I’m Muslim. I’m also from Nebraska. This sounds like it should be the punchline to a joke. My quest for mutual understanding in the reddest of the red states is often funny. Sometimes, it’s inspiring.
Newsflash of the century: Ramadan is coming up.
It’s my third Ramadan ever. Sometimes I feel like I’ve always been Muslim, but other times it feels like I’m still flailing around, trying to find my way. Thanks to the lunar calendar, I associate Ramadan with football, because it was Husker football time the first time I fasted. This ended up being perfect: that year, the night of Laylat ul Qadr was rumored to fall on a football night, and it was beautiful, under stadium lights and stars.
Being Nebraskan 101: “I don’t like football” is phrase you never utter, because either a) it’s a lie or b) you will learn to like it. Every other Saturday, fans pour in from all over the country to fill Memorial Stadium, which, at 80,000 seats, becomes the third largest city in Nebraska. Businesses close. The streets empty. Old people cast their walkers aside to become leaping, screaming fans.
Like everyone I know, my family has season tickets. I go mostly for the food. Funnel cakes, slushies, homemade ice cream, Runzas (beef or beans and cabbage in a bun), and Fairbury Franks (usually kosher beef! who knew?). So for that first Ramadan, football Saturday was absolute misery. Add hijab (red and white! gooooo Huskers!) in direct sunlight and no food, and I was not up to my usual football fan antics.
A few incredibly drunk grad students in the row behind me thought they could cheer me up by pulling me into a group hug. Not okay.
It didn’t help that the old man sitting next to me asked me if I wanted some popcorn, and then, five minutes later, why I wasn’t eating anything. I relish the opportunity to explain my faith to new people, but I grew up in an Episcopal family (no evangelizing whatsoever, no sir), and I’m hard-wired to think that conversations about religion with people who aren’t of your religion make things awkward or make people offended. So I tend to tread lightly.
“It’s Ramadan, sir,” I said.
“Is that Catholic? I don’t mean no disrespect, I’m just curious.”
I also try to explain Muslim holidays and customs in terms of Christianity. It makes things easier to understand, especially considering that most people I talk to about Islam are very relieved that I’m not worshiping “the war god”. Complication: people in Nebraska are very religious, but they’re either very Catholic or very Lutheran. Not much in between. For the Catholics: “it’s like Lent. For the Lutherans: “it’s like, um, fasting for surgery?”.
“Uh…well, I’m Muslim. And during Ramadan we don’t eat during the day. It’s kind of like a spiritual detox.”
“You’re a Muslim? I never met one of those.”
I shake his hand. Memories are made. He buys me a popsicle that I give to the drunk guys behind me.
Forward to next Ramadan. I get called into the school nurses’ office one morning–in the middle of an entertaining econ lecture. (Who knew!) For background, I have fibromyalgia, which is a condition that causes your nerves to misfire and weakens your immune system. Sometimes it sucks; most of the time, it’s NBD (no big deal.) At any rate, the school nurses are way more concerned about me than I am. I mean, there are girls at my school who truly need help–and in no way mean to demean their struggle–but no, they are never the ones called into the office. Always me. Such is my curse.
Nurse Nameless peers at me over her desk.
“Miss Judy in the cafeteria hasn’t seen you there for lunch in two weeks.”
This reminds me of the time I hurt my knee during volleyball in PE. After thoroughly icing and wrapping my joints, Nurse Nameless took me aside to “sensitively” ask me whether or not the stretchmarks on the inside of my legs were from “self mutilation”. (I was kind of ripped from playing football, ice hockey, basketball, and doing horse shows.) Being a freshman, zitty, and extremely self-conscious, I considered beginning self mutilation after being reminded “sensitively” about my freaky legs.
“We’re worried about you, Samantha. Are things okay at home?”
“Ma’am, it’s Ramadan. I’m eating fine, just not at school.”
By my second Ramadan, I assume everyone at school knows that I’m Muslim. I am The White Muslim Chick. In a snooty, WASP-filled public school in the “nice” part of town, I’m kind of a big deal. So it always strikes me as odd and unsettling when someone doesn’t figure it out.
“Ramadan? But you’re–”
“I’m Muslim. I fast for Ramadan.”
She smiles. “I think your spiritual experimentation is beautiful.”
Condescending, sure, but I’m used to it. I still get those comments. It’s been three years, and I’m still a rebellious teenager. (I’m sure I’ll be 90, and I’ll mention to someone that I went to the masjid, and I’ll get a Knowing Look.)
Instead of sticking around to schedule a counselor appointment, I headed downstairs to loiter in the speech room–a safe haven, by any other name. My coach whirled around in his chair. If I didn’t know him so well, this would be terrifying–he’s a burly, grump-with-a-heart-of-gold champion calf-roper who owns a farm-and-ranch operation in Cass County. Think: retired cowboy.
Corn-fed eyebrow raised, he asks, “Cutting class?”
“Nah, I have the period off for a nurses’ appointment.”
A snort. “Cutting yourself again?”
“Wrong again–I’m anorexic.”
Another snort. “You? You eat more food than me, kid.”
He rummages through his desk and tosses something at me. A cupcake. He knows my sweet tooth–this is Shaitan coated in creamy chocolate frosting.
“Well. Let’s see how Muslim you really are.”
On a separate note: how do you girls prepare for Ramadan? Any advice for a third-timer?