Breaking the fast

It was worth staying hungry for.

Along with a few friends, I visited the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies last night to share in that community’s breaking of the day’s Ramadan fast. A couple of friendly gentlemen, one holding a small child, invited us to remove our shoes and tour their building. We saw the beautiful prayer room, carpeted and tiled, Arabic script swirling on walls and their equivalent of a pulpit. We saw the classrooms where children learn to read and speak the Turkish language, and begin to learn the Koran. We saw the kitchen where cooks were busily preparing the feast that would end the day’s fast. I had fasted from food this day, to walk alongside their experience in a small way; they had fasted from food and water. A devoted people.

We were invited to watch their evening prayers, and then to join them at tables outside, under moonlit clouds with the occasional flash of a distant storm. The evening air was cool and full of children’s laughter. As we ate at the women’s table, conversation turned from food to ways of life, studies and struggles, parenting and prayer.

The highlight of the evening for me was this conversation among women, especially when I had the chance to turn from the froth of chitchat to deeper waters.

“How do you experience your faith?” I asked one woman, Fatmah, nicknamed Tuba. She glanced at me, trying to gauge the question. I elaborated. “Is it something you think about? Something you feel? Something outside of you that you are devoted to, something you experience inside of you?”

Her gaze deepened. I wish I could do justice to her words; I can’t. “It’s my life,” she began, gesturing at herself. “My whole life.” I asked her to say more. She spoke of her devotion to Allah and the Prophet Muhammed, how it felt to pray, to be in this community. I know I am not conveying her at all; it was hard to listen as carefully as I wanted to with the Muslim equivalent of a church potluck swirling around, children laughing, women and men talking, others listening in. I do remember Fatma’s face, as she spoke; the passion in her eyes reflected an inward life, the immanence of the holy, a well-trod path to transcendence.

She smiled a little, and said, “How about you? What is your faith like for you?”

“It’s like a fire sometimes,” I said. “Like a fire burning in my bones, working its way out, love that God put inside me that wants to be in the world.” She nodded.

“We are the same, in that.” Quiet, together. Deep calling to deep. I suddenly remembered a poem I had heard read by a Persian woman with a similar name, Fatimah, in an On Being episode, The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi.

Despite how cliché it felt to read a Rumi poem — is that all we Westerners know about, Rumi? — I felt compelled to share it anyway, since it captured a small part of what we were sharing with one another. The poem is “Like This,” from Rumi’s Divan, translated by Fatemeh Keshavarz.

If anyone asks you about the huris, show your face, say:
like this!

If anyone asks you about the moon, climb up on the roof, say:
like this!

If anyone seeks a fairy, let them see your countenance,
If anyone talks about the aroma of musk, untie your hair [and] say:
like this!

If anyone asks: “How do the clouds uncover the moon?” untie the front of
Your robe, knot by knot, say:
like this!

If anyone asks: “How did Jesus raise the dead?” kiss me on the lips, say:
like this!

If anyone asks: What are those killed by love like?” direct him to me, say:
like this!

If anyone kindly asks you how tall I am, show him your arched eyebrows,
say: like this!

It was — as my kids would say — a random thing to do, to head out to an Islamic center over an hour away, staying up late to eat with this fasting, faithful people, finally getting home around midnight, snatching a few hours of sleep before rising at 4:30 am to be at morning report and have devotions with the nurses on my units.

But in these days of violence and misunderstanding, dependence on force instead of friendship, we need all the ties we can find. I found a feast, at the end of a hungry day … and new friends. Glory to God, by whatever name.

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