After an exhausting 15 hour flight, all I wanted was a cold beer.
I was looking at a nine hour layover in the Middle East, and in hopes of passing the time, I sought to make friends in one of the airport’s lounges. Approaching a smiling attendant, I inquired if she had a drink list, to which she replied, “I am so sorry, sir, but it is Ramadan.”
With no explanation, she moved along, leaving me somewhat curious and with several questions. I had a limited understanding of this month for Muslims. I knew fasting was an important part of the tradition, and I knew that its observation was significant for the Muslim community. What I did not understand was why I could not order a beer.
I struck up a few conversations with some fellow patrons, asking for more clarity. One person explained that, since many consider drinking alcohol in public during the holiest month of the year highly offensive and disrespectful, alcohol is not served. In this Muslim-dominant country, most passengers in transit are faithful followers of Islam, and certain policies were adopted out of respect for those observing Ramadan.
I felt a tension… I had just gotten off this plane, dazed and disoriented from the time zone changes. But I thought the cosmopolitan, international environment of the airport would offer familiar comforts, however far I was from home.
On one hand, I had what I believed was a reasonable expectation for a weary traveller; on the other hand, I had a desire to respond respectfully to the cultural expectations of the place I was present. Responding out of sensitivity to certain cultural expectations seemed to offer a chance to break out of my bubble and recognize the realities of our multicultural world. Was drinking alcohol in public worth the display of disrespect? After conversing with my new friends and learning a little more about the policy, the invitation toward respect felt like the most natural and loving response.
Surprisingly, this mundane exchange about ordering a drink gave me an opportunity to learn more about this Abrahamic religion and its traditions. Most Muslims take the expectations of Ramadan very seriously. It is a time of fasting, prayer, community, and charity. As a traveler in transit through an international airport, growing in understanding of this religious tradition was unexpected, and it is one for which I am grateful.
As most Muslims around the world conclude Ramadan over the next few days, I hope that peace and understanding might continue to underlie our cultural encounters. And by the way, the lemon mint water was a much more refreshing option, anyway.
For more information on Ramadan, see here and here.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Omar Chatriwala.