Friday, August 1, 2014

Why I like food restrictions

Today I took my students out to eat after class. I hadn't been able to do it before now because most of them had been observing Ramadan. At this time of year and this latitude, Ramandan means seventeen hours with no food or water. For a month, my students would wake up at 3AM to pray, eat, and guzzle water. After 3:30AM, they couldn't eat or drink again until 8:30PM.

Out of respect for my students, I left my water bottle at home for the month of July and didn't drink any water while I was teaching. My first class is two hours long and you can bet I made a beeline to the water fountain as soon as class was over every day. I can't imagine seventeen hours.

So maybe it's surprising that I really value my students' practice. I don't mean the health benefits of fasting, and definitely not their obedience to an invisible sky being. I mean how fasting strengthens their sense of who they are. Eating is such a basic (obviously) and tangible thing that we do. Every time my students don't do it, every time they pass by a water fountain or ignore a rumbling stomach or a parched throat, they are saying to themselves, "I am a Muslim. I am part of this group. This is what WE do." The sense of identity and belonging that food restrictions confer is incredible.

This is the same reason I don't let my children eat pork. T and I are vegetarians, but when we are out, we allow our boys to eat meat. But not pork. Neither Muslim nor Orthodox Christian Ethiopians eat pigs, and I am 99.99% sure you would not find a single person in Burji who eats pork. My kids know this. They know that they don't eat pork because they are Burji. Every time they turn down a hot dog, a ham sandwich, or a pepperoni pizza, they are, in a very basic way, reminding themselves that they are Burji. Something as essential as food strengthens their ethnic identity. I love that.

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