The Kindness of Strangers: Ramadan Mubarak
We arrived back in London last night, after a week of pilgrimage cum holiday travel in and around Assisi, Italy. By the time the jet’s wheels rolled on the tarmac, I’d been whining off and on for some hours about my hunger. I planned to buy a snack at Heathrow, since we usually have to wait right next to food shops for the taxi driver to show up. But our driver was there and waiting when we stepped out with our luggage. I began to walk along behind him to the car, dragged down more with every step by the weight of my regret about not having got some food. I grumbled to Elizabeth, working up to some future state of resentment. She stopped walking, perhaps just a bit exasperated with my complaint; she motioned to the driver, and I asked him if he could wait five minutes; he threw me a decidedly sultry wet blanket look.
Then there was a brief moment of mutual adjustment, a flash of openings and closings within each of us. I said, “It’s just that I’m really hungry; I haven’t eaten in hours, and I don’t know if there’ll be food in the house when I get home.”
He said, “You can buy some here.”
“Yes, but I don’t want to waste your time.”
“Go” He had made a different decision within himself, that was clear, “I’ll pay for the parking and wait for you here.”
I got a mushroom and cheese sandwich and a bag of crisps and a bottle of water. As I got into the car, I thanked him profusely for waiting, pressing a five pound note gratefully into his hands, then unwrapping my food before even clicking the seat belt. As the aroma was released from the package, I said, “Oh, I hope the smell of my food doesn’t drive you crazy. If it does, just let me know and I’ll share it with you.”
He laughs. “No, it’s okay.”
“You’ve already eaten? Good.”
“No, I’m fasting. It’s Ramadan; I will not eat until after sunset.”
Suddenly I see my hunger, this food, the fact that I am filling his car with the sound and smell of food on this long summer day that began in the wee hours of the morning and that will end about 9:30 at night. I feel the extraordinary generosity of this working man in his response to my hunger.
“Oh. Then you really must not be too impressed by my hunger. You’re fasting on a very long summer day.”
As we drive along eating, I ask Elizabeth if the standard Arabic greeting is correct for saying goodbye at the end of the ride. No, she tells me, during Ramadan, I should say “Ramadan Mubarak” (may you be blessed this Ramadan).
I wipe my fingers with my napkin, wad up the paper that wrapped my meal. The driver backs into our driveway, unloads our suitcases. As he hands my luggage to me, I say it for the first time ever.
He is surprised, smiles, and thanks me. I hand him the fare as Elizabeth receives her suitcase from his hand, repeating her more practiced rendition, “Ramadan Mubarak.” He is clearly surprised that we have greeted him in terms of his own life and his religious practice. This on the day when he empathized with my hunger and my desire to have some food, while having none himself. This small exchange taking place between ordinary people on the day during which we experienced more passport checkpoints than I have ever encountered, along with several gate changes and unexpected bus rides at the airport in Rome—all safety precautions, after incidents of terrorism in Europe and against European tourists had dominated the European headlines for days.
It had been a week of news extremes—hateful violence in Charleston and Tunisia, Kuwait and France—and also elation, for the Supreme Court decisions on health care and marriage equality. On one hand, the world seemed to be smashing apart; on the other, order and justice prevailing again. What I took from the small and the large of it, from the rage and the joy, is how complex we are, how the generous and the puny, the love and the hate, shift around, creating events that continually surprise us. I felt this happening—the way doors and windows in me and in the taxi driver opened and closed in the micro decisions that went into making a good day’s end for each other. So, I think, let us attend to those micro decisions inside of ourselves.
Ramadan Mubarak, indeed.