Regulars editor David Blackwell explores the communal element of religious fasting on his travels through the Middle East…
Many people would hesitate to travel in a country like Pakistan at all, too influenced by the country’s media-created image of a nation plagued by terrorism, civil war, and sectarian killings. It would seem, then, especially undesirable to travel to Pakistan during the month of fasting. I’ve been there and witnessed each of the country’s unfortunate stereotypical problems, but these do not affect the entire country, nor the entirety of its incredible, kind, and open-hearted people. There is, in my opinion, no better time to connect with the Muslim people than during Ro-za /Ramadan.
The sun sets over the dusty streets of Gilgit; the hum of fluorescently lit shops pulls my feet from the centre of the deserted road. Usually this would be the busiest time of the day, with many Pakistanis getting out of work and the cruel dog of dry heat laying down his reared head. But this is Ro-za, the month of fasting for all Muslims in Pakistan, of any sect or cast – the people had gone home to feast with their families. One would hope that, during this brotherly occasion, there would be less bloodshed – brothers brought together by the hardship of a hot day without food. One would hope…
As I pass, the few tables outside the dhal stores begin to fill up – older men, those too young to have earned the dowry for a wife, the limping, and the homeless. They greet each other with open arms and warm-hearted smiles, as though greeting an old friend. They know nothing of each other, of course, other than that they have neither home nor family to share the breaking of fast with, and no more than that they are brothers. I could barely pass the table, some metres away, shy-eyed by the group of those with the roughest time on the streets, before they beckoned me down to a seat. I was a brother too.
Unlike the many times I have been a guest, here I was treated no differently than any other man. I had not been in Pakistan long, yet even though it was the third week of fasting, I was given equal food – each of us ate for free – and was involved in all well-meaning jokes, with smiles and gestures if not with language.
I had a family there, for a moment. I had two brothers, a father and a grandfather, each of us on the edge of that place in one way or another, but human, and sharing the joy that comes with knowing the value of food.
Indeed, I have many families in Pakistan, more so than in any other country, even on any other continent. I have seven brothers working twelve hours in the over fifty degree Celsius heat with smiles on their faces, proud to be building a home for our parents, then working eight more hours to earn money for materials, before sleeping and repeating with equal joy. I have a father, and a son, working the mountain pastures, next to where we shared the bounty of their fruit orchard. I have an older brother, walking the dangerous trails of the glaciers to make safe the shepherds of his village.
They are fiercely proud of their families and yet will welcome a stranger as a brother or son with equal vigour and joy. Most people in Pakistan will welcome you before they question you and the questions are of genuine interest, not of interrogation or of judgement. They do not judge by money or colour. Their politics may differ from yours and may even oppose your views, their status and monetary state could be a world apart from your own, but you are human, so you are their brother, you are her daughter, you are his cousin…
The safest part of Pakistan is the North. A short, advance-booked flight from Islamabad/Lahore to Gilgit will get you there, as will a less comfortable bus journey. Go there, say hello to my father. He’ll pass you on the street with a smile when you walk into town. Give my mother a hug from me. She’ll be serving Chai on the first corner. Join my family and bring it home with you, with those eyes that see the brotherhood of humanity.
Image Courtesy http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/08/ramadan_2009.html