It was cold at night. I covered myself with a heavy cotton quilt—it was a vivid green, and if the color were not green, you would have thought I was wrapped in a coffin. Winter nights were cold, the window glass was icy, and I couldn’t sleep. I had so many questions in my mind. “What does it mean, that people fast for a month?”
The Islamic month of fasting during the daylight hours is called Ramadan. That Ramadan, I was ten years old. “I love my stomach,” I thought. “I love eating, I can’t be hungry. Maybe I will be mad if I don’t eat.” I thought people were crazy to keep fasting; I thought maybe God wanted to see everybody crazy during Ramadan, that God enjoyed watching human beings hunger and thirst. I turned in my bed and kept my eyes closed but struggled to stay awake.
I wanted answers, but also I wanted to eat sahary, the midnight meal, with my parents. During Ramadan, my parents made the best meal at 2 a.m. Earlier in the evening, the family would break fast together at sunset with the meal called iftari. We kids would eat all the good food, so Mom saved the most delicious meal for herself and our father. Either Mom or Dad would rise after 2 a.m. and make the sahary.
I made a small window in my quilt so that I could see what was arriving on the tablecloth. When everything was ready, I uncovered my face and looked just like a poor, hungry cat. My parents called me kindly to join the sahary with them. I can’t forget the taste of that meal and the voice of our crazy mullah from the mosque calling, “People, Oh people! Wake up! It is time for sahary.”
During Ramadan, nobody looks hungry in the morning, but by noon, their faces are yellow and nervous. At home, women begin to prepare a good iftari, something tasty and spicy with more than one or two favorite dishes. Not everyone must fast—some people who have special circumstances are exempt. Pregnant women or women with babies or special needs do not have to take part. But some families force even small children to fast. One of my classmates should have been exempt, but her father forced her to fast and pray. I have many stories from my friends about being caught eating and the men who saw and insulted them.
During Ramadan month, men go to the mosque and recite the Qur’an during the evening prayer, the fifth prayer of the day. Women don’t go to mosque, but once, in one of our neighbors’ houses, we women were invited to come recite the holy Qur’an for Ramadan. At first, we were more than 20 women, but then everyone avoided it because the mullah recited four parts of the holy Qur’an, some 30 or 40 pages or more, and it was hard to stand for so many long hours.
On the 15th day of fasting in Kabul and in Dari-speaking villages, young boys customarily gather together carrying a drum and singing a song at midnight. They wear masks and knock on doors to ask for money or food. It is so much fun to hear them singing:
Ramadan is our friend
Fast month is our friend
It comes only a month in a year
But it comes and empties our stomachs
Ramadan comes and those
Who don’t pray, remember to pray
The first time I fasted I was eleven. Mom told me if I fasted during the daylight hours of the 21st and 27th days, it would be very good for me, since the last ten days of Ramadan are the most holy: fasting these days is said to equal 100 days of prayer. On the 27th day I decided to go without food. During the day, I was so hungry, all my thoughts were about eating. I looked at the sun and asked him to please end the day a bit early.
That Ramadan, Mom told us about the night of Qader, the only night that all prayers are accepted by God. No one knows exactly which night it will be, but people who are very close to God and pray a lot are said to see the Qader night when it arrives. It looks like the lights of heaven are illuminating the universe. I thought then that Qader night was something to fear; I imagined that all the angels and ghosts and devils would come to the earth and fight each other. I tried not to be alone at night.
Now I laugh when I remember thinking of Ramadan like that. Now, I wish to see the Qader night, but I don’t believe there are that many good Muslims in this world, who are close to God. I remember one of our school teachers who was a smoker; he had to stop during Ramadan. All month it was like he was on fire. He insulted everybody. We could scarcely breathe in his classes because he wanted to punish us for nothing. Another time, a classmate told us about her brother, how during daylight he slept and woke up in the evening to break the fast, then stayed up all night without praying, ate a lot again at sahary, and went to sleep again at dawn. All month he was asleep during the day and didn’t feel hunger!
Today most people think about luxuries and forget God. Do we still understand the meaning of Ramadan?
Ramadan is meant not only to close our mouths and stop our eating, but it is a school for learning confidence and patience. And when we are hungry and thirsty, we feel the suffering of the poor. We can’t tolerate hunger for a day, but there are people all around the world who don’t have anything to eat all year. It is the month for us to be much closer to God.
It is said that if you forget and eat or drink something because you have forgotten you are fasting, then you are “the guest of God,” and it is not a fault. So please keep it secret that most of the time while making the salad for iftari I tasted the salt, or if I was thirsty I drank water. Once a friend caught me and I said, “Oh, sorry! I forgot it is fasting time! So I am the guest of God!”
We are human and I think it is impossible to live like angels. With all its hardships, Ramadan is like a honeymoon with my God, a friend who forgives me and takes my hands, who does not ignore me. I ask Allah neither to give me paradise nor show me the fairies of heaven, nor the fear of hell, only for his blessing, and when I pray I think my prayers are accepted. On this honeymoon, I travel with my sins and faults and knock on the door of the sky.
Photo by Edibe