Halfway through the Ramadan fast
A full moon, and the arrival of a devout sister, mark a shift for our reporter.
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
I started a week late, due to a toothache. But now that I'm completing my first week of fasting, I feel as if I'm still searching for Ramadan, like a person waiting for the kettle to boil. I wonder what I'm doing wrong, and go looking for my Saudi sister Taghreed.
She tries to fast every day, but fails sometimes because of her craving for cigarettes.
"How do you feel at the moment you choose cigarettes over God?" I ask her on our way to break the fast Wednesday evening with my brother's Harley Davidson bikers' group and their families.
"I feel miserable when I'm not fasting. And miserable when I'm fasting," she says and turns away.
Although I was raised in a Muslim home, my three siblings have been far more devoted to the practice of Islam than I. But I'm sincere in wanting to understand Islam better, and write about it, so have decided to fast for the first time.
In the middle of Tuesday night, I wake up thirsty, but am not sure whether the time for the last meal before dawn, or suhoor, has passed. According to the Koran, Muslims must start their fast when they're able to distinguish white thread from black thread. I open my window. All dark, all clear.
My craving for water started when our Yemeni driver Izzy took me out for a walk Monday. "You can't spend the day in your room reading and sleeping," he says. "You have to wake up early, get out, exercise. You have to feel the thirst and hunger. Otherwise it doesn't count."
Izzy and I hit the walking track near the sea an hour before sunset. It is almost deserted. The weather is cool and above the sun is a huge ball of melon sorbet. On the other side I spy the moon, almost full. "It's not even the middle of the month. How is that possible?" I ask Izzy.
"The crescent signals the beginning of Ramadan. The full moon means we're halfway through and then when it disappears again, Ramadan ends," he says. I feel silly that I didn't know that. We pass the two-kilometer mark and head back. "Are you thirsty?" Izzy asks expectantly. "Hungry?"
"No, not really." I look back up at the moon and then the sun, closer to the water now. Almost time for iftar, the breaking of the fast, and it seems strange to me that since I started fasting my day has become intertwined with the heavens, as if it's been lifted from its worldly moorings.
On the way home, we stop at a red light near a low-rise building that houses a wedding hall, Chinese restaurant and a mosque. I notice a long tablecloth spread out on the sidewalk with about 80 people, mainly laborers from the Indian subcontinent, sitting around it.
"It's a free iftar," explains Izzy. "It's a great blessing when you feed someone [needy] iftar," he says.
Most people break their fast with dates, the way the prophet Muhammad did. But arriving home, I grab a bottle of water. Halfway through I remember to say the prayer for the occasion. "Allah, for you I have fasted, and on your bounty I break my fast," I recite, before gulping down the rest.
The next day my 14-year-old daughter wants to go to Mecca for a minor pilgrimage, or umra, with her girlfriends. An umra during Ramadan, according to Islamic scholars, is the equivalent of, but does not take place of, hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam. More than 1.5 million Muslims are expected to converge on Mecca this Ramadan.
My daughter has already gone twice to the mosque to attend the nightly Taraweeh prayers. Is this the same teenager who was bikini-shopping in the States three weeks ago? I agree to let her go after a protracted discussion. But I can't tell if she's rebelling against her mother's relative secularism, is serious about Islam, or just wants to spend more time with her friends.
On Tuesday night, I go to a lecture on Ramadan at the home of an Islamic researcher. About 15 men and seven women are seated in a large living room with a small fountain in the middle. Two partitions separate the men from the women. Some of us move one partition aside to get a better view. Two women, who veil their faces, sit behind the remaining partition.
I listen, and pay 300 riyals ($80), fulfilling an earlier pledge to give someone in need iftar. But I leave the lecture feeling despondent. Then it occurs to me that maybe I am the one who's acting out. Maybe, when it comes to God, most of us are rebellious teenagers, pushing and pulling in different ways, looking for attention and the assurance that we are loved.
Wednesday evening my sister Reem surprises us with a visit from her home in Dubai. I confide in her that I'm having a hard time finding the spirit of Ramadan.
"The only way to experience Ramadan is to let go," she says gently. "Don't sit there and wait for something to happen. Ramadan is a great teacher. It brings you face to face with yourself and highlights your weaknesses. Every time I gossip, or think bad thoughts about someone, or crave a drink, I know it's not the devil, because this month he's chained up; it's all me. Ramadan gives us the opportunity to see ourselves as we really are and to clean up our inner junk, and it only comes once a year. Don't let it pass you by," she urges.
She turns to Taghreed. "You too."
The moon is half full. We have two weeks left.
• Previous stories appeared on Oct. 15 and 22.