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Ramadan, Basilicas and Diversity in Khartoum

How does a Western woman living in Sudan’s capital experience Ramadan?

October 12, 2007

How does a Western woman living in Sudan's capital experience Ramadan?

Our plane touched down in Khartoum as we were returning to the city from a business trip. The pilot extended his warmest welcome to those of us for whom Khartoum was our final destination.

Then, he reminded us that it is strictly forbidden to eat, drink, or smoke in public during daylight hours in the country at this time. “Enjoy your stay!”

The holy month of Ramadan is upon us. Ramadan, the month in the Islamic calendar during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sundown, is a spiritual practice that reminds those who observe it about the importance of caring for the poor, being with family — and being free from addictions.

To believers, God provides all that is needed. Therefore, we should remember what it is to be hungry — and share what we have with others. The attitude of abundance that is demonstrated in this practice is a truly beautiful thing.

At the same time, it is also hard for those of us who do not observe Islamic practices — but live in a land dictated by shari’a law — to appreciate the philosophy behind those dictates. Especially when you are coming home from a long day of travel and can’t find a bottle of water or a foul and ta’miyyah sandwich anywhere.

It didn’t always used to be this way, our local friends remind us. Sudan is a multiethnic country (to say the least, with an estimated 500 ethnic groups and 130 languages spoken) — and it is rich with religious diversity.

It is hard to cite exact numbers since a census has not been completed in more than 20 years. But the best guess is that the largest religious minority is the one quarter of the country’s population which follows indigenous practices. The majority are Sunni Muslims, and the second-largest minority are Christians.

A brief tour around the capital city takes you by a rather austere Anglican cathedral, a neo-gothic Catholic basilica right on the Nile, a Coptic church and huge Coptic community center complete with basketball court — and an ornate Ethiopian Orthodox church.

There are also communities of Maronite Christians, Armenian Apostolic Christians, Sudan Church of Christ— and Seventh Day Adventists. The Jewish population in Sudan has decreased significantly during the wars of the last two decades, but a small population still exists in Khartoum.

Religious groups are required to register with the state as non-governmental organizations and must obtain permits to gather, purchase land and establish their buildings. This is often a long and arduous process, but freedom of religion is guaranteed under Sudan’s 2005 Interim National Constitution.

Major Islamic centers of note in Khartoum and environs include the uber-modern El Neelain Mosque (at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles), the Khartoum Grand Mosque (the largest in the city), the Egyptian-style Farouq Mosque downtown, Khartoum University Islamic Center — and the bright aqua-colored Sayda Sanhori Mosque.

Unlike the process of finding a Christian church in the right denomination and with services that match your specific preferences, most practicing Sunni Muslims in Sudan gather and pray at the mosque in their local neighborhood.

The Sufi influences in this region and across North Africa are also strong. Every Friday evening at Hamed El-Nil Mosque, hundreds of people gather to participate with and observe Khartoum’s whirling dervishes.

We have visited a number of these places of worship in the five months that we have been here — both out of the desire to learn more about the local cultures and to meet our own needs for spiritual communities.

Most recently, we attended a service at the Catholic basilica. As we walked in, we were surprised at how full the pews were.

Perhaps it is because we have grown cynical about the state of Christianity in the United States. There, we had grown estranged from much of the population that call themselves Christian — and we had watched the attendance at local community-based progressive churches dwindle in the shadows of the ballooning suburban megachurches.

When we sat down, the bells in the tower began to ring in the start of the service, and the most peculiar howling rose up alongside.

I listened perplexed for a bit, and then remembered the gangs of street dogs out in this, and nearly every, neighborhood in the city. Apparently they had some praising to do, too.

There were no hymnals, and when the first hymn started, my heart sunk. Oh no! I thought this was going to be in Arabic, but I’m not understanding a single word of these lyrics!

Then, when it ended, and the first prayer began, I realized that, yet again, I had failed to pick up on the Sudanese dialect (or perhaps it was really a more distant Southern dialect that I hadn’t yet been exposed to anyway?!).

As the service proceeded, I limped along, catching words and phrases as I could. I consoled myself, thinking: At least if I don’t understand every word, I can’t get caught up in the battle of semantics I find myself fighting so often in English-language liturgies.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about overuse of patriarchal, hierarchical or exclusivist language this morning. All nuances were pretty much lost on me. I was just going for recognizable vocabulary most of the time.

Since I wasn’t able to comprehend a good part of what was going on, I used the time to take in my surroundings and make some personal observations.

The rough wood cross in the front near the chancel had a string of blinking green and white fairy lights wrapped around it and was hard to miss.

I also momentarily lost myself in hymns accompanied by a stadium-style Hammond organ, forgetting that I was any different from those sitting around me. That is, until I looked down — and saw the shockingly white skin on my hands again.

Most memorable was the pervasive sense of welcome we felt as, after the “Sharing of the Peace,” we followed the model of our pew neighbors. We looked up and around at the other congregants beyond our reach and waved to them, mouthing “As-Salaamu alekum, wa alekum as-Salaam” to all within sight.

This was a community whose cups of welcome, hospitality and desire for peace runneth over. It is very like the generosity of spirit and extended sense of a familial community that I observe in this time of reflection, purification and re-direction during Ramadan.

This double take was a clear reminder that all the world’s religions teach us ways to change. And they remind us that the very nature of our living means that we are changing — ever growing, ever dying.

But we have the choice to decide whether we experience these changes as positive or negative — whether we are changing for the better, for the greater good or not.

Surely it can be very hard, and nearly impossible, to see all changes as for the good. But we do have the power to affect the ways we adapt to changes — and how we react. Spiritual practices, whether fasting or praying, community service or praising, are tools that help us make the right choices.

To me as a Western woman living in Sudan, it felt like a privilege to be reminded for an entire month of the importance of refining these practices — and re-committing to changes that benefit the greater good.