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Experiencing Ramadan in America vs. the Middle East
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Jana Al-Akhras, an American-born Muslim, began fasting during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in the second grade and has managed to observe the annual practice ever since in winter and summer, during high school soccer practices and games and through long days of classes in college.

And she still looks forward to what has become a spiritual experience.

"It's not just depriving yourself of food and drink, but it's learning to be a better and more patient person a person who fasts from all the bad things of this world as well," said the 22-year-old law student at Ohio State University.

But her connection to the spiritual experience of Ramadan changed last year, when she spent roughly three-quarters of the holy month in the Middle East. Instead of keeping a daily routine like she did in America, everything stopped during Ramadan in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.

"Time just slows down when you're overseas," Al-Akhras said. "No one really expects you to do much because they're all feeling the same way you are. That's not the experience I had in the U.S., ever."

Over 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are preparing for the holy month of Ramadan, which is set to begin June 18, but their experiences will have stark differences depending on where they are in the world and if they are living among a Muslim majority. In America or Western nations, most Ramadan observers will find ways to navigate their work and social life around their fast, while those in the Middle East will be accommodated with changes in their work days, sleep schedules and diets.

The purpose of Ramadan

Ramadan, one of the Five Pillars of Islam or a core ritual of the faith, takes place during the ninth and holiest month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Throughout the duration of the month, Muslims are to abstain from food, water and sexual relations from dawn until sunset.

According to Imam Suhaib Webb, resident scholar at the Make Space community center for Muslims in Washington, D.C., those observing the fast strive to achieve commitment to spiritual growth, physical health and humanitarian and environmental such as eliminating waste causes.

"We are encouraged to refrain from bad behavior," Imam Webb said, noting that many Muslims give up smoking during Ramadan. "There's also the component that fasting reminds us of poverty and brings to mind that hunger is still a crisis of this world."

But most importantly, Ramadan provides Muslims with a month to further tune into their spirituality and improve their character, and implement it throughout the other 11 months of the year, Imam Webb said.

"It encourages us to stay away from what is usually permissible to gain a greater sense of discipline post-Ramadan," Imam Webb explained. "It's like a spiritual boot camp. That boot camp you take in a CrossFit gym, that's designed to get you in shape and give you skills that will last beyond that."

Ramadan in the West

Saeed Shihab rose before the sunrise every day last summer, waking up to the sound of his alarm around 3:30 a.m. He groggily got out of bed, ate a big meal the pre-dawn meal, or suhoor of eggs, Greek yogurt, cereal and toast, downed a couple cups of water, and went back to sleep.

His alarm went off again three hours later, waking him up in time for a 7:30 a.m. class at the University of Utah where he sat through several more hours of classes. Still fasting, he drove to the Maliheh Free medical clinic where he volunteered for four hours. After volunteering, he headed home to study or squeeze in an hour-long workout energy-permitting until the sunset around 9:30 p.m.

Then, it was time to break the fast with iftar. His family gathered around the dinner table with a pot of soup, bowl of salad and one main entree made by his mom.

He went to sleep and started all over again the next day.

Shihab's Ramadan experience of maintaining his daily routine without food and water is shared by many of the estimated 3.2 million Muslims in the U.S. But maintaining that Western lifestyle can be a challenge to American Muslims, 77 percent of whom say Ramadan is important to them, according to a Pew Research Center 2007 report.

"I've had those days where I used to play soccer and I'd be super dehydrated and out in the sun, or where I'd be going from class at 7:30 a.m. to work for six hours," Shihab said. "But it's all mental. If you pray and if you're spiritual about it, then you'll make it through."

Al-Akhras manages and finds rewards in fasting by telling herself that she is not just doing it for herself.

"Ramadan is part of a bigger struggle of self-control," she said. "My mom always told me that if you can't control yourself during the month of Ramadan from what (is not sinful), then what's stopping you from stopping yourself from doing something that (is sinful) later on?"

American Muslims still say the hardest aspect of observing their religious fast in the U.S. is what Shihab calls being a "lone wolf" the lack of community, understanding and tolerance of the Ramadan observance.

Karim Shaaban has never forgotten the intolerance demonstrated toward him when he first started fasting in the third grade just two years after 9/11.

A classmate threw wet papers at Shaaban, screaming, "Drink the water from the paper towels!"

"I went home and was upset, I didn't know how to react or what to do," said the 20-year-old University of Utah student. "For me that was the hardest thing, because I felt like I didn't really fit in. It made me feel more different than I actually was."

Religious accommodations

While being misunderstood poses a struggle for many U.S. Muslims during Ramadan, there are efforts to accommodate Muslims in the workplace during Ramadan.

The Tanenbaum Center for Religious Understanding, a secular, nonprofit organization that consults with businesses on how to prevent religious prejudice in the workplace, provides clients a fact sheet explaining Ramadan and the implications this may have for the workplace.

The "obligation to fast during Ramadan may have implications on schedule, if for instance, theyre working a schedule that extends beyond sundown," said Mark Fowler, managing director of programs.

One company Tanenbaum worked with encountered a conflict when a Muslim employee fasting during Ramadan requested there not be food served at a lunch meeting. The manager complied only to upset another Muslim employee who complained that the gesture suggested she didn't have a strong enough faith to resist the temptation of food.

"It really does highlight the fact that every individual practices their tradition in their own way," Fowler said. "You cant know based on one employee who needs a particular accommodation about Ramadan that all employees will need that same accommodation."

Ramadan in the Middle East

The difficulties of observing Ramadan in the West have led Shaaban, Shihab and many other Muslims to prefer experiencing the special fast in the Middle East, where making room for Ramadan is expected. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 94 percent of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa fast during Ramadan.

On the morning of June 4, employees of Medgulf Group an insurance company in its Saudi Arabia branch received an email from the human resources department with work updates.

"On the occasion of the Holy Month of Ramadan 2015, we would like to announce that the working hours at Medgulf during this month will be as follows: From Sunday to Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.," the email read.

The change of work hours is mandated by the Labor Law in Saudi Arabia, which requires six-hour workdays during Ramadan. Similar laws exist throughout much of the Middle East, impacting work and school days, although Imam Webb said the mandate is custom and not theological.

Work and school-day hours are not the only ways the Middle East transforms during Ramadan.

"In Egypt, everything starts later," Shaaban, whose parents are Egyptian immigrants, said. "During the day, people didn't do much. I'd wake up around noon and fast for six hours, and then I'd be done."

Often, Shaaban would stay up until suhoor with his friends and family, hanging out at sport clubs and cafes until the sun rose.

Al-Akhras also stayed up all night with her cousins when she spent Ramadan in the United Arab Emirates, saying "your day and night is flipped."

"It's nice that everyone else around you is (fasting), it makes it so much easier," Shaaban said "You're with all your friends and family, and with that big feast it's like a reward, whereas here it's just a normal day, normal dinner."

Shaaban described iftar meals in Egypt as a large buffet of various foods, as opposed to the single entree he and his family eat while in the U.S.

According to Imam Webb, the buffets "defeat the purpose of what we're supposed to do," which he says is to minimize waste.

While it is easier to observe Ramadan in a Muslim majority country, Shaaban and Al-Akhras agree that the accommodating lifestyle can diminish the spiritual connection to observing the fast.

"The more you struggle, the closer you feel to a higher power," Shaaban said.

However, according to Imam Webb, these lifestyle changes during Ramadan do not decrease the value of one's fast.

"I'm very cautious about criticizing other people's spiritual practices. I'm not in their shoes," Imam Webb said, describing the throbbing heat that washes over the Middle East in the summer. "Someone who is using their time better is just maximizing their blessing. But this is not an issue of sinful behavior, it's just people trying to grind it out."
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