Oct 05 2008

Ramadan Reveals Importance of Community Versus Individual

Published by at 1:02 pm under Articles

by Daoud Kuttab
Amman, Jordan– Ever since our family returned from the US, I have
been repeatedly asked to compare life in America to life in the
Middle East. For the 2007-’08 academic year I served as a Ferris
Professor of Journalism at Princeton University and a lecturer at the
Near East department.

With our older children working or at college, my wife, Salam, and
our nine year old, Dina, returned to Amman with mixed feelings. I was
happy to be back working as I commuted between my community radio
station in Amman and working as the executive producer in Ramallah of
a new season of shara’a simsim, the Palestinian version of Sesame

It was half way into the holy month of Ramadan that I was able to
internalize the answer to the persistent question about the
difference between the two cultures. We were having an iftar
(breaking the fast) dinner at Rima al Bawadi, an authentic restaurant
in the outskirts of Amman. The clear and unique collective spirit
that I noticed led me to conclude that collective versus individual
is the answer I have been searching for.

I have been thinking about personal versus collective ever since my
youngest daughter wanted to have her own Hotmail e-mail account. With
a few clicks on the key board my daughter was able to have her own
user name, dinakuttab@hotmail.com, and her private password. Neither
me, my family, nor my wife or her family has ever had our own private
mail box. Entire extended families often have a single mailbox with
the patriarch of the family having the key and collecting mail for
the entire family.

The collective spirit, in both its positive (social networking and
protection) and its negative (absence of uniqueness and individual
freedom), is much bigger than individual email accounts versus family
controlled mailboxes. It applies to issues from the family’s role in
deciding your education, your profession and even your spouse.

The four course dinner (without alcohol and with hubbly bubbly) was
for nearly 30 people that included staff and volunteers working in
Radio al Balad, our community radio station, that is slowly creating
a new agenda for independent electronic media in the Arab world.

Muslim faithful are expected to adhere to this one of the five
pillars of Islam. The other four are prayer, testifying (to the one
God and that Mohammad is his prophet), haj (pilgrimage), and zakat
(tying). When the moon appears marking the beginning of the month of
Ramadan, the faithful are expected to abstain from food, drink and
sexual activities during all daytime hours.

Throughout this month families, small and large, as well as NGOs and
companies, hold iftar jami, a collective dinner timed exactly as the
sun sets. Ironically Muslim and Christians, faithful and seculars
participate in this unique collective habit. Even foreigners have
picked up the habit. In one day I got two invitations from foreign
diplomats (one from the US ambassador) inviting me to attend the
collective dinner.

Ramadan is full of other cultural events. People are seen walking
city or village streets till the late hours of the night. Families
and restaurants compete in cooking their fanciest meals. Food is so
big that it is causing many to say that instead of thinking of the
poor and saving money and waistlines, many are spending more and
feasting rather than fasting. For me the favorite sweet is qatif– a
pancake-like dough that is stuffed with nuts or cheese and dipped in
syrup. Most bakeries prepare this sweet only during the month of

Naturally, the all day fasting shortens working hours and
dramatically reduces national production leading some to call this
the lazy month.

Since families and groups are gathered together at sunset, television
producers are quick to take advantage of this captive audience.
Nearly 80% of new productions in the Arab world are produced
specifically to be aired on Ramadan. This year, the highlight has
been a series about the famous Arab singer Asmahan. Another romantic
soap named “Noor” came from Turkey and was dubbed to colloquial
Arabic, capturing phenomenal ratings. TV stations parade their best
looking and least dressed women to give away cell phones, plane
tickets and even cars to the many viewers and callers. The viewership
of Arab television has been so high that an Islamic clerk in Saudi
Arabia condemned the owners of Arab satellite stations to
death. “Those calling for fitna [Arabic for civil strife, or
temptation]… it is permissible to kill them,” chairman of the Saudi
Arabian Supreme Judiciary Council, Sheikh Salih A-Lahidan, said
during a radio show, when asked about channels broadcasting “immoral
programs” during the holy month of Ramadan. The statement was later
watered down.

Islamic law and tradition provide a waiver to the young and the sick
as well as those traveling. Instead they are expected to make a
contribution to a needy family. This year the futra meal to be given
to a poor family should not be less than 2.5 Jordanian dinars(US $4).
This collectiveness and social networking might be one of the major
differences between the individual culture in the West and the
collective culture of the East.

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