My earliest memories of Ramadan are in Pakistan. A child of seven, I would plead with my parents, ‘please, please, can I fast?’ It seemed exciting, such a grown-up thing to do. Mummy let me fast for half a day when I turned 10, but just for a day. At 13, I was formally inducted in the class of fasting young adults. Let me tell you, it’s a whole different world when everyone around you is fasting. As soon as the moon is sighted—you know we follow the lunar calendar—the whole nation goes into cheers. Ramadan Mubarak greetings are heard in the homes, streets, stores, workplace…everywhere.
Immediately, the kitchen goes into high gear, preparing Suhoor, the early morning breakfast. And when I say early, I mean daybreak—as in 4 am in the summer months. Wake-up call is at 3 am. I’d put on my dressing gown and go down for breakfast. Of course, I’d brush my teeth first. Now tell me, who has an appetite for garlic-flavored chicken curry and greasy parathas at 3:00 am! But eat you must. It’s going to be a 16-hour day without food or water.
You would think that at that hour the streets would be quiet. Not! The neighborhood mosques are in their glory, the faithful singing naats, glorifying God and the prophet. So how come I could hear the sounds from a block away? Loudspeakers on minarets. Then the mosque on the next block would chime in, then the third, and soon you’d have a cacophony of unsynchronized chanting, in a competition of sorts. Did I mention that these were just men? Women in Pakistan did not go to the mosque. Men would walk the streets calling out, ‘For those fasting, its time to wake up,’ and wake up all those who are not fasting.
I’d keep checking my watch—10 minutes to daybreak, 5 minutes—I’d better finish my cup of tea—1 minute, and then the piercing, melancholic sound of the Adhan. On cue, the naat singing would cease. Quickly, I’d gulp down some water to stay hydrated before the Adhan is over. And as the last call of Allahu Akbar sounded, my fast would begin. I’d spread my prayer rug facing Mecca, and stand in the presence of God to offer my prayer. A few minutes later, I’d be in bed, trying to get some sleep. Just as I’d fall asleep, it would be time for school.
The whole world around me would slow down, and go into a take-it-easy mode. No tea breaks in offices, no lunch hours, no ladies’ coffee parties. Restaurants would pull down the blinds, and post signs Open For non-muslims, the sick & the travellers. (And those playing hooky). Our teachers would remind us: Its Ramadan, no fighting, no lying, no cheating, and did I say ‘no fighting.’ I’d feel lazy and sleepy in class. I’d come home from school to the murmurs of elders reciting the Quran, and then take my delicious afternoon nap. A nice long one. An hour before sundown, I’d retrieve a copy of the Qur’an—wrapped in green velvet—from the highest shelf of the mantle, kiss it, touch it against my forehead, take my place on the diwan, and recite the Qur’an.
On the streets, the shops would open late; then close again for siesta; and just before iftar, re-open with a bang. Shoppers flooding the bazaar, buying dates, samosas, and freshly baked naan from the clay-oven. Just as soon, the shutters would close, and the streets would be quiet again as everyone prepared for iftar at home, or gathered in mosques for a communal iftar.
My family would gather in the dining room and wait for the adhan to signal sundown. My stomach would be rumbling as I’d count the seconds. And then the sound I’d been waiting for, the adhan. Bismillah! I start in the name of God. We’d reach out for the date, and a sip of the cool rose-flavored rooh-afza. I have to tell you, fasting kills your appetite. A couple of dates and a pakora later, and one is full, feeling bad as those crunchy pakoras beckon. Dinner at 10 pm, then evening prayer plus the Ramadan Taraweeh prayer, which is so long, and by mid-night, I’d turn in, only to wake up at 3 am again. So went the day.
Think of Christmas as the time of giving! Well, that is what its like in Ramadan in Pakistan. The family prepares cauldrons of food which is sent to the mosques to feed the orphans and the poor. People settle their charitable debts, as in 2.5% of their savings. The poor line up outside the homes before iftar, leaving with food bags. And people just give.
When I was 13, there was no TV in Pakistan, but we had radio, and I’d sit with my grandfather and listen to the naats. Now there is special TV programming, starting at 3:00 am with Qur’anic recitals and lectures.
The last time I spent Ramadan in Pakistan was in 2010. My father had just passed away, and I stayed with my mother. Not much had changed in terms of how the holy month is celebrated. The sounds, communal spirit, charity…its still the same. It reminded me of what a different feeling it is when the whole world around you is fasting.
(Excerpts from Threading My Prayer Rug. One Woman's Journey From Pakistani Muslim To American Muslim).