Tuesday, September 2, 2008


So I'm reading the posts at my new favorite personal blog, and remember that today starts the holy month of Ramadan on the Islamic calendar. Not being of the faith myself (or of any faith, really, call me a "strong" agnostic, if you must), I still have a kinda-sorta story about Ramadan.

When I lived in Arizona, library jobs were hard to come by (I'd caught a glimpse of the stack of applications once and thought I was looking at a major metropolitan phone book). I ended up driving a delivery truck for an Italian bakery, delivering bread to restaurants, convenience stores, and delis. Like most jobs, it came with good and bad, the first summer in the aptly-named Valley of the Sun driving a truck that had no air conditioning falling into the "bad" column, for example.*

But by and large I liked the job, especially the people I met. While a few fell into the "can't get far enough from, fast enough" category, for the most part they were a great bunch to deal with.

One of my favorite stops was a convenience store in Mesa, run by a guy named Mohammed. Mohammed was a big, genial guy, about my age and of Palestinian extraction. The store was not part of any chain, but rather an independent family venture (in ones and twos, I'd eventually meet the whole family during my tenure as Bread Guy).

Like I said, Mohammed was a genial guy. He had a way of making people feel welcome, and if both of our days were relatively light, we'd chat for a bit before I'd move on to the next customer. He'd always offer me a free soda from the fountain, and if the Valley sun had been particularly brutal on a given day, I'd take him up on it.

So one day I'm listening to the radio (NPR), and the announcer mentions that it's the second day of Ramadan. I was heading to Mohammed's store next, so I thought I'd ask how he was holding up. My knowledge of the holiday was (and is) fairly limited, but I knew it involved a sunrise-to-sunset fast. I figured that since it was still the early going (always the hardest time for me to break into something involving self-denial), and he had a ready-made source of temptation nearby in the form of his store's deli counter. I thought that some nominal moral support from the sidelines couldn't hurt.

He seemed a bit gobsmacked - in a good way - that I'd asked. I guess the subject didn't come up much from the other side of the counter, especially in 2003, when media treatment of the Islamic faith could only be charitably described as "defamatory".

So we talked a bit, like we always did. Maybe the conversation went a little deeper than usual. It's been five years, and I don't remember the details. But as it was winding up, Mohammed caught me off guard by asking if I'd like to join in the fast.

I'll admit that I actually considered it. There's something in my Roman Catholic upbringing to which an extended period of reflective self-denial holds a lot of appeal.

But then Mohammed explained to me that a Ramadan fast means not eating or drinking during the day.

I thought about the heat of the day. Even with autumn in the offing, temperatures were still topping 100 in the Valley. I thought about going through my work day (Hauling. All. That. Bread.) without even a sip of water. I could make it through without food from sunrise to sunset, but if there's an urge that rules me, it's thirst.

I declined politely, and Mohammed said he understood. I left the store that day with a new-found sense of admiration for my friend. As I drove on I also got to thinking about other faithful observants around the world, who didn't and still probably don't have the luxury of ducking into an air-conditioned building to at least allay the day's rigors during the fast, often in climates not too dissimilar from that of the Valley.

Mention of Ramadan takes me back to that conversation in Mohammed's store. I'm not sure if he ever expected me to take him up on joining the fast. Mohammed knew that I was pretty much godless (we never got that deep into theology, preferring to talk about the Diamondbacks instead). Still, Ramadan has since then been a time that makes me try to think outside of myself.

*- Ask me how I lost 30 pounds in three months!

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