A month of fast and feast
While all around her commemorate the 30-day fast, a Muslim reporter wrestles with its meaning.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
I was prepared to start my fast when Ramadan began a week ago. But never having fasted, I was anxious, as if I were about to take an exam in a subject unfamiliar to me.
Then I woke up Friday with a toothache. The doctor prescribed antibiotics - and no fasting until next week. I was more relieved than disappointed.
On Sunday evening, I share a pizza with Ahmad, my nonfasting friend. "A bag of Cheetos and an Orangina," he says between bites. "That's all I have for lunch every day."
Between dawn and dusk, the stores and restaurants are mostly closed here during the month of Ramadan.
Ahmad tells me how his grandparents, who believe he's fasting, try to ply him with food each evening. Then, he announces, "I'm going to start fasting next week."
"What?!" I'm stunned.
"There's a special request I want from God. I'm going to Mecca for a minor pilgrimage and I'm going to fast, too," he says. "I'm bringing out the big guns."
"Nadia's going to decide next week whether or not she'll marry me."
"I thought you didn't believe in fasting."
"Desperate times call for desperate measures," he says. "I sent Nadia a large heart-shaped bouquet of flowers with a big 'N' in roses in the middle. Now I've got to work on convincing God. I want him to know that despite the fact that I've been a sinner, I'm really serious about Nadia."
I am baffled by the turnaround. How can anyone move in and out of God's grace so nonchalantly?
Suddenly I realize why I've been so scared about committing to Ramadan. I had performed the hajj - the once-in-a-lifetime Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca - in February, and to my surprise found myself experiencing the most wonderful spiritual five days of my life. I returned from the trip feeling a pastel-colored peace, as if I were floating in God's palm.
But without the rituals and atmosphere of the hajj, it was only a matter of weeks before the peace broke, and I felt spiritually abandoned.
According to our Yemeni driver Izzy, who's been encouraging me to fast, if I did Ramadan correctly, I would again find that same feeling of being close to God. But I'm afraid of another disheartening letdown. A person's soul can only take so many stretch marks.
Every night around 6 p.m. in my parents' home, a low, Japanese-style table for 20 is laden with chicken stews, rice with lamb, fava beans, soups, and salads. A side table is sagging with syrup-and-cream-filled desserts. The house is crowded with cousins and aunts I haven't seen since my father's funeral more than two years ago. Another treat is the daily presence of my busy younger brother, who has started wearing his hair in two braids, like the prophet's.
We are sitting on the floor after Tuesday evening's iftar, or breaking of the fast, watching TV. I turn to my brother. "Are you going to Taraweeh prayers?" I ask referring to the Ramadan prayers that usually start around 9 p.m. at the mosques. They include at least eight prostrations, or as many as 20, and can last up to two hours.
But he's distracted by an ad with a woman dancing in a skimpy belly-dancing outfit. "Hey people, it's Ramadan! Can someone change the channel?" he shouts.
"Did you see that?" he says to me. "That's not what the spirit of Ramadan is about. All this distracts from the spirituality of the month. Instead of staying up late, overeating, and watching television, people should be getting up early, working, and feeling the deprivation."
His words remind me of three different Ramadan cartoons I've seen in the local papers. They show government or private-sector employees sleeping at their desks while piles of paperwork grow. In Saudi Arabia, schools and most offices start one hour later and finish one hour earlier. On the other hand, the retail stores are closed almost all day, and open almost until dawn. Even my dentist appointment Thursday is at midnight.
Later that evening, my 14-year-old daughter, just back from a trip to the States, where she went on a belly-ring buying spree, appears.
"Mom, can I go to Taraweeh prayers?"
"You want to go to Taraweeh prayers?"
She rolls her eyes at me.
"Yes, Mom. I'm late. Can I go?"
"Khadija and Salma."
Her beach friends. I'm dumfounded. "Why?" I demand.
"You should be happy instead of giving me an interrogation. Now can I please go? They're waiting."
I nod and she takes off.
That night, I sit in my room reading about Ramadan. There are many people who fast and get nothing but hunger and thirst, the prophet Muhammad said. Fasting is invalidated by backbiting and slander, one book explains. Indulging and overeating after the fast contradicts the purpose of the month, which is to diminish carnal desires and increase faith and spirituality. Compete during Ramadan to be the best Muslim you can be; everything you do this month is rewarded 70-fold.
I feel my competitive spirit stirred by the literature. I bet I could fast, and be sweet, and even eat only soup in the evenings, if I put my mind to it.
An image of my daughter going to Taraweeh comes to me and I'm suddenly filled with gratitude for my healthy children and all the other blessings in my life. I could do Ramadan as well as if not better than the next Muslim. Although Allah and I are not on the best of terms, with all my heart I do want to say, "thank you."
And as my Cheetos-eating friend, Ahmad says, "It can't hurt. But it can help."