At first, I stopped fasting. I had come to the US in 1971, a newly wed bride. In Pakistan I would fast regularly, but here in NY, the communal sense that goes with fasting was missing. No iftar gatherings, no one around you fasting, no Muslim community, no sounds of adhan announcing the beginning and ending of the fast, no Ramadan Mubarak signs adorning the stores…. So my husband and I just stopped fasting, and it went on for a decade. It was only when my children started growing up, that we were compelled to bring the ritual of fasting back into our lives. Actually, I take that back. It was in the reverse. We had started a Sunday school for our children—a Muslim Sunday school—and one day my son came home and said, “Mummy, Ramadan starts tomorrow. Teacher said children don’t have to fast, but all grownups should fast. Aren’t you going to fast?”
“Yes, yes, of course I am.”
Vacation over. Start fasting.
The first day I got a splitting headache from caffeine withdrawal. Is this how its going to be for a whole month? But it’s amazing how the body adjusts, and by the third day, the headaches were gone. What is more amazing is how one gets through the day without even thinking about food or water. The harder part was staying awake during the day at the office. Remember, suhoor (breakfast) is taken just before daybreak, which could be as early as 4 am. By the time you go back to sleep, its time to wake up. I would remain sleep deprived for a whole month. That, my body did not adjust to. But I relished the early morning hours. After suhoor, I would curl up on the sofa and recite the Qur’an in Arabic and study its translation. The house was quiet, it was still dark outside, and I could feel the power and beauty of the Qur’anic verses. These were my meditative moments.
At the Workplace
“Want to join us for lunch?” My colleagues invited me.
“No thank you.” Should I tell them? I was insecure about wearing my religion on my sleeve.
“Having a late lunch?”
“Actually, I am fasting. It’s Ramadan.”
“Oh, I am sorry. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Actually, its for a whole month.”
“Well, at least you can drink.”
“No. I can’t drink either.”
“Not even water?”
“Not even water.”
At iftar time, when my colleagues noticed me chewing on a date with a cup of water, someone brought me coffee, another placed a muffin on my desk. One evening, during a board meeting, I was keeping an eye on my watch and at the stroke of sundown, fumbled for a date in my briefcase, and popped it in my mouth. My boss gave me a knowing nod with a smile. “Sabeeha has to break her fast. It’s Ramadan.”
“Shall we take a ten-minute break?” A participant suggested.
Only in America.
In Pakistan, iftar was a family affair. In the USA, it became a community affair. For one thing, we didn’t have much family here, so the Muslim families in New York—Staten Island in my case—became our extended family. On every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, one of the families would host an iftar at their home. Just before Ramadan started, I would start getting calls—there were no cell phones in the 1980s, so no text messages. “I am holding iftar on the first Saturday of Ramadan. Mark your calendar.” And by the time Ramadan started, our weekend calendars were full, and everyone was invited, as in everyone. If you didn’t like someone, too bad, you had to invite everyone. Guests would start arriving an hour before iftar, remove their shoes in the foyer, take a seat on the carpet and recite the Qur’an. If I could get 30 guests to come (not a problem), each would take a volume, and by the time it was sundown, the entire Qur’an would have been read (collectively), and the home, family, and guests would be blessed with positive energy and blessings of the divine word. I’d spend the whole day cooking a feast, the aroma whetting my appetite. We’d break fast together, pray together, and at dinner, the sounds of chatter and children playing would energize my home.
One year, my parents were visiting from Pakistan. Daddy remarked, “I have never spent a Ramadan like this in Pakistan.” He was referring to the communal spirit, the iftars, the reading of the Qur’an, and congregational prayers in the home. In New York, being a minority, we were compelled to build a community for our children to belong to, and communal iftars were the perfect setting for children to break bread, develop reverence for their faith, and get comfortable in their skin.
Away at College
When my son went away to college, I wondered how he would manage the very early morning suhoor. He simply spoke to the person in charge of the dining room, who, saying, “No problem,” had a breakfast box prepared for him every day for suhoor.
Only in America.
That was then. How the landscape has changed! When I scroll through my calendar, there is interfaith iftars hosted by Christians and Jews, daily community iftars at Islamic Center at NYU (free), the mayor's iftar at Gracie Mansion, and the icing on the cake: iftar at the White House (till last year). TV and newspapers are covering Ramadan activities; and friends of all faiths emailing me with greetings of Ramadan Mubarak. My in-box is flooded with calls for donations from charitable organizations. Ramadan was a time when Muslims would bond together and renew their sense of community. Today, in America, it has become a forum for people of all faiths to come together as one nation under God.
Excerpts from Threading My Prayer Rug. One Woman's Journey From Pakistani Muslim To American Muslim.
Prior parts of these series can be accessed on the links below:
Part 1: Ramadan in Pakistan
Part 2: Ramadan in Saudi Arabia