Consul General’s Corner
August 22, 2011
We are in the midst of the Islamic month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during the day. They wait until sunset to eat or drink, breaking their fast with a nightly meal is called an iftar. In cities like Chiang Mai, relatively near the equator, sunset falls between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. In more northern cities, however, the iftar could start as late as 8:30 p.m.
I first learned about Ramadan in the early 1990s while working in France. My secretary was from Morocco, and for the month of Ramadan she followed her faith and fasted during the day. The rest of us drank our coffee, ate our French lunches, and carried on as normal, and it must have been so hard for her! She also refrained from wearing make-up for the month, which made her look even paler. It seemed a somber festival.
I attended my first iftar a few years later in Washington, D.C., at the home of Egyptian friends. I realized that Ramadan is a time to test oneself – but also a time of giving and sharing. When the sun goes down and Muslims can break their fast, there is a festival atmosphere. Our hostess gave us colorful headscarves to wear before serving us fresh dates. For those fasting, dates are a good source of energy to perk the body up before traditional evening prayers. The iftak included figs and nuts, as well as traditional Egyptian dishes. The United States has a Muslim population of between three to six million, bolstered by immigrants from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and the iftar menu could vary widely by household.
This year, for the second time, I had the pleasure of hosting our own iftar at the Consulate. We invited the leaders of Chiang Mai’s Islamic Counsel as well as imams from various mosques. The province’s Muslim population is estimated at 40,000, making it the largest concentration of Muslims in the country after the deep south and Bangkok. Our meal started the same as the one hosted by my Egyptian friends: Dates and nuts, as well as juice to revive the body before prayers. The meal itself was very Thai, though it was prepared according to Islamic strictures.
Over dinner, I chatted with our guests about what Ramadan means to them. They noted it was a time to slow down and focus on their faith. They must wake very early to eat breakfast before the sun rises; many said they would go back to sleep for a few hours before getting up. They told me that children start joining the fast when they are seven years old, going longer and longer without eating until they are able to fast completely by age 10. Many at the table recalled being able to run and play sports during Ramadan because they had trained themselves not to be hungry. With the opportunity to gather together and share a meal in the evening, they found Ramadan a very happy festival. Some even gained weight during Ramadan – despite fasting during the day – from the delicious meals eaten before sunrise and after sunset. Last year, I was invited to attend an iftar at the Chinese mosque near Narawat Bridge, where I was delighted to join hundreds of diners. When they asked me to say a few words to the gathered faithful, I observed that Chiang Mai’s Muslim population was similar to that in the U.S.: Diverse, from many different communities, all gathered together to celebrate the festival.
The previous day, I had attended an interreligious ceremony to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s 79th birthday. Representatives from the Sikh, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian faiths,as well as Muslims joined together to wish Her Majesty well and offer a song. I was proud to join as Americans come from all these faiths and more; the interreligious nature of the ceremony reminded me of home.
As I write, there is just a week left of Ramadan. I wish all Muslims a happy festival. Ramadan Kareem!