Greetings friends and other readers.
Again I must apologize to any who’ve been looking here for regular inspiration, stimulation or information about yours truly. Allow me to sum up the last month a bit. Following my return to Finland from the United States I jumped straight into the process of settling my affairs in there to free myself to move on to South Africa. Without going into too many details about that process I can just say that I managed to get an extended multiple entry visa, sell my car, find a new home for my dog, secure my sabbatical pay for the academic year and sell, give away, throw away or temporarily store all but the 60-some kilograms of personal belongings that I was able to take with me. No mean feat, believe me!
The final emptying out of my apartment and settling of accounts with my landlord was the last thing that was left hanging. Since the former colleague who verbally agreed back in May to take over my lease this summer reneged on his promise in the end of July, I was rather left hanging. Curses on that individual aside, I had to leave my largest pieces of furniture in the house waiting for the people from the recycling center to come fetch them. My younger son who had shared the apartment with me thus inherited the job of letting them in and showing them what to take. As it turned out though, they refused to take most of my furniture even as donations, and poor Kris had to recruit some friends and rent a van to take most of it to the dump! Talk about adding insult to injury…
But with all of that said and done, as of August 5th, I have now arrived in South Africa and set up camp for myself in Cape Town, or more specifically on the False Bay side on the peninsula just south of the Cape Flats. Life here is sweet in many respects, but there are still many things that will take me months to adjust to properly: driving on the opposite side of the road, shadows moving counter-clockwise, a variety of local accents with entirely different vowel sounds than what I’ve learned to recognize thus far, and a heightened sense of security awareness necessary to prevent baboons (yes, real live, human-sized hairy creatures that I’d never seen in the wild before) and extremely poor people from attacking one’s belongings.
Somewhat complicating the process of adjusting to those matters is an entirely different adjustment: Ramadan. As many of my contacts here are from the Cape Malay Muslim community, I have chosen to join them in observing their sacred month of fasting from dusk until sundown each day. As it is now winter in South Africa, this is not a major physical hardship, but it does put some added stress and limitations on my mind and body. It has also involved its own learning curve for me in terms of what is and isn’t allowed, what works for keeping one’s blood sugar and mental energy at sustainable levels, and what is traditionally expected in terms of rituals to start the fast each morning and break the fast each evening. I’m not complaining; I’m more just providing explanations / making excuses for how little I’ve been able to observe and write about in the past few weeks.
Truth being told, I have at least 3 half-written or mostly written blog entries on file here. I still haven’t provided my personal perspectives on the philosophy teaching conference I was at in June, I still haven’t commented about the recent Norwegian tragedy, and I still haven’t given a retrospective on the half of my life (thus far) that I spent in Finland. (And to answer the obvious question: I’m officially scheduled to return to Espoo next year as my career default setting, but I’m not at all sure I will do so. Watch this space for further information as it develops.) But with my contemplations on each of those issues still somewhat “in process” I thought it the proper thing to do to at least provide this scrap of personal information for those who wish to know where my subjective perspectives are coming from.
As to the whole Ramadan thing in itself, it is important for me not to pretend that I entirely get it, but I can say a thing or two about what it has meant to me. To start with I feel there is a certain value to restraining ones appetites on purpose for a certain period of time every now and again, regardless of what religious or secular motivations one has in doing so. On other blog forums I have mentioned how giving up certain things for Lent has been a positive experience for me, even if I don’t necessarily believe that it brings me closer to God in the process. I can merely appreciate being able to overcome my own silly habits and mild addictions for such a time. Some people, however, are not so prone to do follow “suggestions” on temporary lifestyle limitations. It takes a pretty strong religious compulsion for them to inconvenience themselves in such a way. So if an absolute religious mandate is what it takes, that may well be the best thing in the world for them. Thank God some of them have Ramadan.
But beyond the individual experience of controlling one’s appetites, Ramadan also gives Muslims a sense of solidarity in their shared feelings of hunger. As I see it, the balance between a personal, individual sense of spirituality and a shared communal experience of worship is one of the key issues in any religion. Both aspects are entirely necessary, and emphasizing one at the expense of the other is inevitably problematic. Knowing that my own brand of Christianity probably errs a bit on the side of the individualized then, I can at least respect the practices of another faith which enforce a shared experience. Of course I see risks in going too far in the collective direction as well, but I’m not going to pretend that I know enough to judge my Muslim friends on such matters. For now I’m just trying to respectfully follow along with this aspect of their communal experience for its own sake, even though I’m not really part of their religious community.
To me it is obvious that the biggest reason for the difference between where my Muslim friends are at and where I am at is that we were born into different traditions and cultural customs. The fact that every human tradition has some gross human problems associated with it also goes without saying here. Mutual respect will be necessary regardless of the practical shortcomings of those on “the other side”, which are far too many to itemize here. As one old friend of mine who was a Baptist minister in northern England once told me that a wise old Imam once said to him, I don’t think we know each other well enough to argue yet. I very seriously doubt that they will convert me or that I will convert them, but that is not the point. The point, for me at least, is to understand each other in terms of the value we find in our respective traditions, and to eliminate as much of the ignorant and irrational hatred between our groups as possible. For me that has to begin with my making a sincere effort to understand and appreciate their teachings and rituals for what they are. In that I’m only in the very early stages, so it is no surprise that when it comes to the deeper spiritual meaning of this month for Muslims, beyond just the state of mind brought on by shared voluntary self-deprivation, I really can’t get it, yet.
Is it just crap luck or a good thing that this year Ramadan happens to fall right on my first month in a new country, where I am trying to build contacts with people of as many different backgrounds as possible? That I can’t say, other than it just is what it is. The bright sides of it include a certain element of taking things slow as I get started here, and a possibility to build some mutual respect through my voluntary participation, even if I am rather clumsy about it.
So in short there is a bit of mea culpa here, as usual, combined with a renewed claim that things are just getting interesting, so stay tuned. And until next time, for all of my friends and other readers –– non-theists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or from points in between –– I wish you a sincere “as-salamu alaykum”: peace and blessings be with you –– hoping that a bit of such good will bounces back at me.