NOT JUST ANOTHER RAMADAN 

May 5th I’ll be celebrating Cinco de Mayo at a fundraiser for the Delaware Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, trying to be carefree and not worry that the conjunction of Cinco de Mayo and the first day of Ramadan will upset the space-time continuum and drive my wife to embark on yet another two-week “get vibrantly healthy and stop worrying (about getting vibrantly healthy) plan.” Or that dang asteroid that’s buzzing around with our name on it. Or hemmorhoids. 

I mean, fasting and Cinco de Mayo are poles of behavior. Drinking tequila, wearing stupid hats, and eating beans, vs. eating nothing and praying five times a day. Cinco de Mayo, after all, is about as important in Mexico as St. Patty’s is to the real Irish. Mexican Independence day, which Cinco de Mayo is not, is bigger. Mexico won independence from Spain in September of 1810, and the Spanish were the real bad guys, with the ol’ Inquisition, stealing everything they could get their hands on, and petulantly eradicating the sophisticated Mayan, Inca, and Aztec cultures because they were so far ahead of theirs. Unless you consider burning people at the stake more humane than dragging them up a pile of rocks and tearing their heart out and eating it. Tough one. 

Anyway, the Spanish were long gone by 1862, which is when the Battle of Puebla was fought and the Mexicans drove the French out. That was the end of the famous Franco-Mexican Wars. You remember them, right? 

The French came to Canada for furs, and from there the voyageurs paddled their bateaus down the Mississippi all the way to New Orleans, where they founded fats Domino and invented Mardi Gras. Paddling further, down the Rio Grande, which at that time was connected to Asia, they were disappointed when they found Mexican fauna were mostly lizards. You can make belts and wallets, but not much else from them. Mexican cheese is bland and crumbly, so they lost the Battle of Puebla, on May 5th, 1862, they packed up their bateaus and croissants, leaving only their accordions and a few half-breed offspring of their yappy dogs: choodlehuahuas 

Ramadan, on the other hand, is a deeply religious time, when Muslims the world over fast from sunrise to sunset, after which they gorge. For the past few years, I’ve taught ESL to people named Mohammed (every other Saudi Arabian male) and Abdullah (half the others). They are generally cheerful and chatty folk, who lose about 20% of their energy during this time. 

The Ramadanic dip in spirits was much greater among the Muslim community in Vaughan Correctional, where I once taught College Writing for Del Tech. If you’ve never been inside, it’s a lot like the airport, or, actually more and more everyday like many public humiliations since George Bush started our PATRIOT! wars and empowered the Homeland Security goons. You get wanded and turned about, and put your metals in a tray, and then somebody needs to escort you where you’re going. All of which, since this was pre-9/11, I was unused to, and it put me uptight, until I met Tommy and he got me coffee. Then right after I entered class and wrote my name on the board a hand went up. 

“Do we call you Mister Thompson or Crabmeat?” Everybody laughed, and my shoulders returned to normal. The class turned out to be great fun, since anybody who’s taught a required lower-level English class would find it amazing that those two hours were the high point of every one of the students’ weeks. After class I’d have to shush them out so we wouldn’t get in trouble. Believe me, the guards hated those classes, and whenever possible would confiscate books and materials. What the hell. These cons were on a scholarship program, and the guards in general were only mildly literate. Sometimes I’d pass on a good read to the cons, and it would make the rounds of every cell in the joint. I got a capsule view of what higher ed might mean to these guys when one of my students, who had read The House of the Seven Gables and not much else, referred everything to the book, with specific examples. Like: “We get paid so little working in the laundry here, that we need to squirrel away every penny, just like Hepzibah Pyncheon in House of the Seven Gables. 

Ramadan in the prison was definitely not a good time. Those inmates who were Muslim couldn’t really work around the regular meal routine, and when they finally got fed—after dark—they raised hell and kept the others awake. In my class I had the Imam of the prison Muslims, a little guy I’ll call named Boban Abdullah Marjonavich (not his real name), who was extremely erudite, having published an Arabic lexicon and a biography of Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan came to visit him once, and arranged for a woman to marry him, too. 

Boban had a big brain, and it’s often the case that bright students can wear you out in class. I lost patience with Boban at one point, as he was rambling on and on about Whitey. I interjected that, since he’d been off the streets for sixteen years, he lacked a realistic grasp of things. I knew that would grab him, and I hated myself for bringing to his mind any concept of time divorced from jail time, which is where you walk as slowly and relaxed as possible, thereby using all the temporal space you can, which somehow enlarges your Self, if only in your mind, which is your only space, anyway. The rest is Theirs. 

I can’t remember Boban’s exact words, but I had him buzzing like a hornet, and we were maybe within yards of coming to blows, when I pulled the rug out. 

“Are you hungry?” I laughed. Boban gasped, tried to hold himself in, and then roared with laughter. 

“God damn you. I’m starving.” 

Ramadan was a bit tense in Smyrna, as the Muslims were on edge with hunger, and many of the Christians were unsympathetic. Clarence, another of my students, and a wife-murderer, was making a strong bid for parole with his steady church attendance, and wore a huge cross on his chest. During Ramadan he brought bags of pork rinds to class and crunched along. I thought it humorous, and after all, how much fun can you have in the joint?

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