I recently returned from a trip to my native country of Algeria, in North Africa, where I spent the first 10 days of the month of Ramadan, fasting during daylight hours and feasting after dusk. In this week’s column, I will share my experiences and observations while over there.
A few days before the start of the month of Ramadan, I noticed an unusually high level of activity in preparation for this religious month. For example, at the post office, there were long lines of patrons trying to cash in their paychecks. I found out that most people run their financial transactions in the post office rather than in banks or credit unions as in the United States.
A funny anecdote happened to me in the post office. While I was there one day, I noticed a long line and a short line in front of two office clerks. The long line had about 30 people in it, and the short one five or six. Naturally, I chose the shorter line. That is, until I noticed the men in the other line staring at me. I realized at that moment that there were only women in my line.
This separation of men and women in different lines is fairly new. When I was growing up there in the ’60s and ’70s, there was no gender separation in public places. However, I also noticed the two female clerks working behind the counters. This has also been a change from my younger days when post office employees were all male workers.
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A few days after the start of the month of Ramadan, I went back to the post office. To my surprise, there were no lines this time, which allowed me to quickly take care of my business. A relative told me that almost everything comes to a standstill during this month. Public employees at city halls or post offices usually start at 9:30 a.m. and finish at 4 p.m. with no lunch breaks.
At sunset, families gather around the table to break fast together. A tradition that has not changed is the recitation of verses from the Quran on the television just before the call to the sunset prayer, announcing that it is permissible to dig in to the traditional meal of a “chorba frik,” a light bulgur soup, and “bourek” appetizers in various shapes of baked, filled pastries.
I noticed during my recent visit that Ramadan soup kitchens organized by charitable organizations and individuals had become widespread in the 48 provinces of Algeria. Organizations such as the Red Crescent and benevolent restaurant owners set up soup kitchens so that the poorest of the poor have at least one decent meal a day at the time of fast breaking.
I also observed a number of sub-Saharan migrants, many of them illegally in the country, holding plastic cups and panhandling for money. Many of these migrants have been displaced from their countries due to either droughts and famines, or wars and conflicts. Unfortunately, these migrants often face repression by the authorities who refuse to acknowledge them as part of the new and changing landscape in that part of the world.
An unintended outcome of this migration is the comeback of the French language and Catholicism, since many migrants come from Francophone countries. Some migrants belonging to Protestant denominations come from Anglophone countries. With the arrival of Christian migrants, churches in Algeria are experiencing a revival unseen since the country’s independence in 1962.
The month of Ramadan has been dubbed the month of the Quran. Many Muslims set a goal of reading the entire Quran at least once during this month. Later in the night, Muslims flock to mosques, where they offer the final night prayers followed by a series of additional prayers known as the Taraweeh prayers.
These optional prayers are an excellent gymnastic for the body and offer an additional opportunity for listening to the Quran. The prayers are led by imams who have memorized the whole Quran. Each night during the month of Ramadan, these imams recite roughly one-thirtieth of the whole Quran with the goal of finishing the recitation of the holy book before the beginning of the new month announcing the Festival of Fast breaking.
In the last 10 nights of the month of Ramadan, some Muslims seclude themselves in mosques for increased worship similar to Christian monasticism. They spend these special nights reading the Quran, praying, meditating, relaxing or just sleeping. Muslims especially seek the virtues and blessings of one special night known as the Night of Decree or Night of Power. It is believed by Muslims that the Quran began to be revealed during this night more than 1,400 years ago.
The Quran is considered by Muslims as the direct word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago.
Muslims also consider the Quran a continuation of the message revealed in the Torah for Jews and the Gospel of Jesus for Christians. Love of the stranger and the wayfarer is central in all three scriptures. Being such an important directive in our respective scriptures, I often wonder why refugees are treated with suspicion and lack of compassion, both in my native country and in my adoptive country.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.