During our time in Saipan we stayed with our friends, Yousef and Nadeah, who were gracious to share their spare bedroom and kitchen(!) with us while we were there for 9 days. They adopted us as roommates and it was a very comfortable atmosphere while the four of us bonded co-cooking, sharing travel stories, and playing board games (Yousef is an Uno Officionado).
We also owe much thanks to our friends, Dave and Gao, who lent us their van while we were on island. And to Gao for taking us around to some beaches, sharing the medicinal malangay plant with us, and teaching me to make great Som Tum (Thai papaya salad) in a jiffy. We had a great time catching up with friends Kaity and Steven who took us to the night market and invited us out for dinner and environmental documentary night.
Most of time on Saipan was spent in normal touring ways walking along the beach, snorkeling to WWII wrecks, visiting the night market, checking out historical sites and beaches, and hashing (running through the jungle with a group). We also needed some time to reflect on the trip to Pagan, organize all the pictures and videos we took, and rest.
Saipan is a unique place. Guam is pretty diverse, but Saipan seems even more so to a Guammie like me. Perhaps because of it’s smaller population; 48,000 (Guam is more like 175,000) the different groups of people are just closer together. Or maybe because everyone on Saipan you hear so many different languages around you: Chamorro, Carolinian, Bangladeshi, Tagalog (Philippino), Thai, Chinese, and then add in Russian, Korean, and Japanese tourists. In Guam you hear a lot of languages but not so ubiqitously; most people speak English. So Saipan is pretty diverse, but does a tiny island in the Pacific seem like a place one would celebrate Ramadan for the first time? It might seem like an unlikely pair but there is a Muslim community on Saipan and there are a couple of mosques that serve the Bangladeshi, Philippino, and other Muslims on island, including our hosts, Nadeah and Yousef.
My first memory of Ramadan is of my (to this day) best friend, Aleena, coming to school in 7th grade with only a bottle of water for lunch. She explained she was fasting for Ramadan and I think I even remember her telling me that even though she was drinking water her parents weren’t eating or drinking anything. That was my first exposure. I don’t really remember what I thought of it. Maybe I thought it was crazy. I was always starving by lunchtime in school. I think I accepted it, but I probably inconsiderately asked her if she was sure she didn’t want some of my lunch. I think after a few days Aleena went to not-eat-lunch somewhere other than the cafeteria for Ramadan.
I don’t remember much focus on the holiday in high school history courses. I do admit I hated history as a high school student so maybe I just wasn’t paying attention or it wasn’t presented in a way that was meaningful to me. Or maybe it just wasn’t part of the curriculum. That means I probably next heard of Ramadan during Sunday School at church. We had a great youth minister who willingly granted our request to study the fundamentals of other religions and we spent at least two weeks on Islam. After that I didn’t learn much more until senior year of college in Arabic class. Our professor, Martin, and our Fulbright TA from Palestine, Lana, discussed Arabic and Muslim culture with us formally every Friday class. We learned Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed to the prophet Muhammed and mankind. We discussed how Ramadan is dedicated to spiritual reflection, self-improvement, and growth, devotion, self-discipline. And that fasting means no food, water, sex, smoking, drinking, swearing, or other indulgences from first light (dawn) to sunset for the entire month. The Christian in me compares it to Lent, but realizes it’s different in many ways.
Since Arabic class I had considered fasting for Ramadan, but hadn’t thought about it much again until I was in Saipan. I knew some things like if you were pregnant or sick you weren’t supposed to fast, but the curious little kid in me still had a lots of questions I launched at Yousef and Nadeah over the first few days… “What if you pass out?”, “What if you live in Norway and Ramadan is in the summer and there is no darkness”, “What if you live in the tropics, can you drink water because it is so hot?” Most questions I knew the logical answer was the right one. If you pass out, you take care of yourself. In very paces with very long days and nights people observe as you lived in a more northern or southern city in your time zone with more reasonable days/nights. And as soon as I asked about the tropics I realized it was silly; the origins of Islam lie in the desert… So much for the tropical climate argument. Yousef came across a great article written by a young Muslim woman that explained her perspective on the whole fasting thing.
Yousef and Nadeah invited Pete and I to fast with them for one day. The day we picked to fast the four of us woke up at 4:00am to make a big breakfast together: eggs with cheese, reheated lasagna and curry, fresh fruit, juice, and lots of water. We rushed to finish before 4:30 when first light appeared in the sky and then watched the sunrise and the lights twinkle out on the west side of Saipan. Yousef and Nadeah have a great view of the island from their apartment. Sunrise is my favorite time of day. It was the perfect way to start the day together.
While we rested until the day really started off I read parts of “Love, Inshallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women” which is a great book with a wide perspective on about what it means to love, date, and marry as an American Muslim woman. A good friend, Najva’s, story was published in this book, and Yousef’s prose will be published in the male edition to be released Valentine’s Day 2014. Each essay has a beautiful love story that warms you.
That day we had planned to go out sailing for a few hours, so we packed our bags with swimsuits and sun gear and headed down to the boat midday. We only wanted to go out for a few hours since we were planning on not drinking anything until sundown. Luckily there was some shade when we first went out and LOTS of wind. Storms passed off the west side of the island, but somehow we just got sprinkles and the gales. After the sun came out again we anchored for a bit of snorkeling and saw a stingray hanging out on the bottom and some fish before heading back into port.
When we got back in the afternoon I was most overcome by thirst. I had, on the boat, already, without even thinking about the action, opened the jar of trail mix and then remembering that I wasn’t eating all day. It was interesting to think about how casually I eat throughout the day not just if I see something that I want because its tasty, but also because I don’t have to worry about not having enough food- there is plenty around me. It made me very thankful for the food I have- more thankful than I have ever felt on Thanksgiving, and in a much different way.
When we got back we had a few more hours before sundown and I put on a documentary to pass the time. Yousef and Nadeah had propose taking Pete and I to the mosque for breaking fast which we thought sounded like a great idea. Pete and I had visited large mosques in Egypt and China respectively but never visited during organized prayers. We arrived at the small mosque and the men parted ways with the women.
I enter in room without about 20 other women and children. We greet eachother with the phrase with which I am familiar, “Salaam alaikum” “Alaikum salaam”, from both Arabic class and church growing up because it means, “Peace be with you”, “And also with you”. Hugs and cheek kisses all around and the kids run wild while us women find our seats around a long rug on the floor. We all have our heads covered in various styles and degrees. Most women wear a face-hugging headband covered by a khimar scarf that flows down over their shoulders. They are in every color, many with sequins or embroidery. One woman wears a burka, and another a niqab that just reveals her eyes. Nadeah wears a scarf draped over her head, wrapped once hugging her neck and shoulders. I wear my buff headband pulled over my hair and tucked at the nape of my neck.
Then men prepare the food for the women each night of Ramadan and then bring it to the women’s room’s door before serving themselves. They pass in cups of juice that get passed around and placed on the long rug around which we are sitting. Then they pass in platters of fresh fruit and savory snacks. We all wait for the time to arrive and one by one lift our cups of juice to our mouths. It might be the best drink I have ever had in my life. And it was Tang. And it was amazing. I felt the coolness and the sugar and the wetness spread to my extremities, like my parched blood vessels were expanding again. responded to their drink. Most of them had already been fasting a week, so they were probably a little more used to this feeling but I could still see the physical relief, thanks, and even the holiness on the faces of the women around me. And there was more! I finished half my juice and people had started in on the snacks. I picked up a fried fishcake and took a bite. It felt nice to reflect on that bite as a chewed, slowly and swallowed. Swallowing that bite was such a conscious, sensory experience. Very different than scarfing down a bowl of whatever for dinner. I felt very connected those few bites. I turned to Nadeah and recited my favorite phrase that I can still remember from Arabic class “Alhamdulillah” or “Praise God” (similar to Hallelujah). We shared some more morsels: a slice of watermelon, then another spicy-savory cake or too, and some popped rice.
After eating the women rose for their sundown prayers, standing next to one another two lines deep and bowing in thanks and celebration. I sat in the back of the room and watched from where some of the children played. After prayers I talked with a few of the women, one of whom was interested to hear it was my first time fasting and what I thought of it. Overall, I thought it was physically difficult but by no means impossible. It taught me a few things, self-discipline on a very simple level and to be aware of the gifts that are in my life, however simple or obvious they seem. I felt very lucky and blessed at the end of the day to break fast and to be doing it with friends. After the mosque we went out to Thai food for a bit more nourishment.
Weeks have passed since our day of fasting. Nadeah and Yousef are preparing for a trip for their anniversary to Brunei where they will able to break fast for the last day of Ramadan in the company of thousands at a large celebration. Pete and I decided we wanted to fast again for the lats day of Ramadan and celebrate all that we have to be thankful for now that we are back at home in Guam- not only food and drink, but our safety, our families and friends, and our ability to seek out spiritual growth freely.