Bleary-eyed and carrying a slight headache from jet lag, I stumbled up a concrete staircase to a second-story shop.
It was my second day in Amman, the capital of Jordan, and I found myself accompanying our Palestinian study-abroad program director as he ran errands. To a sweets shop, then an office supply store, afterward a bread shop and then, for our final stop, to the tailor’s to pick up a pair of pants.
In the shop’s cluttered lobby, Abboud, the tailor, met us with the director’s slacks. After the flurry of introductions, Abboud asked me the traditional second question: “What’s your religion?”
“I don’t have one,” I answered, utterly unaware of the rabbit-hole I had just plunged myself down and equally unprepared for the vehemence of his response.
Ten minutes later — a period during which I struggled to cobble together, in Arabic, a defense of my life philosophy as Abboud blazed through the finer points of Muhammad’s words and actions — I retraced my steps down the staircase, head reeling worse than before.
This dialogue repeated itself many times across the country, in taxi cabs and coffee shops, libraries and kiosks. Each conversation reinforced the absolute difference between me and the majority of the Jordanian people.
As a nonbeliever, a fundamental distinction separates me from the Muslim Jordanians — who constitute 92 percent of the country’s population — I encountered every day. Belief in God plays such an integral role in their everyday lives — a hefty percentage of questions or expressions of hope are greeted with the phrase, “If God wills it” — that many simply cannot understand how anyone can live without it.
The moment many people I spoke with learned of my irreligious convictions, I instantly perceived a slight change in the way they viewed me. In their eyes, without God, I had no moral compass; as one zealous defender of the monotheistic philosophy lectured me, without the supreme deity dictating my thoughts and actions, there is nothing to stop me from killing random people on the street. Stalin was an atheist too, he said.
So while I was always treated with respect and kindness, I felt separated from the people around me. There exists no bigger division between people than the trenches dug by religion.
I tried to breach this gulf by relentlessly integrating myself into everyday Amman society. I sipped tea with a roadside bookseller, played chess against a newspaper editor, debated economic policy with Jordanian communists, rolled balls of traditional mansaf in a family’s home — all to no avail. Always eluding me was the answer to that essential question: How do I connect with the Jordanian population, as a whole, at a fundamental level?
In an ironic twist, the answer came during the holiest month of the Muslim calendar.
Ramadan is the month of fasting, when religious practice requires Muslims to abstain from eating and drinking from sunup to sundown. Beyond the introspection and religious reflection that traditionally accompany fasting, Ramadan also strengthens the ties between people as they collectively undertake the difficult task.
Considering the societal implications of this practice, I decided to fast. Immediately, I felt a change in my relationship with the people around me.
On the first day, about 10 minutes before the call to prayer which announced sundown and the end of the fast, I brought a box of dates — a food traditionally used to break the fast — to the lobby of the hotel in which I was staying. Yusuf, a manager with whom I had always been on very good terms, looked at the gift and, understanding the symbolic significance of the dried fruit, asked me, “Are you fasting?”
“Yes,” I responded.
A bright smile appeared on his face, and he quickly stood up to shake my hand.
This dialogue repeated itself innumerable times as the question of “Are you fasting?” quickly supplanted any investigation into my religion. Each time I answered, my new friend smiled, shook my hand and, after forcing me to sit down with him, brought tea or coffee or some food to share.
Fasting opened doors into the society to which I had previously not even had access. Every night of Ramadan, I went downtown with a friend from the program — he also fasted — and stayed there for hours, less an intruder in the community than a part of the group.
We broke fast in restaurants, surrounded by locals, expectantly awaiting the call to prayer alongside them and, as one, digging into the food in front of us when the time came.
After fast, we sat for hours on the broad, round concrete columns near a three-way intersection, whiling away the time until suhoor — the meal eaten before beginning the day’s fast — by talking and laughing with our friends and passersby. While they still existed, the barriers between us were severely diminished because we shared something special. I became a part of the local community.