Ramadan – Islam’s holiest month – is upon us once again, and like most of the Islamic world, Bangladesh’s 120 million or so Muslims are preparing to fast for the next four weeks. Ramadan sees a partial shut down of the country that makes the Christmas period at home seem like a Victorian workhouse. All the small shops close during the day, covering their entrances with cloth so as not to advertise that there is any food on sale. The shacks and tea houses that hug little street corners and are like miniature food factories stop their industrious production of samosas, shingaras, dhal puri and paratha and instead stand empty until around 3 pm when the production of Iftar food begins in earnest, ready for the fasters to descend at sunset as ravenous vultures do to a fresh corpse.
Ramadan is noticeable on the streets as well. Rickshaw pullers are prolific smokers, and can be found hanging around their rickshaws puffing away all day, but during Ramadan they are forced to twiddle their thumbs as they wait for passengers. Beggars flood into the city as most of the alms giving that is a requirement of Islam is done during this period. The VSO office is opposite a mosque, and getting in can be a bit a gauntlet of the lame, blind and homeless as these unfortunate people line the walls of the mosque entrance.
In the office, most of the staff will be fasting, and as a consequence work will probably end at three or three-thirty each day, as after this they have very little energy left to do anything. As I have only two weeks now to finish off the final bits of my placement work, it is slightly less than helpful! I have investigated the possibility of also holding the fast, but this gets mixed reactions. Some people are quite adamant that non-Muslims should not do it as it is associated with a certain sincerity and belief, which a non-believer would insult by participating. Whilst I think this is somewhat an overreaction (I know many non-Christians who celebrate Christmas), I can sympathise with the idea that the fast is part of a lifetime commitment. It is also part of the Muslim experience, whilst not necessary being part of the Bengali experience and hence is less necessary to understanding Bengal, Bangladesh and their complex history. I also get very hungry around one o’clock and don’t think I could make it through until five thirty without something – I’m still drinking three or four litres of water a day because of the heat, and couldn’t manage without that. I’m planning to through my hat in with the pregnant women.
You can see my latest article for New Age here