Fajr Ruminations on Ramadan in the Middle of Nowhere
I’m in a weird place this Ramadan. Not just spiritually but geographically as well. Almost exactly a year ago I finished my MA thesis and moved back home: home being wherever so my parents were living, regardless of roots and attachments. A few months before my less-than-triumphant return to the moist womb, my parents had made the move to Northern Alberta for business.
While I have always been one for living and experiencing a new city, town, state, province – whatever – the shock of the sight of the prairie was, well, enough to leave me in a near-crippling abyss of self-woe. I had arrived into a town of 1200 people (although no more than 30 were ever visible), not even with an MA in hand- just a final copy of my thesis – thinking that within a month, maybe two, I’d be working at some kick arse, welcome-to-the-gunz-show kinda job. That’s right. I wholeheartedly believed that I wouldn’t be a victim of statistics and have to wait seven months, at minimum, after graduation before I would get any hint of a slightly disposable income.
Here I am now: 10 months, 80 applications, one acceptance-turned-into-a-rejection and one full-out-rejection later. Everything that should have worked, didn’t. Everyone who should have helped, didn’t. I’m 25, with a Masters degree from a great university in a hot field, having focused on a hot subject, and with an illustrious writing career – WHY THE HELL IS MY SENSE OF ENTITLEMENT NOT RESULTING IN ANYTHING? I thought privilege was supposed to get you something.
Instead – I’m 25, with a Masters degree from a great university in a hot field, having focused on a hot subject, and with an illustrious writing career and …I’m working for my parents, in a convenience store.
I couldn’t be more blessed.
I now live in a town of about 3000 people (moving on up from that 1200), which is about 7-8 hours by car from the Arctic circle. The north of Canada is truly a whole other place, a whole other experience. While people implore me to go to the Middle East, South East Asia, Europe, to “discover” the world, I can’t help but scoff. This little town, in the Middle of Nowhere Alberta, has taught me far more about myself and the people who surround me than any expensive, overseas adventure ever could.
A convenience store is the microcosm of life. Every sin and virtue is apparent. Every human interaction counts and every penny and dollar spent and shared speaks beyond the metal and paper upon which they are printed. Neighbours smile; old men think nothing of sexual harassment. There’s a farmers’ market run by old women; they sell delicious loaves of bread. Fifteen seems like the average age when most mothers first give birth. The skies are big, constantly throwing the remembrance of God into your eyes. Life is quaint.
There is a surprising number of Muslims in this town – in fact, our deputy mayor is Palestinian. The local mechanic shop is filled with beautifully scripted Qur’anic ayahs and daily adhaan. We get our halaal chicken from a Hutterite chicken farmer, who is visited by a Muslim restaurant owner kind enough to zabihah some chickens for us alongside his own share for his menu. The farmer charges a very cheap rate for however many chickens we order and delivers them, without extra charge, from two hours away. Jordanians. Palestinians. Pakistanis. Aboriginals. Chinese. Lebanese. Kashmiris. The Muslims in this town come from all walks of life and are, in many ways, the heartbeat of this town – they run the major local restaurants, hotels, gas stations, convenience stores and mechanic shops. There are generations of Muslims here. I can’t help but scoff at the façade of “multiculturalism” we parade in Southern Canada. No one questions why you’re here; no one displaces you immediately with a metropolitan “where are you from?” – you’re probably here to make a living, so welcome.
A void, however, remains. After being used to years of community iftars, taraweeh, group suhurs and just communal support… I’ve had a hard time getting into the Ramadan spirit on my own. My parents are unable to do the 18-hour fasts due to health reasons this year. We are all constantly busy at the store. I don’t even have Rooh Afza, a Pakistani staple for this month and the Macgyver of desserts. Ramadan, with my family, has always been a grand affair. Even if it was just the four of us, we would somehow be able to create an atmosphere of an entire community within our tiny home. These days, suhur is a personal and short affair and iftar is lonely, with just my mother and me, sitting in the kitchen together, drinking tea, eating dates. It’s hard not to think of the tough work, long hours and backaches. The closest masjid is an hour and some minutes away and because of our schedule, we never get the time to go. It doesn’t feel like the Ramadan I’ve known for as long as I’ve been fasting – but in its exceptionalism it has done and is continuing to do much good for my soul.
People can be distracting. Big dinners, group prayer – all of this can be distracting during a time when personal reflection is so incredibly important. Community is so very important for the well-being and sustenance of our ummah, but I cannot help but say: guys, I need a breather. Being in the Middle of Nowhere Alberta has forced me to go from a spoiled and selfish brat to a socially isolated, self-reflective, faux-solipsist Muslim struggling to reconnect not only with God but her family. Six years of independent living, 3000 miles from your parents, can do that. You spend so much time just with yourself: fending for yourself, dealing with issues on your own – you become self-reliant in such a way that to re-integrate others in an intimate way (not in that roommate way) becomes daunting, almost near impossible. It’s been a struggle, but to have the opportunity to spend this much time with family again – perhaps for the last time, in such a capacity – has been invaluable. More important than any job or career or accomplishments have been the moments of pure elation and sadness I’ve experienced in the arms of my family.
I wasn’t always selfish. Or maybe was but it never struck me, since I never seemed to have time to reflect on it. Now, however, it’s all I usually think about. Spiritually, I’m frail. I am frail in that I need more. I am so very hungry this Ramadan. After years of being inundated with people and noise, I am hungry for a quiet moment. I am hungry for a moment with myself where I can look at myself, what I have become and prepare for what I want to become.
And this Ramadan, in the Middle of Nowhere, has set the table for the feast.
Written for MMW in July 2012. All images belong to the author.