Catherine Trombley: The Secret Life of your Muslim Colleagues

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Ramadan is a very special time of year for Muslims, yet in most Western workplaces its month-long observance goes without notice.

How can it be that a whole month of fasting observed by your colleagues sitting right next to you can fly under the radar screen?

Firstly I must point out that in countries where Muslim populations are the majority or significant minorities, Ramadan is a huge occurrence. Business hours will be shortened to accommodate those fasting, TV serials will run at night, Ramadan-specific game shows and contests will abound, specials at stores and holiday candies are sold, and everywhere you look there’s no mistake Ramadan is here.

But why is it not so in the West?

Well it probably has something to do with Ramadan being much longer than some of the more “mainstream holidays”. Unlike Christmas, Easter, or Chanukah which fall on a specific day or week, the official day that Ramadan starts is actually not a pre-set day and changes every year. This year, Ramadan is set to start approximately on August 1st and will end approximately on August 29th. The day after the end of Ramadan is known as Eid al Fitr and is one of only two official Muslim holidays or “Eids”. This year Eid al Fitr falls approximately on August 30th.

This “uncertainty” about Ramadan makes it hard for your Muslim colleagues to schedule time off at the appropriate time. Our Western business hours do not change or even offer a bank holiday for the start or end of Ramadan or observe any Muslim holidays for that matter. This, coupled with the sheer length of Ramadan, make it difficult for your colleagues to take time off or justify it. Often Muslims will take a day off here and there throughout the month simply to “recharge their batteries”, but they will not tend to travel during Ramadan as occurs during Christmas, for example. Which leads me to another interesting point: when you are travelling you are not allowed to fast because traveling is considered to be a burden and already a significant enough stress on the body, and actually most practicing Muslims do not want to miss a single day of fasting.

The inability to precisely say what day Ramadan will start may also have something to do with why Marketing companies have not capitalized more on it. At least in the US, I am surprised to see each Ramadan come and go without even a mention of “Ramadan Deals” in the Super Market circular. Truly a market that is being missed out on…but I digress…

So why don’t I see my colleagues fasting or see posters or other paraphernalia about Ramadan floating around?

Well since Ramadan is a month of reflection and fasting during daylight hours, you will actually probably see much less of your colleagues during this month simply because they won’t be at the water cooler or in the lunch room. Those who fast speak of an internal quietness that comes over them during the month which makes them seek peace, focus on their duties, and avoid distractions. Muslims will also likely avoid gossiping or small talk about entertainers in keeping with the spirit of Ramadan which is meant to instill patience, self-control and getting closer to God rather than trivial, worldly things. For Muslims only God and the Qu’ran are meant to be the focus of attention this month and so the most you might see is a poster saying “Happy Ramadan” in Arabic with a picture of the Qu’ran, pictures of some of the great Mosques of the Muslim World, or Calligraphy Artwork.

However, once sunset arrives, Muslims break their fast with a meal called Iftar and typically do so in a family setting. In 2011, the Ramadan fast will end between 8:00 and 8:50pm (on the Eastern coast of the USA and London), which is well beyond Close of Business.

For individuals who are on night shifts and are the only Muslim on a team, these Iftar can be lonely occasions, consisting of a bag of dates and quick sandwich. So if you are an Employer and have Muslim colleagues, you may wish to think about creating a mid-evening break time or perhaps even sponsoring an Iftar during the month and ordering food for your employees.

Then before sunrise, another meal known as “Suhur” is eaten to prepare for the next day of fasting. In 2011 to eat Suhur, families will need to wake up so they finish before 4:45 am.

All this and your colleague in the next cube still comes to work on time and completes his work….So after August 1st comes around, take a look around your office at your Muslim colleagues. I’ll bet you see them in a different light now that you understand a bit more about the “secret life” they lead during Ramadan. And don’t be shy to wish them a Happy Ramadan or “Ramadan Mubarak”.

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About Catherine Trombley

An international professional, Catherine Trombley brings an innovative approach to the world of international insurance at Rutherford Financial Services Inc. In an industry so focused on the needs of individuals and groups, a truly personalized approach is needed.

Prior to coming to Rutherfoord, Catherine was involved in translation and interpretation. She dealt with clients across a wide range of lifestyles from Embassy personnel to underpriviledged medical patients. My experiences in this field have taught me the need for clear communication across cultures as well as how critical it is to understanding multiple points of view when attempting to disseminate knowledge across a linguistic or cultural barrier.

Bilingual in Spanish and English, fluent in French, with knowledge of Portuguese and Arabic, Catherine is always interested in connecting with people... if it can be in their native language, all the better!

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