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English Page: "Washington Post": Ramadan and my Christian Friends By Mohammad Ali Salih
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Sep 22, 2010 - 8:30:10 AM

“The Washington Post”:


Ramadan and Christianity


My Christian Friends


By Mohammad Ali Salih


For the last few years and whenever possible, at the beginning of every month, our small group of veteran Arab journalists meets for lunch at Washington's National Press Club.
We first met in Washington about 30 years ago, before the Internet, before the cell phone, before satellite television, and when the news about the Arabs and the Muslims were barely on Washington's (and America's) radar.

During the following years we dispersed and regrouped, became fathers and grandfathers, retired and went back to work -- and grew older. Ranging in age from 60 to 80 years, when we meet for lunch we talk about -- in addition to diets, doctor appointments, recent surgeries and Viagra jokes - past events, and we try to be wise when commenting on current ones.

Most in the group are Christians and the rest are Muslims.

When the fasting month of Ramadan coincided with our lunch, the Christians taught me a lesson in tolerance.

One of us, a Muslim, was born in a Palestinian refugees camp in Lebanon; his family was forced to leave Palestine during the establishment of Israel; his father took with him the key of the family's home; and it is now a precious part of his children heritage and they are planning to pass it to their children and grandchildren. Another, a Christian, was born before the establishment of Israel in Haifa which later became part of Israel; he became an Israeli citizen; and struggled with other Israeli Arabs for equal rights. A third, a Christian, was born in Beirut, part of a Christian family that has been known for its strong support of Arab causes and its interest in Arabic literature and heritage. A fourth, a Muslim, was born in Cairo and grew up to become a strong supporter of Arab nationalism that was led, about half-a-century ago, by Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser.

And so on, a variety of backgrounds. I was born and grew up in a small poor village on the Nile River in Northern Sudan, south of the borders with Egypt, in a very conservative Islamic environment.

Even after more than 30 years in America, every day I struggle to be an open-minded person.

So, when Ramadan coincided with our monthly lunch and my Christian friends found that I was fasting, they became uncomfortable, if not mad. One said that I, the lunch organizer, should have postponed it until after Ramadan; another suggested that it was alright with them if I left the lunch "so as not to torture yourself watching us eating"; a third added "and so as not to torture us" for feeling bad for eating in my presence.

When I insisted to stay, they took turns telling stories from their old countries about Christian Arabs and Ramadan. One remembered his father's orders to his children not to eat in front of Muslims during Ramadan; and another said that his family, on a certain day in Ramadan, packed-up the evening meal and took it to their next door Muslim family to share with them breaking their fast at sunset.

One of us the Muslims joined and remembered how Muslims and Christians celebrated together Christmas and the Eid (the end of Ramadan). I also joined and said that when I was a young journalist in Sudan, I covered an annual Ramadan breakfast arranged by Khartoum's Christian leaders in honor of the Sudanese president, a Muslim.

I hadn't personally known a Christian until I was 30 years old, when I came to America. In my village's "madrassa" ("khalwa" in Arabic), I was taught that anyone who was not a Muslim was a "kafir" (infidel).

But when I first met these Arab Christian friends in Washington, I didn't think about their religion; suffice that they were Arabs, spoke Arabic (my native tongue) and shared with me the Arabs' heritage, sorrows and aspirations.

I am sorry to say that it was only after 9/11 attacks and former President Bush's Global War on Terror (GWOT) that I began to think - and wonder - about their religion.
I had realized that the GWOT had religious undertones. I wasn't alone. A Pew poll, at that time, showed that a majority of Muslims in the US said it had "become more difficult to be a Muslim in the US since 9/11."

Another Pew's poll, overseas, showed that favorable opinion of the US in Muslim countries fell to, for example, 12% in Turkey and 15% in Jordan.

A third Pew poll showed that almost half of the Americans believed "Islam is more likely than any other religion to encourage violence among its followers;" a majority approved torturing terrorists to obtain key information; less than 40 percent had favorable view of Islam; and 70 percent of white evangelicals believed Islam was "very different" from Christianity.

One of the Christian friends said, "I don't mean to scare you, but Western Christian animosity of Muslims is just under the surface; it is a mixture of ignorance and arrogance."

But at that Ramadan lunch, and other lunches, our group of Christians and Muslims sincerely wished that the Christian Americans' attitude towards Islam would be like that of the Christian Arabs.

Mohammad Ali Salih is Washington, DC, correspondent for major Arabic publications in the Middle East.

[email protected]


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