasting on a nation-wide level. It was phenomenal, a cross between Lent and Advent. There were decorations and flowers everywhere. People were kinder than ever, greeting strangers as if they were family, and I saw so many Bedouin families gathering to serve huge communal meals to people in poverty. I came to love the sound of the cannon being shot to signal far and wide the moment of the sun’s setting. Cold water and dates were consumed, followed immediately by prayer before anyone engaged in a meal. For centuries, these faithful Muslims had fasted out here in the desert where it was scorchingly hot even when Ramadan did not fall in the summer.
Now, three decades later, I find myself immersed in the interfaith community in Orange County, California, known primarily for its proliferation of conservative politics and yuppie mega-churches. My circle of friends is comprised of people of every faith you can think of, many of whom fast for various reasons based on their religious beliefs. My Muslim friends are now in the final week of Ramadan which, again, fell in the hottest part of the summer.
These past few years, I’ve been blessed with numerous invitations both from mosque and individual Muslim friends to share the meal to break the fast at sunset. I’ve attended many of these in my life, and the rhythm of these ritual meals, the cadence of the evening, the precisely timed corporate worship are somehow comforting to me. Iftar feels the same to me as the communal meals we share at my church during Lent. It’s a time when everyone allows themselves to be loved. Everyone is focused on the group gathered together, rather than on any individual. Things are mostly the same at each iftar and each Lenten supper. Little kids run among the tables while old friends cluster to chat. The fast is never a topic of conversation; it’s all about community.
To experience Ramadan more deeply, some of us non-Muslims decided that whenever we were invited to an iftar, we would fast that day, a sort of solidarity fast. I personally chose a specific intention for my fasts: one time, I prayed for a healthy pregnancy for my cousin. Another time, I focused on the huge number of people in my church who were looking for employment. Last year, I was invited to 8 iftars and this year 10, a mix of those held in mosques and more intimate in-home meals. Again this year, the cadence of Ramadan was comforting and familiar; I found that the past two years, I’ve looked forward anxiously to this month. On its surface, it’s a month of denial from one new moon to the next, but I find it to be a month overflowing with an abundance of fellowship and love, of needs being met. There is charity of every sort, including charity of spirit. No harsh words are spoken; people are quick to forgive what would normally rise to a conflict.
When my Muslim hosts learn that I’ve fasted when accepting an invitation to iftar, they are more than gracious and more than curious. Some expect that I allowed myself to drink water (I didn’t) and some thought I felt deprived (I didn’t) but all were, without exception, more impressed than I deserved. To me, it is natural to do this. How could I accept an invitation to break a fast I hadn’t participated in? How could such an iftar hold any meaning for me?
It’s not inconceivable that next Ramadan I may find myself fasting the entire month, new moon to new moon. Having now discussed fasting traditions with so many Muslim friends, I’m wondering if anyone will want to participate in my “Lenten Promises” as we Christians refer to our commitments. I don’t see these experiences as the dilution of our faiths; I see them as intimate acts of sharing, of connecting spiritually. It’s been amazing to learn how much I’ve received by giving something up.