While the average American probably saw one or two Facebook posts about Ramadan, and has forgotten about the whole thing, my feed has been crammed with pictures of lfturs (the meal that breaks the fast at sundown) and inspirational first-time fasting reflections by non-Muslim Peace Corps Volunteers. From the looks of Facebook, many Peace Corps Volunteers in Morocco are withholding food and sometimes even water from sunup to sundown. However, when I call up my friends who haven’t had much of a recent Facebook presence, I hear about them sneaking sips of water on public transportation or closing their windows before eating any food. All of us seem to have strong opinions about whether fasting is the best choice for volunteers and I am certainly not an exception. But for the sake of parity, let’s talk about things from both sides.
Pros of Fasting
Everyone seems to be interested in whether the foreigner is fasting. Yesterday, I was traveling, and without any greetings or light conversation, the taxi driver just went in for the kill and asked, “Siama?”, “Are you fasting?” This later happened again at the train station. And in those circumstances, it certainly avoids an awkward conversation to say yes. In Peace Corps, we’re taught that integration is everything; that a well-integrated volunteer is a safe and effective volunteer. And fasting feels at times like the final sacrifice, the last thing a volunteer needs to do to really blend in and be part of the community.
Through fasting, not only does a volunteer not have to worry about offending the neighbors by the smells of lunch emanating from his or her kitchen, but a volunteer also has the opportunity to bond with his or her host family through the shared anticipation and enjoyment of lftur. Ramadan is certainly a unique and special time of year, and many volunteers would rather embrace the experience than sneak in food or feel ashamed about eating.
The three goals of Peace Corps are to serve the needs of one’s community, to help Moroccans understand America and its culture, and to help Americans understand Morocco and its culture. Ramadan is a quintessential part of the Moroccan experience, and therefore we as Peace Corps volunteers should do our best to explain it to our friends and family back at home. However, our stories of Ramadan hold a lot more value if they are first hand experiences. The Peace Corps Volunteers who are fasting certainly have a more complex and complete understanding of Ramadan and will be able to encourage more empathy and understanding from those back in the states.
Cons of Fasting
This is certainly the obvious reason. No one feels their best when they haven’t eaten or drank anything in 14 hours, especially when it’s about 100 degrees out. I know that when I don’t eat or drink, I feel sluggish, irritable and unmotivated, and that’s after only a few hours. Most Peace Corps Volunteers would admit to that they are not at their peak physical or emotional health. I can imagine that fasting could exacerbate those current issues.
I’ve heard it argued that it’s religious appropriation for non-Muslims to fast. I’m not sure to what degree I agree with that statement, but I think there’s some value in discussing it. When I told a community member than I might fast, she looked weirdly at me and said, “but there’s a lot more to it than not eating food.” In Morocco, Muslims also refrain from cigarettes, sex, pop music, gossiping and sometimes even rom-coms. Also, prayer times are observed more religiously and there’s even one night where people spend all night praying at the mosque. Fasting is thought to be an offering to God, and so people try to spend their time as purely as possible.
One can assume that when a non-Muslim person is fasting, they are certainly not observing all facets than make Ramadan, Ramadan. In fact, most volunteers who fast still drink water. I can see how Muslims might be uncomfortable with a volunteer co-opting certain parts of Ramadan but ditching the others.
Missed Opportunity for Cultural Understanding
I’m sure that all volunteers have had to be dishonest with their community members more than once. We often have to cover up facets of our lives, including the experiences and opinions that make up our personalities. For example, I’ve deleted more than half of my profile pictures so that the few Moroccans than I accept on Facebook will not see me in a low cut shirt or hugging a guy. I have had a life similar to the average American woman: I’ve haven’t started a cult or got into the porn industry, but I’m certain that if I were completely honest about myself in my community, people would stop showing up to my classes.
Ramadan is a rare opportunity for volunteers to be honest with community members about themselves. My friends and coworkers know that I am not Muslim, so they should be able to accept that I am not fasting. Part of the goal of Peace Corps is to share our culture with Moroccans and to hopefully build tolerance for religious and cultural differences. By fasting, or just saying that their fasting, volunteers miss an important chance to talk about the acceptance of differing faiths. Integration is important, but if it were the only goal, Peace Corps would have just sent Moroccans to work in our place. We are here because we have the ability to spark new conversations and break down stigmas, both here and back home.
I think we as volunteers have the opportunity to break down a pretty large taboo. In Morocco, a Muslim who breaks fast in public while the sun is still up can get jail time. Technically those who are traveling, are sick, or are menstruating are exempt from fasting, but they are required to hide the fact that they are eating from others. There is a a lot of shame surrounding breaking the fast and the average non-religious Moroccan would never admit that he or she isn’t fasting to his neighbors or co-workers. However, we as volunteers are have the freedom to have a conversation on the topic. By not fasting, and being straight-forward about it, we can work to break down the taboo that hurts non-practicing Moroccans.