Eid Mubarak! عید مُبارک

Twin minarets

Today marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, and a 3-day celebratory holiday called Eid-al-Fitr. After living so many years in Muslim countries I miss the celebrations and the time off. I miss the beautiful clothes and the spirit of festivity. To my delight, as I rushed to catch the subway, I almost bumped into a beautiful Pakistani couple. She had on an emerald-green shalwar chemise with gold embroidery and he was splendid in a Jinnah suit. Their little boy was equally dressed up and belonged in a Pakistani wedding. In delight I greeted them with the traditional “Eid Mubarak!” which basically means “Have a feast blessed by God!” although I welcome readers to correct me!

While Ramadan creates a sense of lethargy and far less activity, Eid-al-Fitr will change the landscape and bring on the festivities and food! Menus and cuisine vary according to country, with Egypt serving special sweets called “Kahk” and date-filled cookies and Pakistan serving huge plates of biryani (spicy rice and chicken) and kheer , a sweet rice dish.

Hospitality, always a high priority, is even more visible and there is a special charity expected during Eid-al-Fitr.

I remember this holiday from the time I was young. My first memory probably comes from Hyderabad, Pakistan where my father took my brothers and me out to watch Eid prayers at a large mosque. Thousands of men, all dressed in new clothes, and all bowing in unison with no sounds but the Call to Prayer and their personal quiet murmurings “Bismillah, ir Rahman ir Rahim” (In the Name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate) made a strong impression on me as a child. The picture has stayed with me through all the Eid celebrations I have witnessed through the years. As a child and as an adult I have been welcomed into many homes during Eid al Fitr to celebrate with Muslim families. In my adult years, I have to confess that I have never reciprocated by inviting a Muslim family to dinner on Christmas. It is not something of which I am proud.

The lens through which we view the world is shaped by many things. I think I speak for many of us who grew up in the Muslim world, but were not Muslims, that we are often perplexed by the vehemence and hostility with which people respond to the Muslim world. This was not something that our parents taught us, not something that we were familiar with as children. While no one can deny nor justify the horror of terrorism and events in this country on 9/11, equating all Muslims and fearing them as terrorists is like equating all Christians as Westboro Baptist church.

An NPR story that came to my attention through my brother Stan called A Ramadan Story Of Two Faiths Bound In Friendship : NPR speaks to something more familiar. That is friendship between people with a recognition that there are distinct differences between Islam and Christianity. My friend Nancy, who grew up in Al Ain but went to school in Pakistan, commented on the article that “Sheikh Zayed made a compound, land AND a chapel available to the handful of missionaries who set up the Oasis Hospital in Al Ain in 1960. He wanted health care for the people, and he wasn’t threatened by their faith”  My brother recalled “a story 150 years ago when Kyrgyz welcomed Mennonite farmers newly arrived in Central Asia. They offered them the use of their mosque for their Sunday meeting until they had their own place of worship.

To build relationships with people of other faiths is not compromising our faith. Rather, it’s living out a faith that is not threatened but firm.

I am not a Muslim, but today I wish my Muslim friends Eid Mubarak and am grateful to them for what I have learned through the years about devotion, faith, and hospitality.

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8


A Look at Ramadan from an Outsider

Today marks the first day of Ramadan for Muslims around the world. Ramadan is held during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar and commemorates the time where the Koran was revealed to the prophet Mohammad. Ramadan is a month of fasting and is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, the others being belief in one God, charitable giving or tithe, the call to pray five times a day, and if financially and physically possible, a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.

It is a time of fasting and prayer where Muslims are to abstain from food and drink as well as smoking and sex daily from the time the sun comes up until dusk. At sun down the fast breaks with a special fruit drink and dates, after which a meal is eaten. This ritual is held daily for a month. All are to take part except for the very young, the sick, the elderly and those who are pregnant. Ramadan is also a time when calls for Zakat, or charitable giving, increase.

Just like the diversity of Muslims world-wide, the practical practice of this month-long period of fasting varies from family to family and country to country. I was probably around 9 years old, and had already witnessed several years of the practice of Ramadan when I began to understand a bit of what it meant for those surrounding me in Pakistan. As a Christian white kid, it was an annoyance. Why couldn’t we buy Fanta when we were on a family trip? Why did we have to be careful where we had our picnics, to not eat publicly lest we offend?

As I grew, so did my understanding of this faith tradition and the truth claims of Muslims. When I moved to Egypt I would have talks with our Muslim friends about the significance and discipline of fasting and prayer, a reminder of something bigger than we were. We would be warmly invited to attend the iftar celebrations (breaking of the fast) at sunset, eating, laughing and talking with our friends. While during the day the world surrounding us felt oppressive, once the Call to Prayer signified the breaking of the fast, people would break into party mode, eating special foods and drinks late into the night. Colorful Ramadan lanterns were hung on balconies and trees bringing a festive air during the evening, a stark contrast from the heavy atmosphere during the day.

Update 2021: Rachel Pieh Jones new book PIllars is an indepth look at how an outsider grew in knowledge of both Islam and her own faith by living in a Muslim country. You can purchase Pillars here, and listen to some podcasts with the author here.

An Expat Lady & a Ramadan Baby

I originally wrote this piece in 2011, during my first year of blogging. I repost it today in celebration of my “Ramadan Baby” turning 30! 

Date: May 25, 1987

Location: Islamabad, Pakistan

Place: Ali Medical Center

24 years ago today at 10 minutes past midnight I gave birth to my second child. It was the middle of Ramadan and earlier in the evening as I labored, my husband and I began to worry that the doctor, busy breaking the fast at her home, would not make it and we would be left on our own. We needed her assurance in seeing to the safety and health of a woman in transition and a baby that wanted to enter life. My mom, well versed in cultural norms in Pakistan, assured us that the doctor would arrive on time. But as we waited and wondered we were deeply grateful for the calm presence of my mother.

Two babies were born in those hours just past midnight, as the hospital staff ate their fill of Ramadan specialties before dawn came and with it the arduous fast that would not break until 7 or 8 at night. The last azaan, calling the faithful to pray, was heard earlier through the brick walls of the labor and delivery room, ensuring that even those inside would know it was time to break the fast.  At that point all hospital staff disappeared, oblivious to the labor pains of two women, as they rushed to ease their hunger pains..

One of those babies was ours: Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner, born with a head of blond, fuzzy hair and deep blue eyes. I took one look and fell in love with 6 lbs and 12 oz of baby. It was magic. The second baby was also a boy – a little Pathan boy, as dark-haired as Joel was blonde, born to a family who lived in Peshawar. They had made their way to Islamabad for the delivery, ensuring that their first child would be born at a “first class” hospital.

It was a text-book delivery and after 6 hours of laboring and a few pushes, Joel took his first breath and let out a yowl. I don’t even know if yowl is a word but it describes what was a mixture of a yodel and a howl. He was a perfect, 10 fingered, 10 toe’d, baby boy. Dr. Azima Quereshi was the doctor presiding over the delivery. After observing me labor without drugs and breastfeed immediately after birth, she looked at my mom with tear-filled eyes and clutched her arm saying “I’ve read about deliveries like this, but I’ve never seen one!”

The hospital staff enjoyed their own show that night as they sent staff  in by two’s to see “the engraze who had her husband in with her during the delivery.” Something unheard of at Ali Medical Center and most hospitals in Pakistan. “Who wants the men in there?” was the incredulous question voiced by Pakistani friends and acquaintances.

The Pathan family showered the hospital staff and doctor with gifts of fruit, Pakistani sweets of gulab jamun, jalebi’s and barfi, and savories of samosas and pakoras, ensuring a favored place with staff as low on the ladder as cleaning people and as high as surgeons. We were not so favored. A gift of imported Cadbury Chocolates delivered in a fake gold bowl for Dr. Quereshi seemed appropriate and we went on our merry way, taking Joel back home to the F-8 residential area of Islamabad to meet his older sister Annie and settle into a bassinet.

It was only later that we realized our faux pas in not buying treats for the entire hospital. We had failed to publicly recognize the role the rest of the staff had played in helping us deliver a healthy baby boy, which, though not very much, was a huge thing to publicly acknowledge!

And so Joel came into the world and today he turns 24. His blonde hair has turned into light brown, he still has deep blue eyes, and his yowl? That has turned into an infectious laugh, ability to argue anyone into the ground and a great personality.  Happy Birthday Joel – We are so blessed by your life.