As stated before, my plan for this month/Ramadan is to continue my non-Muslim fasting on the weekends beginning Friday night into Sunday evening (although I am tempted to start Friday morning as well in order to technically make it an ENTIRE weekend – though that notion depends upon to whom you talk). Last weekend was truly humbling and nothing quite like anything else I’ve experienced as I’ve already stated. With the publication of my first weekend on non-Muslim fasting whilst simultaneously going public with my blog, a follower and good friend of mine on Twitter referred me to the iftar and tarawih services that the Islamic Center at New York University (ICNYU) is holding throughout this wonderful month. Just a few things I’d like to point out before continuing:
- As you can probably tell, my memory isn’t serving me well, so any and all corrections to the proper names would be greatly appreciated!
- I really apologize, but I can’t remember for the life of me your names and I feel terrible, as I’m awful with names – please let me know what they are if you read this!
- I decided not to take any pictures as I thought it might have been disrespectful to do so. Perhaps next week it’ll be possible with permission, I’ll have to ask. Instead, you’ll have to look at some pics from Google or no pics at all (sorry!)
So when my good friend mentioned how I could volunteer to help with the iftar and tarawih services, my initial reaction was actually to immediately sign up for it. Last weekend’s non-Muslim fasting experience was and always will be truly motivating, captivating, and humbling – and everything I had gained from that had definitely resonated within me and undoubtedly carried over. In short, something kind of lit up in me that really pushed me to eagerly and happily volunteer. At that same time, however, my mind stepped in and kicked a little reality (or paranoia, which ever you want to call it) into me. Now while the online and Twitter community has continued to support me (thank you, it is very much appreciated, for real), things are always slightly different in real life – and especially while living here in New York City, I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I decided to reach out to ICNYU or how others there would react to a Chinese, non-Muslim (currently) guy who just randomly showed up out of nowhere. Initially I knew they were going to eat and pray here and there, but that was the most to my knowledge until I finally went there.
It wasn’t until around 7:00 PM after waiting around outside and getting to know the few others who were also volunteering when we headed inside. Talking was at a minimum, but I just assumed it was because we were all fasting – and come to think of it, my thirst was nagging at me once more lol. Once inside, we immediately got to work by clearing out and cleaning the floor and cleaning the kitchen area. We dragged these large, rather long red prayer rugs out and set them up square and evenly along each other making two sets of large rectangles at the front and back of the room. I had assumed it was because of the way the room was set up, but my preconceived notions were once again proved wrong later that night. You always learn something new every day, right?
While setting up the rugs, since I was still wearing my shoes, I made sure NOT to step on the prayer rugs. I think that was just due to my Chinese culture in not walking around indoors while wearing shoes, but I later discovered it is haram (I hope I’m using this term correctly) and disrespectful to do so – so yeah, basically the same concept with my Chinese traditions. Awesome 😀
We all were constantly kept busy and hadn’t found a minute to rest, but in all honesty completing these tasks were in of themselves just rewarding. I was then assigned to the kitchen to help prepare some of the food. From there, I learned that I could slice and dice some mean carrot and strawberry pieces which were thrown together for salads and fruit salads, respectively. Head organizer Sumaiyah then asked us to bring in the main dishes and begin setting up a sort of factory line of food: meat lasagna and spinach lasagna driven all the way from Long Island to here in downtown Manhattan; cups of water; a simple garden salad mixture; a fruit salad mixture; potato chips; popcorn; and garlic bread rolls. All of this food and water was really tempting my stomach, but my mind was really more focused upon setting up everything. Something else I’ve learned from Ramadan and non-Muslim fasting: it’s a test of mind over matter.
It was around 7:30 PM or so and we couldn’t break fast until 8:06 PM that night, so in the meantime I linked up with Victor who was also volunteering to help and is, as I later discovered, a Muslim revert, and began talking with him. Where I was, with whom I was surrounded, and during this special time of the month, I made sure to ask any and all questions before doing anything as I really wanted to ensure that I do not disrespect anyone or anything in any way possible. I think at this point my hunger and thirst subsided as I was more anxious than anything else. After asking if it was OK, Victor and I sat upon the front set of prayer rugs and began conversing with the other men about Ramadan and, more specifically, Islam while a cup of water and a date were passed around to each of us. AW YEAH. A DATE 😛 In all honesty, I think that was the one piece of food/nutrition upon which I had set my hopes since the weekend began – and it was the only food that really knocked some sense back into my stomach that reminded me I had been fasting all day. Oh, and to further highlight my paranoia, I even asked if it was OK for me to place my cup of water upon the prayer rug and insisted it would’ve been fine if I had placed it on the floor instead. Lol.
Again with the fasting, it had really put my life unto a different angle from which I observed how truly lucky and privileged I am to be living the life I have now with the things I have and with the people who surround me. Fasting really compels you to view “fortune” and “wealth” from a different perspective, if not more. Somalis are still dying from lack of some of the most basic things we take for granted such as food and water – and by food, even the simple things like bread, nuts, or grain. Over 2 million children are currently starving in the horn of Africa, and while I’m currently financially crippled, for those who could spare some time or even any donations, my bro from Twitter @Ryan_UkHipHop (follow him!) is #FastingForAfrica for two weeks to raise awareness and any support would be greatly appreciated not just by us but those who will ultimately receive your help. He’s blogging his experience here: http://fastingforafrica.blogspot.com/ and his donation page is here: http://www.justgiving.com/fastingforafrica/ – SPREAD THE WORD!!!
With all of us sitting on the prayer rugs around each other, it created nice, small groups in which we could converse and get to know one another. So word got around really fast that I was non-Muslim, but I had also mentioned I have definitely been looking into it. As our discussions further expanded, I believe the adhan was recited. I immediately fell silent at first because I had no idea what was going on and asked Victor if I should step away now lol. Rest assured, he said it wasn’t until the next one was recited.
Back to our discussion, however, Christianity in generally, especially here in the West, had always really put me off – aside from the corruption, Victor brought up another good point that reflects my determinations from when I had read parts of the Bible as well: what is written in the Bible just doesn’t relate or connect to me, just as it doesn’t with him. To me in general, it feels as though the Bible is talking down to me and telling me what to do and what not to do (and to set things straight: I’m a real believer in creating your own path for yourself and accepting full responsibility for my actions) – and anything that I do, even if it’s right, just isn’t good enough or still wrong somehow. God forbid I do something wrong and I’ll forever rot and burn and choke in Hell as well. And going to church to repent is you “Get-Out-Of-Jail Free” card. Yeah, that doesn’t flow so well with me. At all. In short through my eyes, it’s just too black-and-white, rigid, and unforgiving.
Another thing definitely worth noting was the “easy-going dedication” that everyone had. As committed and serious as everyone was during this special month, everyone was still enjoying themselves. It was a magnificent balance which I was still admiring while writing this. Thanks once again to my preconceived notions, I had believed that since this is a very “crucial” month, for lack of a better word, I assumed the atmosphere would parallel this inclination. And once again, I was proved incorrect lol. From this, I can safely say that Islam really creates not just a sense, but a feeling of community and of brotherhood in which you belong, even if you are non-Muslim. Now I cannot say the same for the women, and even though it’s seemingly apparent that my assumptions have been going on this incorrect-streak for a while throughout this post, I truly believe it would be safe to say that they are as welcoming and generous, if not more 🙂
Speaking of the women, it was around that same time I noticed that the men were separated from the women and why I was asked to set up two rows of prayer rugs. Raised and coming from the Western culture/perspective that promotes and pushes for assimilation and conformity among men and women, it would definitely seem odd, if not unfair, that the men and women were separated; however, after quickly observing and even referring back to what little knowledge I already possess, this is not the case. I’ve come to the conclusion that not only is this notion another form of modesty, but it is also a form of respect and arguably even honor which I hold in a high degree of reverence even. Don’t get it twisted though: men and women are treated and looked upon equally in Islam – their roles within their sex are just different. It’s hard to describe until you actually experience it and are there yourself. I do not view the separation as a sign of inequality; it’s more like a degree of modesty, respect, and honor – and I believe others should as well in this Western society. Again, it’s all a matter of perspective, taking into account and respecting the cultures and traditions of others.
It really stresses the values of family among one another who share the same religion, beliefs, ideals, culture, etc. by creating a brotherhood or sisterhood, something quite unique to Islam not found in any other religion I have seen thus far. Truly admirable beyond any words.
Our discussions were cut short when I believe iqama was recited and I quickly got to my feet and stepped aside. I believe this was now magrhib. Victor said it was up to me whether or not to join the salat and one of the other brothers INSISTED I joined, but I decided to bench this one as I’m more of the observer at times. I had previously seen pictures and videos of the salat, but never before had I seen it in person. This was all brand new to me, a culture shock if you will. Once more, this was unlike anything I had seen before and the amount of devotion once places into Islam runs deeper than the soul.
Iftar finally rolled around, and so I headed back to the kitchen area and began slicing up some pieces of lasagna and serving them to everyone while also cleaning up the area. Even though I had also been fasting this day, I didn’t really mind that I would be one of the last to receive food. Not only did it just feel good to be preparing and serving the food to everyone, but I was also thankful that at least I would get food as soon as I had finished. Every meal, every piece of food and drop of water is a blessing.
Afterwards we all sat down and began our discussion again about Islam. Before continuing, however, one thing I’d really like to point out is how little we actually need to survive and make it to the end of the day. In this Western culture and especially over here in the United States, we have been engrained that bigger and more are always better, and it carries through with our lifestyles from the amount of food we eat to the huge trucks and SUVs we love driving around so much. For the most part, all you need to do is place the prefix “over-“ or “super-“ before everything and that essentially describes the United States. Now I personally typically only have maybe two meals a day with a snack or two in between each of them, but fasting has showed me that not just myself, but everyone else could do without so much extra food. It has also inspired me to look back into something called the “Hara Hachi Bu” in which you only eat until you’re 80% full – it’s a cultural habit practiced by the people of Okinawa that results in a very healthy lifestyle.
My brothers around me were very passionate but at the same time were not compelling or forcing me in any way to adopt Islam or to even force me to believe in a God. There exists a humble respect from them which they shared to anyone and everyone – something to which I could relate with my Chinese culture. Growing up, my parents and grandmother had always taught me to respect everyone AND everything as they are all part of this world. Regardless of whom I was or my background, they respected me and made me feel at ease and could really ask anything about anyone or anything pertaining to Islam. It’s really a warming community with open arms, something which I hadn’t felt otherwise with other religions as it was more pressured. I had just come across a tweet by @Umm_Mukhlis that really reflects this feeling: “Islam is not about we’re better than you. Islam is about let me show you something that is better for you..”
I believe another adhan was recited for tarawih and Victor had informed me that it was going to last from around 9:45 PM to a little after 11:00 PM. Unfortunately I had made commitments earlier as I didn’t know it was going to be that late, but I remained until around 10:15 PM. The prayer recitation was quite beautiful, to say the least – again, almost surreal. Just the dedication and solemnity of everything are incredible, for lack of better words. I left with a great deal of learning and understanding that night…
The following day as I continued my fast and was preparing to leave to volunteer again, I received a phone call from my father saying to go check up on my grandmother as she had been experiencing some shoulder problems recently. Unfortunately, my second day of volunteering was cancelled as I decided to watch over and take of my grandmother that night. I can only hope that the Islamic Center at NYU was not overburdened as they mentioned how difficult it is to find volunteers to help on the weekends and accept my sincerest apologies for canceling at the last second =\
Overall, although one could consider this a culture shock, it’s something I truly appreciate I had the chance to experience in my lifetime, and it has also had a vast impact on the way I see life and others around me. Volunteering was and is just a great feeling and getting to learn about a different culture and religion while at the same time drawing many similarities to what I already possess. I will always value and treasure the connections I’ve made and the things I’ve learned, and can confidently say I’m really looking forward to next weekend during this amazing Ramadan 🙂