JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
Before we began our three-day Eid al-Fitr holiday, marking the end of Ramadan, I came across an article in a Saudi newspaper with a checklist of what makes a successful Ramadan.
First on the list: Recognizing that one can change for the better and acquiring patience and strong will. This month my deficiencies have shone as if spotlights were directed at them.
The article continues: Successful fasting means not only abstaining from food, drink, and lust from dawn to dusk, but also being honest, patient, and forgiving. I lose my temper with my children and argue with my sisters regularly. But because I'm fasting and conscious of Ramadan's requirements, I have become aware of that single moment, as quick as a finger-snap, when a person gives themselves the green light to lose their temper.
Be more charitable, says the article.
On Tuesday I made some quick calculations to figure out my zakat, money for the poor due every Ramadan, which is 2.5 percent of what's left of my income after I've calculated all my expenses. A devout friend, also named Faiza, distributes zakat for herself, her family, and her friends. I collected money from my sisters and joined her.
We drove to a neighborhood called Sabeel, which is mainly populated by illegal immigrants from Somali. We got out of the car to followed a janitor who lives there and who works at the university where Faiza teaches. Children ran after each other in the dark, garbage-strewn alleys. We moved cautiously, sidestepping a thin trail of sewage.
The janitor knocked on an iron door. Inside, children ran around a dirty room. Faiza insisted on entering to make sure the people were truly needy. "Why aren't you working khala [aunt]?" she asked an old woman surrounded by three small children. "You used to be a janitor at the university, as well."
"I worked there for 25 years. Then I broke my arm and they replaced me," the old woman answered.
"God is with you," Faiza said and handed her a small envelope. We went from house to house where the stories were different, but the desperation is the same. Another woman's husband is in prison and her landlord has thrown her furniture out because she can't pay her rent.
In the car on the long ride back I was quiet; the stories and the smells stayed with me. But Faiza was bubbly, energized by her good deeds. She seemed animated even though I could see only her eyes through the slit in her face veil. "The prophet, peace be upon him, said it makes God laugh with pleasure when we give charity to the poor," she told me. "Charity can put an adulteress in heaven," she rattled on, telling me a story recounted by the prophet of a prostitute who went to heaven for giving water to a thirsty dog. "Tomorrow I'm going to another neighborhood to distribute more zakat, do you want to come with me?"
I shook my head, and she smiled. "Do you know why God prescribed zakat at the end of Ramadan? Because you've tasted for a whole month the hunger of the poor, you've empathized with them, and now you help them out. It's Ramadan coming full circle."
"But the poor are not only hungry and needy during Ramadan," I said.
"And charity shouldn't end there either," she countered. "We don't worship Ramadan, we worship the God of Ramadan. The God who said he prefers good deeds to be modest and continuous, instead of grand and infrequent."
As we drove, I heard bits of Koranic verse from mosque loudspeakers at different intervals. The imams go through the whole Koran during the month of Ramadan and for several hours each day verses are broadcast throughout the city.
Three on the checklist: Sensing the unity of Muslims.
Last Monday I performed another of Ramadan's regular rituals, the pre-dawn Tahajud prayers that are encouraged but not obligatory. Dozens of women were streaming into our neighborhood mosque as I arrived with my mother and housemaid, Mahbooba, at 1 a.m..
There were close to 500 women there and we took our place at the end of one of the rows. Ten minutes later a woman came in and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me. I felt uncomfortable at her proximity and moved closer to Mahbooba.
We were holding Korans and reading the verses the imam was speaking. But I was so irritated by this woman who stuck to me that I couldn't concentrate. I complained to my mother during an interval. "That's how it's supposed to be. You're supposed to stand shoulder to shoulder like that."
"You're Muslims praying together," she answered. Almost two hours later, we were done and the imam started the supplication.
"God help us follow your guidance. God help us move closer to you and away from evil." I heard a sound like ocean waves breaking, but I couldn't tell what it was "God help us move towards the light and away from sin." The sound grew more distinct but still eluded me.
"God help our brothers in Palestine, Iraq, Chechnya, and Kashmir regain their occupied lands. Help them defeat their enemies." The muffled roar took shape; it was a chorus of amens from the men's section. "God keep our parents healthy and our children healthy," said the imam, his voice breaking.
At the end of the 10-minute supplication, women grabbed tissues from boxes in front of them, wiping tears and blowing their noses. The energy in the mosque was clearer, lighter. I felt lifted and at peace, and the woman whose shoulder touched mine no longer seemed like such a bother.
Also on the Ramadan check list: an increased mindfulness of God's blessings.
When the crescent moon was sighted Friday, Ramadan ended here. Drinking green tea when I woke up yesterday was a treat that I had been looking forward to, but I still find, strangely enough, that I miss Ramadan. I miss the city's mass immersion (at least the intention of it) into God and charity and trying to be our best. I miss the guidance of the sun, whose setting permitted me to eat and whose arrival forced me to abstain. And I miss looking for the companionship of the moon and studying its shape to determine the days left of fasting.
Lastly, the article prescribes drawing closer to Allah. I have become very conscious of God during Ramadan - when I ate, when I drank water, and even when I didn't. I thought about God every time I wanted to swear or get angry or think negative thoughts, which I came to realize is more often than I expected. And I think that's all part of the lesson.
But the one lesson that I'm still striving to learn is balance. I pray that though Ramadan is over, God remains a presence in my life, not in grand gestures and infrequently, but consistently and in small doses.
• Previous stories appeared on Oct. 15, 22, 29, and Nov. 5.