Also in Slate: See a gallery of photographs of Ramadan around the world.
My first Ramadan experience came in Casablanca in late December 1997. I was traveling in Morocco with a high-school friend, and on the last night of a very eventful journey, as we were about to step into a convenience store, two middle-aged men, perhaps as old as our fathers, stopped us at the door.
"Sir," one said. "We are not bad men. Here, please take this money and buy us some schnapps or vodka."
During our two weeks in Morocco, we had been approached by many men trying to sell us hashish, but this was a first: We were being shoulder-tapped by guys twice our age, and we were confused.
"Please. It is Ramadan, and they will only sell alcohol to non-Muslims." Weary of scams by then, we refused. Besides, as an Iranian-American, I was at least as Muslim as they were.
That incident served to alert me that "Muslims are different" well before that become part of the global dialogue. It was also before I really grasped to what extent Islam was an integral part of my own background, which was only made clear to me in 2001, when I became the "other," often consulted by friends of friends on Islamic matters I was completely unqualified to address.
Now I feel a bit better equipped to speak on some aspects of Islam, especially about this holy month, having experienced parts of Ramadan in five different predominantly Muslim countries.
Since the Islamic calendar is only 355 days long, Ramadan falls a little more than 10 days earlier each calendar year. This means that we are entering a difficult period, since Ramadan will take place during the height of summer for about a decade. Longer, hotter days mean thirstier and more irritable Muslims, at least in the Middle East, which has the highest concentration of the devout.
The holiday is meant as a time to ask for forgiveness for past sins by fasting and praying more than usual. It is also intended to promote humility, patience, and spirituality, but in recent times Ramadan has become a generally accepted and acceptable excuse for workplace inefficiency in most Muslim countries. As one British government Web site points out, "it's not impossible to travel or do business in Islamic countries during Ramadan, but different rules do apply."
The manic nature of the month adds to the mess. Fasting extends well beyond food, to a prohibition on drinking any beverages during the day and a ban on smoking. In many Muslim countries, where cafe culture dominates, abstaining from caffeine and tobacco products may have an even greater impact than calorie deficiency. The irritability and fatigue of the day give way to relief, overconsumption, and short-lived bliss after sundown. It's no surprise, then, that in many Muslim societies, people actually gain weight during Ramadan.
I wonder what impact 14 centuries of spending one-twelfth of the working year hungry, dehydrated, and fatigued has had on these societies. The question will probably go unanswered for the time being, since it is somehow considered offensive to Islam. Still, I've noticed that each of the countries I have visited during Ramadan has its own set of traditions and customs that say more about national identity than about religion. My next experience of Ramadan came nearly a decade later in Mecca. Seventeen family members and I had joined an Iranian pilgrimage tour of Saudi Arabia. Generally, these trips last two weeks, but since ours coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, three additional days were added at no extra charge.