Ramadan has come to an end and I am taking a moment to reflect on all that the past month has taught me. While I did not participate in fasting for various reasons, I was fortunate to experience most other traditions and was able to soak in the essence of this holy month. I won’t pretend to wholly understand Ramadan because I truthfully do not. I don’t know much more than that it is a month of fasting in honor of the beginning of the Quran, which was initially unveiled to Muhammad from the angel Gabriel. For the first three weeks of Ramadan, I, personally, was largely unaffected. It was very difficult to find food as most vendors were closed for the month and the energy of both my fellow teachers and students was lacking, but that was about it. During the last week of Ramadan, I was able to indulge in some delicious feasts and break fast with some authority figures within my community including the head of the Islamic Committee of Satun, which was admittedly pretty cool. Did you know that when Muslims break fast, they begin with dessert? I didn’t either. Then, of course, I celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan. On Eid, I joined some of the locals in going house to house and being offered food, food, and more food. It was wonderful for someone who loves eating as much as I do. And I even got to wear traditional Islamic wear, hijab included.
So there’s a synopsis of my Ramadan experience. What is more important for me to talk about, however, is all that Islam has taught me during my first three months of service in Satun. One of my favorite things about my village is that it is predominantly Muslim. When I initially applied to Peace Corps Thailand, I did not have the slightest clue that there was a possibility I could be placed in a primarily Muslim village. One of the things I was most looking forward to about coming to Thailand was gaining a better understanding of Buddhism because of my love of yoga. It wasn’t until about midway through training that I discovered there was a very slight chance I could be one of the five volunteers placed in Satun.
But Islam and the devout Muslims I am surrounded by have done more for me in my first three months of service than I could have ever anticipated. The women have become grandmothers, mothers and sisters. The men have become fathers and brothers. They always make sure I am fed and if I don’t finish the food on my plate because im lao (I am already full), I am told that I am in fact not full and need to finish my plate. And then subsequently told, “gin kao yut yut” (eat a lot of food) as more rice is thrown my way, just as any of my Italian family members would do, only with pasta (gluten free for me, of course). They genuinely worry like my own mother would when I have so much as a stomachache or migraine (two things that happen a lot). They invite me to their family dinners, teach me to make local dishes like som-tam, bring me smoothies and/or fresh fruit almost daily, accompany me to the local market and some even like me so much that they ask me if I am interested in being introduced to their son because they’d like me to marry him.
But most importantly, Islam has brought me closer to my own faith. A very select few of my friends know just how much I have struggled with faith in my lifetime, particularly over the past eight years. While it is true that I have rediscovered my relationship with God in the past two years, I still experience moments of reluctance and hesitation. The hardships I have endured have often left me wondering how there can a God that would not only allow me to experience such pain in the first place, but watch me continue to suffer and not intervene. I’ve come to learn that God doesn’t throw anything our way that we aren’t equipped to handle thanks to experience from previous trials and tribulations. But realizing this doesn’t make actually believing this any easier when I’m feeling distressed.
Witnessing the devotion of my Muslim friends, however, has not only peaked my interest in Islam itself, but inspired me to reconnect with my own faith on a much deeper level. Throughout my 23 years on earth, I have struggled to willingly make it to church for one hour 52 days a year while these people find joy in praying five times per 24 hours. I find it difficult to do so much as not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. And don’t even get me started on what it’s like for me to give up candy for a full 40 days. So during Ramadan, I was awestruck by their commitment to fasting, regardless of external factors like climate or physical exertion. I am continually amazed by the undying dedication. Their faith isn’t a chore and it isn’t tedious. It is their way of life. And it leaves me asking myself… what more can I do for my faith? For my God?
While I don’t have all the answers… well, do any of us ever have all of the answers? Anyway, while I don’t have answers, I am grateful for the inspiration my community has offered me to dig deeper into my relationship with God, to ask those internal questions that are often easier to evade and to be at ease with where I am in regards to my faith. Another lesson I have learned is this: the reason it is often so hard for me to turn to God is because of the guilt I feel when doing so. I feel selfish because I only talk to God when I need Him, when I need His help. But I feel guilty because I am unable to fathom the forgiveness that God has in His heart for all of us, for all of His sinners. God doesn’t begrudge me for struggling with my faith as I have. God forgives, God understands and God is patient. Three things I surely need to work on and some of the virtues I am hoping to improve upon throughout my service. My faith is a work in progress, but I am grateful for the daily inspiration I receive from my community members for bringing me even one step closer to where I want to be.