On Sunday 29th June 2014, the Holy month of Ramadan started in Libya and in most of the world. Ramadan is the name of the month in the Islamic calendar but the name is most commonly used on its own to refer to the period of fasting that Muslims all over the world observe once a year. So what does Ramadan really means and how does it affect people’s lives?
What is Ramadan exactly?
In brief, Ramadan is one of the Holy month of the Muslims, during which they observe a strict fast. Everyone from the age of about 10 years old is encouraged to fast but exceptions are made for people who are sick, pregnant ladies, travellers… In order to complete their fast, Muslims must abstain from food and drink as well as other pleasures from sunrise to sunset. Once the sun has set they are allowed everything again.
In Libya this year, we fast from about 4:30am to about 8:20pm. As the Islamic calendar follows the lunar system, the month of Ramadan falls at different times every year and this year happens to be the longest period of fasting, as the days are long and the nights short. It also happens to be the hottest time of the year as we will be fasting all through the month of July with temperature never really going under 30 degrees Celsius and often over 40 degrees.
There is no denying it is a difficult period but that’s the whole point. Muslims are encouraged to fast in order to remember the graces of God in our lives as well as the hardships faced by those who don’t have such an easy life as us. It is a period of self-control which is meant to train our body and mind for the rest of the year.
But Ramadan is also a month of blessings, with families getting together to break their fast and share their meals, people visit their neighbours, relatives and friends and at the end of the month everyone celebrates Eid, a festival which lasts three days and during which children are given gifts and families slaughter sheeps and enjoy the most delicious meat ever.
Only the other day, my neighbours who are from Syria knocked on the door just at the time of sunset with a dish of stuffed vegetables freshly cooked and we sent a plate of traditional Tunisian “brik” the following days.
How does Ramadan feel?
Well for a start all the restaurants and cafes are closed during the day and only re-opens late at night. Libya being a Muslim country, the month of ramadan is observed by the vast majority of people here, with the rare exception of the small community of non muslim expats. Even non muslims are asked to refrain from eating or drinking in public.
Another effect of Ramadan is that people tend to lay low during the day so the sounds of city life is like turned off completely, you can’t hear a sound. At night however all the shops re-opens, people are feeling better after their meals and the extreme heat of the day is somehow reduced (just a little bit, it is close to 10pm as i write and it is still more than 33 degrees outside) so the city becomes alive again.
This also means that business almost stops in Libya during Ramadan even though it is not officially considered a holiday. Yet offices are closed, constructions sites are left on stand-by and most shops are closed during the day. It can get difficult getting supplies, as for paperwork don’t even think of getting anything sorted during that month.
The situation varies from city to city, in Misurata i remember that while Libyans are… (looking for the opposite of “hibernating”) sleeping it off, foreign workers, especially low paid african workers can still be seen hard at work cleaning the road and working on construction sites. In Zawia however, it seems everyone is off, which is why the city is completely silent during the day. Even the usual sounds of gunfire stops.
As for me i’m lucky enough to be off work from university so i can organise my time easily during the day of fasting. Like everyone we have adopted the summer routine whereby we all wake up late, do as little as possible during the hottest hours of the day, taking naps in the afternoon and thn resume normal activities after 5 or 6pm when the heat is not so intense anymore. And of course we changed our bedtime too, even the children don’t go to bed before midnight. It is simply impossible to sleep before that because of the heat. All throughout the night we can hear children outside playing, i even wonder if they sleep at all during the night.
People react differently to the trials of fasting, i always find that my body can do very well without food but not drinking is very hard for me, especially in this heat. Even after Iftar (Muslims used the Arabic word) when we break our fast, i don’t feel particularly hungry. I gulped down litres of water but i only eat a plate of fruit salad (a big one with the delicious fruits we find in Libya: peaches, mangoes, grapes, pears, bananas… Later on i drink some tea and eat some nuts but that’s it.
While i can’t speak for everyone, i know that many people like me really enjoy this month of Ramadan. The hardships are turned into positive energy of self-control and remind us to be more generous and compationate. More than fasting Ramadan is a spiritual experience, meant to strengthened the body and mind.