Saturday Diary / Finding the meaning of Ramadan in Pittsburgh

27 Aug
Saturday, August 27, 2011
By Malak Shaher, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The smell of the food becomes nicer than ever when you are hungry. I am in the office now and somebody is having his lunch. It is almost five in the afternoon and I have not eaten or drunk anything for more than 10 hours. I fast from dawn until sunset. I am Muslim.

I am spending the month of Ramadan, which happens to be in August, in Pittsburgh. This is the first time in my life that I have spent this month away from my family and outside my homeland, Yemen.

I would say that there are a lot of things that I have not thought about before. But before I speak about my experience here, let me tell you first how my day would look during Ramadan in Yemen.


I would be among my people who were fasting with me. Sometimes, I would forget about food because feeling hungry becomes part of my routine in that month and I take it for granted. Moreover, I would forget about food because I did not smell it, as no one there would eat during the day. Fasting in Yemen is not very difficult and the day there is as long as 12 or 13 hours.

Ramadan in Yemen is not tiring for most people. The working hours are reduced to five or six hours without a lunch break. Schools change their schedules. A lot of people do not go to work or schools because they are either tired or lazy. Some sleep during the day and wake up around sunset (and this is cheating because the point of fasting is to feel for the poor, to meditate and to pray more to God) .

Yemen is different in Ramadan from how it would look in the other months of the year. I remember when I would go to work, there were hardly any cars or people in the streets. It was so quiet that I felt peace of mind. No cars, horns, no people shouting … at 10 in the morning I would be the only person walking in the street. I might encounter two or three also going to work. Going back home after work, I would start seeing people around.

The number of people in the streets increases as sunset approaches. It is one or two hours before the smell of the food comes out of houses and restaurants, reminding me that I have not eaten for hours.

Just before sunset, the streets look completely different from the morning. If it happened that you went to Yemen in Ramadan, I would not recommend that you drive your car or use any means of transportation before the people break their fasting. At that time, the streets would be packed with cars and people would be in races to go home and eat with their families or find a place in a restaurant.

I still remember when last year I went shopping with my sister. I knew that people would be rushing to go home but I did not realize that fact until I took the bus with my sister. It was the most dangerous adventure I went through, ever. Literally, we were flying. There were certain moments when I felt that the bus was not on the ground as the speed was above normal. Meanwhile, the bus driver was uttering a few insults here and there as some cars tried to overtake him.

Usually, it takes me 30 minutes to get from that mall to my house, but that day I reached home in 15 minutes. Thanks to the driver, my sister and I ate with our family at sunset.

As the night approaches, the streets become more lively. The prayers can be heard from the mosques and the markets glitter with lights as they are filled with people. I can hang out with my family or friends until 2 or 3 a.m, and do not feel anxious about the time.


So, I came to the United States and even before Ramadan started, the first thing that occurred to me at the end of the first day was that I would be fasting longer than usual, which meant I would be exhausted by the end of the day.

But, I said to myself, you are not better than the Muslims here. They fast and work without any change in their schedules and they fast for more than 15 hours.

As a matter of fact, I experienced the real meaning of Ramadan in Pittsburgh.

There are some differences between here and my homeland. The first of which is that Pittsburgh does not look as lively as Yemen in the night. Nothing changed here between the first day of Ramadan and the previous days and nothing would change in the aftermath. But, I learned life lessons.

The first day was not easy at all. I worked until 4 p.m. and went home. I did not take a rest, as I promised a friend that we would go for a walk. It was sunny and humid. My friend was drinking water while she walked. The almost two hours walking burned the calories I had left for the rest of the day. I was actually starving.

I am not complaining. On the contrary, while my friend and I were walking, I was busy thinking about why we fast. It took me thousands of miles to travel from Yemen to Pittsburgh to understand that I should be more patient and tolerant under hard conditions. It made me think how I would react when I am the only one who feels stressful while others do not. It made me think also of the people who are hungry because they do not have money, not because they are fasting.

Although I was not with my family this year in Ramadan, I did not feel lonely. I enjoyed the free meals after the prayers at the Islamic Center and for the first time in my life I stood with Muslims of different ethnicities in a horizontal line to pray to God.


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