No sex! No food! No cigarettes! Not even a sip of water! No cursing! No backbiting! From well before sunrise to after sundown! For 29 or 30 days! Only Muslims would get hypomanic with such news, and I know, because we have been—for 1,400 years. Not to mention the special prayers, or taraweeh, the staying up into the late hours, when, Muslims believe, we can be closest to God. Only the true lover stays up well into the darkness of night.
The ninth month of Islam’s lunar calendar, Ramadan skips backwards roughly eleven days every Gregorian year, a profound instance of fairness—for, unmoored from the seasons, no one part of the world has to endure an especially rough Ramadan regularly. (Imagine if Ramadan came in the Stockholm summer every summer.) But it’s in the Muslim world that you best get that special starvation feel of the holy month.
The world reorients itself, so that people overeat, overpray, and oversleep. But all the same, a practice as fulfilling and renewing as Ramadan inspires its own subculture (if that’s what you call the habits and norms of well over a billion people), so I’ve adapted a specialized Ramadan dictionary first featured on my incipient Tumblr blog, which can help you understand how Muslims experience this sacred time of year. ‘Tis the season…
Anticipatory Iftar Induction Syndrome [AIIS]: Muslims can’t form lines, except for daily prayers, and can’t get anywhere on time, except for sundown, when it’s a kind of punctual free-for-all. But then there’s that one guy who, despite being just as capable of hearing the adhan (call to prayer) as you or I still breaks his fast (iftar literally means ‘breakfast’) early. Doesn’t he have that cheesy adhan alarm clock that they used to sell at ISNA, which for those who don’t know is, along with Star Trek conventions, the world’s largest gathering of virgins? (ISNA is really the Islamic Society of North America.)
Cannondan: In Ottoman times (1299-1924; I’d suggest Mohammad Morsi chew on that, but he’s fasting—and disappeared), a cannon was fired three times immediately before the maghrib (sunset) adhan, giving folks a head’s up that iftar was right upon them, except for the ancestor of the AIIS guy above, already digging in and chowing down.
In modern Turkish, this is spelled ‘Kannonlardanoglubeglar’ (or: ‘to fire a cannon while riding on a horse across EU lines while debating membership’). Today this no longer happens (neither cannons nor the EU), because Muslims generally only fire modern versions of cannons at each other and being Muslim, ‘miss,’ except there being so many of us (guess what we can do after iftar! Hint: you might be ‘it’), some of us die anyway. See also: Population Control.
Date: At any other time of year, you have no chance. Now your fridge holds dozens, more than enough to share with others, and Ramadan isn’t Ramadan except with shared iftars and an even more social calendar. The especially socially awkward (known elsewhere as Muslim ‘men’) turn into insufferable date snobs this time of year, probably because they’ve never been on and will never go on dates otherwise: ‘I prefer Ajwa dates, myself, [faux cough], especially when I’m on holiday in Musandam.’
Musandam is Arabic for ‘the Hamptons.’
As for actual dates (of the non-palm tree variety), as long as you ask her out from a distance—like ten feet from your mouth. Non-dictatorial Mubaraks (congratulations) to the guy who can get a girl to go out with him for not-coffee (he’s fasting) by asking her out while covering his mouth with one hand and using his other hand to confirm, via tape measure, safe distance. We salute you because we cannot bow before your awesomeness, because that’d be idolatrous, and we all know how Islam feels about statues.
Date-seed: Elderly South Asian gentlemen (non-relatives nevertheless uniformly called ‘uncle’) have for years been persuading little children that, if they accidentally swallow the date seed, a palm tree will start growing in their stomach. Uncle thinks this is funny. Meanwhile I was vomiting all night in the bathroom, terrified a huge tree would burst into life in my midsection, tearing out my neck and ripping my skull in half, leaving a bloody arboreal Punjabi mess—all because of one accidentally swallowed seed. Oh yeah, I slashed your tires. Who’s stuck in the jinn-infested masjid parking lot after nighttime Ramadan prayers now, sucker? See also: that special Ramadan spirit.
Dual Imamate: When the person next to you is reciting his prayers so loudly you begin to follow him (her) instead of, you know, the actual Imam, although this is congregational prayer and only one person’s supposed to be in charge. But this guy thinks the dude with the microphone is the next Hosni Mubarak and he’s representing Tahrir Square, and he’s not going to take (the Imam’s recitation of Qur’an) anymore. See also: Arab Spring, spillover of.
Eid: ‘Die’ spelled backwards, because that’s how you feel when you stuff your face early in the AM after doing the very opposite for 29 or 30 days; also, a holiday celebrated across the Muslim world at the conclusion of Ramadan (and another one, concluding the Hajj, some seventy days apart. Did you think of 72 virgins? Good for you.) Because it comes right after Ramadan, Eid marks the return of Satan, who is kept on lockdown throughout the holy month, which means on Eid you wake up without the go-get ‘em spirit that’d otherwise have you racing to the masjid like speed limits were mere suggestions. Satan’s back.
Iftarded: How you feel after you’ve eaten way too much for iftar, the Ramadan breakfast that takes place right after sundown; you start breaking down spiritually, psychologically, and God help us gastrointestinally. This generally happens most severely in the company of others, which makes securing a date less likely, and reveals the wisdom of gender segregation at most traditional Iftarties.
Iftarties: An iftar party, which is like a party except during the first half, people suffering starvation and dehydration try talking to each other and in the second half endure overeating and indigestion while pretending to talk to each other. This is ‘fun,’ even ‘enjoyable,’ and allegedly ‘memorable,’ in the way a coma might be. Michael, an Al-Jazeera producer who read my original post suggested adding ‘Iftar-B-Q,’ which is like lighting things on fire, except you’re delusional and starved of nutrition. Only good can come of this.
Khutzpah: ‘Can you believe the Imam went on and on for 45 minutes in his Friday sermon (Khutbah)? How’s he not dying of thirst?’ 1. Friday is the Muslim Sunday (er, Saturday), except it’s spelled differently. 2. The Imam probably died in his office while people wondered how he could do that. 3. It’s even harder for Muslims to grasp shoe racks when they’re hungry. (We scatter our shoes everywhere, instead of on the shelves, to slow down any potential police raid into our dens of terror, filled with hungry people with bad breath.) Also known as khutzbah, because some of us (Arabs are 20% of the Muslim world) can’t add two more dots under the “ب”.
Last 10 Nights of Ramadan: Of special sacredness, marking the initial revelation of the Qur’an to the Prophet Muhammad, from God, via the Archangel Gabriel. Practically speaking, this just means the 27th night, because who after all can make an effort for ten whole nights every year?
Masjid-Hopping. Like bar-hopping except more likely to get you into heaven. You may, however, wake up where you didn’t expect to, such as beside your slashed tires in the mosque parking lot—but you deserved it. Many Muslims, especially in Muslim countries, bounce between various mosques, looking for better khutbahs (see entry before last), awesome qira’ah (Qur’an recitation), or good-looking ‘sisters’—we don’t date our actual sisters; calm down, right-wing.
If they’re leaving roundabout taraweeh, that special late-night Muslim prayer, you already know something about their attitude to faith. Good pick-up lines include, “What’s your favorite masjid?” Bad pick-up lines include: “Guess what I like to break my fast with?” If you don’t get it, it’s okay, you’ll just die a virgin. At least Allah loves you.
Moon-Sighting Committee: Three or four ‘uncles’, some of them embracing Ramadan by wearing the traditional dress of their countries of ancestral origin, go up to a mountain right around sundown, with telescopes, binoculars, and lotas, wearing shalwar qamiz, to see if they can see the first crescent moon, which marks the beginning of the lunar month (in this case of Ramadan). Guess what happens?
A: It’s Eid, but not for Muslims so much as for the local police department. Ramadan + deportation: Bonus points on Pakistan International Airlines. Which, like fasting breath (when you don’t eat for a long time, your breath starts to kick), nobody wants to get near. See also safe distance.
Namauzea: Namaz is the Persian word for ‘prayer,’ and is traditionally used by all the peoples who were introduced to Islam by Persians or Persophones, which is kind of like a talking cat. (Think Bravo’s Shahs of Sunset with less nausea and more plot.) Everyone from Bengalis to Bosnians, basically. Nausea is, well, nausea. The combined term describes what happens when the person next to you in congregational prayers keeps burping up the bad decision that was his iftar (her iftar?—ew), making you feel gross and vomity. (It’s especially bad if you can tell what exactly he ate, and—oh God, the horror—in what order. Hint: Whatever you smell, work backwards chronologically.)
Parking Lota: Hey, maybe you think, after all this, that Muslims are weird. But you know what we think’s weird? Not washing yourself after using the bathroom. Seriously—toilet paper? It’s called a ‘lota,’ and it looks like a watering can, and if you’ve ever for some inexplicable reason had a drink from the alleged watering can in your brown friend’s bathroom, go vomit your ignorance out. ‘Lota’ is the South Asian word for this implement, and the South Asian word wins, because we’re one-third of Muslims, so demography rules; built-in ‘Muslim showers’ today come in the form of hoses or in-toilet jets, present from Bangkok’s airport to Istanbul’s. A parking lota is just one you keep in the car for, you know…
Ramada: Hotel chain that has been confusing recently-arrived immigrants to the United States since at least 1965. Actually has nothing to do with Ramadan, Shari’ah, or jihad. Except for the verbal associations I’ve just established in your head.
Ramadan Mubarak: Ancient and widely forgotten Ramadan greeting, meaning ‘Blessed Ramadan,’ long since replaced by “Ramadan Kareem” (Noble Ramadan), “Ramadan Revolution”, “Ramadan El-Sisi, Savior of the Nation and Unappointed Defender of Democracy” (but it wasn’t a coup), “Ramadan El Baradei” (barf), or anything that doesn’t embarrassingly associate you with that guy who, you know, ruled that one country for a really long time and drove it into a ditch like he was late for Iftar and was losing consciousness. Maybe Mitt Romney?
Ramad’oh: Suggested by a friend for when you forget you’re fasting and scarf down the whole chocolate cake before, you know, you remember. In the Muslim belief, we say, ‘God fed you by making you forget.’ Because the Muslim God is one of love and compassion (contrary to common [mis]perception.)
Ramadone: You know, there’s an hour to go, and… ugh. Just. Don’t.
Ramadundant: The “conversations” you and your Iftarty guests have in the thirty-odd minutes that separate their arrival, zombie-like, at your house, from the serving of dates. Most conversations, if they take place at all, have to do with food; it is the verbal foreshadowing of Instagram (meaning that, in addition to originally inventing everything else, Muslims also invented Instagram, even though pictures are forbidden). We made iconoclasm cool. Also washing yourself after using the bathroom.
Safe Distance: Through trial and error, that individually specific distance you determine it is necessary to keep between yourself and others so that they don’t catch a whiff of (your) Ramadan breath and are permanently turned off from Islam, causing you go to hell for keeping people from the beauty of monotheism because, well, good God your breath smells horrible; also, if your safe distance is more than ten feet, make a post-Ramadan appointment with yourself, if you are a dentist, or if not your cousin, who is, because something’s dying in there and imagine what it’d look like if it came back to life on the Day of Judgment. Walking Dead.
Shaytan (Satan): Enemy of humanity, nemesis of all that is good in the world, obdurate opponent of God’s plan for humanity, tempter of Adam and Eve, once-pious but now devilish jinn, locked down for the 29 or 30 days that constitute the 9th month of the Islamic calendar. During this time, it is apparently totally legit for men and women to be alone together because, you know, Satan’s gone. (Also: Everything you do wrong is now without a shred of a doubt wholly and inescapably your failures as a person. So that kind of sucks, but at least you know it’s you that sucks.)
Shoe Rack: Evil device designed by Shaytan or his minions, which has prevented the renaissance of Muslim culture because we just stand there, scratching our heads, thinking, “how does this work?” “Maybe I put my foot into it?” “Is this the women’s section?”
Stimulus Package: Sudden boost in revenue at grocery stores anywhere Muslims live in large numbers. Hint: If you think buying food while you’re hungry can help the economy, grocery shopping in Ramadan could save the Eurozone and prevent a Grexit.
Suhouri: Suhur: Meal you eat right before the fast begins. Houri: Shatteringly beautiful, apparently human but not actually human companion provided to you in paradise, assuming you make it there. You don’t like the fact that Muslims want to have sex in heaven? You can keep your angels on clouds which sounds hella boring to me; Muslims don’t believe the spiritual and physical can be separated. (Also, while houris look like people, they were created for heaven, which means sex with aliens, which means we are the ultimate sci-fi nerds, except unlike sci-fi nerds, our problem is an excess of non-virginity.)
When you stumble downstairs, looking and feeling as if you’ve just risen up from death (hopefully not naked, as Muslim tradition describes our resurrection with all humanity for Judgment, but, you know, that’s between you and anyone you tell and judges you for it), and a beautiful person has your pre-fast meal prepared for you. This person is your suhouri, your beautiful best friend in the world. No greater gorgeousness can be imagined or described. (Despite this beauty, please keep an eye on small children, who may fall asleep and drown in cereal bowls because they are like ‘dear God why am I awake and these Froot Loops look so comfortable to just rest my face in and….)
Surveillance: NSA, FBI and NYPD agents assigned to mosques easier to find during Ramadan—they’re crankier, look like they haven’t slept, and have kicking breath. Also awkwardly walking around with date seeds in their hands and/or pockets, because they have no idea what to do with them.
Tarareflux: The “special” backwash of acid, iftar, and a generally lackadaisal approach to health that pops up somewhere between the third and fourth unit of taraweeh, the special prayer celebrating the Qur’an during Ramadan, which tests your faith. During the course of Ramadan, Muslims try to read the entire holy book, and attend nightly prayers in which a thirtieth of God’s word is recited (ideally allowing for a full recitation by the end of the month.) It’s a way we live, celebrate, and surround ourselves with Qur’an. To hear what this sounds like, at least by a more famous reciter, check this out. He is one of my personal favorites; the superstars of Qur’an recitation are celebrities and get masjid-hopped. Internationally. The first verses he recites praise God and connect the Qur’an to prior revelation, specifically the Torah and Gospel.
Ummah: The global fraternity and sorority of Muslims, stretching from the time of the Prophet to the end of the world, united by disagreeing over when Ramadan starts or how many taraweeh to pray and then we think that because we can’t agree on a date (get it, date? Ha! [I’d say ‘I kill me,’ but we’re already in brackets and imagine how that could be misinterpreted!]), we’re all going to hell, and that explains why we can’t get anything done, as opposed to, say, not trying to get anything done, which might explain things. Also we like crescent moons, because they tell us when we’ll be hungry and when we’ll be partying—Muslim style. You know, no booze, no girls. (Then you wonder why paradise is the way it is.)
Post-script. In all seriousness—Ramadan is amazing. I’m celebrating my first month in a Muslim country, and it’s so incredibly spiritually and psychologically uplifting to be in a culture that is saturated with worship, with remembrance, with charity—Muslims are crazy generous in Ramadan; you can get a free iftar almost anywhere—and the experience of fasting, and then breaking fast with friends, family, and other people of faith, creates a sense of community that is profoundly hard to communicate except to experience it firsthand. If you have the chance, I highly recommend it. Have a blessed Ramadan.