Personal Voices: Fasting With Friends on Ramadan

Hanford Secondary School was a strange school in the strange town of Richland, Washington. It was strange for a variety of reasons, such as the radioactive tumbleweed not far from the school.

But Hanford was also strange because it was a place where it was considered cool to be different. Being a Muslim Arab definitely made me one of the cool kids.

Suffice it to say, there weren't a lot of Muslims in Richland and very few of them were teenagers. By the time I graduated, there were only three other Muslims attending Hanford (one of whom was my brother). I was seen by fellow students as having something to offer the Hanford community because I was "different" from most of them.

Yet many of us were different, coming from ethnically and religiously diverse backgrounds -- Indian, Chinese, Cuban, Pakistani and Indonesian, just to name a few. Moreover, to all of us from minority backgrounds, there was a certain duality in being "different" because we thought the majority students came from fascinating backgrounds as well.

As we went through our teen years and learned more about ourselves as individuals, we began embracing not only what made ourselves interesting and unique in terms of our backgrounds and make-up, but also embracing the traditions and lifestyles of one another.

This began slowly. Seventh grade marked the beginning of my "Christmas rounds," when I would visit each of my close friends' homes and witness the Christmas traditions each of their families celebrated. By the time we graduated, we knew all the latest Indian dance moves, henna was becoming a regular accessory for the girls, and I was on my way to making platanos like an expert.

Granted, these were token aspects of each others' cultures that we were adopting. However, we were not merely appropriating external aspects of tradition, but rather we were learning what those practices meant to our families in Richland, as well as elsewhere in the world.

Ramadan was my addition to our quilt-like Hanford culture. In 8th grade, my friends and I were sitting around during our lunch hour contemplating each of our favorite holidays. I replied that Ramadan was mine, despite the fact that it technically does not qualify as a "holiday" but more as a religious obligation.

I explained that I appreciated the humility and empathy fasting brings to a person. Molly, my punk/hippie friend, asked whether I would like it if she fasted with me to try and experience what I meant, despite the fact that she was not a Muslim. Immediately my face lit up -- I had always wanted to have someone my own age fast with me.

From that Ramadan on, Molly fasted each year with me. Many of my other friends would fast for a few days during the month, and I appreciated each of their efforts. I always made sure they realized that I appreciated that they were not only trying to understand the meaning of Ramadan, but that they were trying to understand what it was like to be me.

When Eid al-Fitr, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, would roll around, my friends would all pile into my house to enjoy the feasts of food and dessert. My parents loved the fact that my friends fasted. (Molly, in particular, is still spoken of by my parents as one of the neatest friends anyone could ever want.)

Thus, Ramadan became a normalized part of the Hanford calendar. Over the school loud speakers, the person reading the morning announcements would wish the school a happy Ramadan throughout the month and congratulate those who fasted on making it to Eid. I read the announcements during my senior year and would occasionally play the call to prayer on Fridays and on Laylat al-Qadr, a particularly religious day during the month.

Ramadan remains my favorite holiday, not only for spiritual reasons, but also because of my memories of friends at Ramadan during my years at Hanford.

After each of my friends left Richland, it saddened us to realize the quilt-like culture we had created was not a normal occurrence in other people's schools. It was difficult for us to understand both why and how other students isolated and discriminated against those from minority backgrounds. We had created a kind of isolated utopia at Hanford.

I have never personally felt outcast or discriminated against. However, I have never felt as comfortable in being Muslim or Arab as I did when I was at Hanford. I wish I could recreate that sort of environment everywhere.

Hanaa Rifaey is a graduate of Hanford Secondary School in Richland, Washington. She now works for the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. This essay was originally published as part of Tolerance.org’s Mix It Up at Lunch youth activism initiative.

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