Do We Know It's Ramadan in Somalia?

There's the temptation to sing Do We Know It's Ramadan when thinking about Somalia this holy month. But hold your tongue.
In November 1984 the rock musicians Bob Geldof and Midge Ure wrote the charity single Do They Know It's Christmas to raise funds for the growing famine in Ethiopia.

Frantically consulting Rolodexes, both managed the difficult task of getting more than 40 artists to take part in the one-day recording. The song went on to raise more than £5 million and became the highest-grossing UK single of all time.

Now more than 25 years later, the haunting images of famine have returned. This time, however, it is luckless Somalia that bears the brunt.

Although the Ethiopian famine came to prominence in the days before Christmas, the Somali version arrives in the heart of Ramadan, one of Islam's holiest months. The contrasting images of the dire situation in Somalia and the festivities in fellow Muslim countries are striking.

In Somalia, children scurry from dilapidated tents in search of water and food, while residents in first world Muslim nations flock to colourful Ramadan tents for iftar feasts.

While some suffering Somalis proclaim that this Ramadan will be no different when it comes to undertaking the fast, news reports from the Gulf speak of growing consumer dissatisfaction at price gouging by opportunistic retailers.

Although no Muslim artists are reported to be planning to follow the route of Geldof and Ure, it is the dignity of some of the fasting Somalis that leads one to ask: Do We Know It's Ramadan?

After spending two decades' worth of Ramadans in Australia, I was excited at the prospect at sharing this blessed month in a Muslim country. Stories from friends and families who had lived or fasted in such societies whetted the appetite, so to speak.

"It is so easy," a relative said. "It is a beautiful feeling because you don't have to worry about things like finding a mosque."

"The food!" a friend exclaimed. "All shapes and colours . and it's all halal."

They were not wrong. In the days leading up to Ramadan in Abu Dhabi, I sensed a palpable, infectious excitement. Mosques received an extra scrubbing to prepare for the rush of worshippers, while small portable mosques were placed in front of those undergoing renovations.

Even corporations came across as benign, with large banners wishing potential customers Ramadan Kareem. Then the crescent moon was sighted and society happily slipped into Ramadan mode. The street lanterns festooning my Karama neighbourhood beam bons mots of encouragement to be more generous.

The mosques bulged during Salat Al Taraweeh, a special congregational prayer performed nightly during Ramadan. Our work life dropped a few gears as most companies and businesses implemented shorter working hours.

And, of course, a sure sign that the month is well and truly here is in the daily Ramadan rush hour: the white-knuckle driving experience before sunset as the whole country seems to rush home to break the fast on time.

The excitement and jubilation extend into a wonderful month-long festival with Eid Al Fitr, the three-day celebration marked with gifts serving as the pinnacle.

This year, however, Ramadan has taken a less-fortunate Muslim neighbour to remind us what our true intentions should be when fasting. When it comes to Somalia, the term "less fortunate" seems hopelessly inappropriate. Mauled by decades of civil war and foreign interventions, Somalia is in the grips of a growing famine that has already claimed the lives of nearly 30,000 children alone.

The Somalian president is visiting neighbouring countries with his hat out and international aid bodies are marshalling teams to enter affected areas.

Fortunately, the Emirati Red Crescent and the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Humanitarian Foundation have arrived in Mogadishu to distribute much-needed food to more than 350,000 refugees in 55 camps.

As well as the rice, maize, cooking oil and dates, what our Somali brethren really require from fellow Muslims in the Gulf is empathy, a quality that forms a cornerstone of Ramadan but sadly has lost lustre among the seasonal indulgences.

Fasting is often lazily described as an attempt to feel similar to those poor or downtrodden. One cannot act or be poor. You either are or are not. The desperation intrinsic to poverty or famine lies in the lack of hope. One cannot simulate such a feeling, knowing it will all come to an end in a few hours.

So the best explanation for why we forgo food and water is to foster a sense of empathy with those less fortunate. This is where Ramadan's true treasure lies. Yet it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve when one's life is wrapped up in modern comfort.

When everything - from work hours to social activities - is geared towards making your fast as easy as possible, the bar to achieving empathy grows higher. That's why we hear stories that the most rewarding fasts are those of people living in some of the more challenging locations.

Although it is becoming increasingly easier now, Ramadan remains an uphill struggle for most Australians, for example. Each day brings daily challenges, from fasting among coffee-drinking and sandwich-munching co-workers, to finding a place to pray while at work or school. Not to mention the nightly commutes to the mosque.

During the summer months, the fasting could stretch up to 17 hours; Taraweeh prayers finished only three hours before the next day's fasting began. Despite the hardships, each Ramadan Down Under is looked forward to with more enthusiasm. My family and friends say it's the community solidarity that pushes them through some of the spiritual humps the long month presents.

I prefer to define that solidarity as the empathy the blessed month brings. With each Ramadan, empathy is rekindled and it continues to hold the small Australian Muslim community together in spite of the near endless barrage negative media coverage.

Similar stories can be heard from Muslim communities in Europe and North America - even in the Caribbean. While Australian, North American and European Muslims must look for mosques each Ramadan, the challenge for those blessed to be living in Muslim societies is to foster and maintain that empathy.

I do not advocate turning off our air conditioning systems for the month to live a more ascetic life. The joy of Ramadan lies in the daily social interactions and family gatherings. But we do need to become more aware of our actions: whether it is in the way we conduct our communal iftars or the activities done while fasting.

This is the best means to prevent Ramadan joining the likes of Christmas and Easter, which, sadly, have come to represent the pinnacle of shopping and consumption of confectioneries.

Empathy is as close as we will get to those fasting in unimaginable conditions in Somalia this Ramadan. Through empathy their hunger will echo in our temporarily empty stomachs, their pleas will be on our tongues when we kneel down in prayer. It is from here that true charity can be given, without prompting from media campaigns or a sappy pop song.

Saeed Saeed is a feature writer for The National

Published: August 6, 2011 04:00 AM

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