BY SABEEHA REHMAN
My baby was barely a week old when Ramadan began. Neither my husband, Khalid, nor I fasted. God had given me a temporary exemption — nursing a baby; and Khalid took a personal exemption — he played hooky. We were just not in the mood. New York City in 1972 did not rejoice in welcoming the holy month of Ramadan: TV news was silent; there were no special Ramadan programs; missing were the sounds of Qur’an recitation; absent were the green and white Ramadan Mubarak signs on stores. I did not hear the sounds of the adhan resonating from the minarets of the nonexistent mosques announcing the beginning of the fast at daybreak; and restaurants remained open. At home, there was no domestic help to cook the predawn suhoor meal; no murmurs of the elders reciting the Qur’an during the afternoon hours; and no chatter of the family gathering for the iftar — breaking of the fast at sundown. The communal sense that goes with fasting was not there. It was just I, home by myself with a newborn baby, fully immersed in diapers and feedings. Islamic rituals had taken a seat in the last row on the bus journeying through child-rearing. We were adrift.
A gentle knock on my bedroom door in Rawalpindi, Pakistan. It’s 3 a.m., an October morning in 1971. Razia, our cook, calls out to me, “It’s time for suhoor.” I stumble out of bed, brush my teeth, put on my dressing gown, head downstairs. Razia has laid out the table, and Mummy and Daddy are already eating. I break a piece of the greasy, crispy paratha, and scoop the ginger- and garlic-flavored chicken curry. A steaming cup of tea jolts open my sleepy eyes. The clink of forks on china is the only sound as we eat in silence. Razia and Aurangzeb, our butler, eat in the kitchen and clear away after we have retreated upstairs to recite the Qur’an. Now I start hearing the voices of men singing in chorus, glorifying God and the Prophet, resonating from the mosque down the street. A chorus from a second mosque joins in, then a third, the closer ones louder, the farther ones fainter, each drumming their own song in a competition of sorts. Voices from the street call out again and again, “For those fasting, it’s time to wake up,” rousing those who have no intention of fasting. I keep drinking water until the melancholic cry of the adhan rings out, signaling the beginning of the fast. The sky has lost its pitch-blackness with a break of grayish hue.
There will be no eating or drinking until sundown. No water either. No lunch hour in offices, and no ladies’ coffee parties. Restaurants display signs, “Open for Non-Muslims, the Sick, and Travelers.” Thankfully, the signs does not list menstruating women. A girl seen eating in a college cafeteria is a dead giveaway: she is having her period.
We are getting a little woozy by late afternoon. Iftar won’t be until 8 p.m. We start counting the hours, and then the minutes, to sundown. Downstairs, we can hear the clatter of Razia’s cooking, the aroma of spices whiffing up the stairs, whetting my appetite. With minutes to go, we gather for iftar at the dinner table. We pray in silence for God to accept our fast — and, between God and I, to make the seconds go faster. And then the sound we have been yearning for — the adhan. Bismillah! I start — in the name of God! — and we reach out for the dates. Razia has made rooh afza — the refreshing rosewater-flavored drink. The fruit chaat gives me the sugary oomph — the battery charger getting plugged into the outlet. At this time, I am not thinking of all the hunger in the world — the idea behind fasting — I am conversing with my grateful taste buds over those crispy pakoras.
Aurangzeb has wheeled in the tea trolley. The cup-a-tea I have been yearning for. I sit cross-legged on the diwan and inhale the aroma of cardamom-flavored tea. I am feeling lazy and sleepy. But wait; there is dinner — at 10 p.m. Then night prayer made longer with the Ramadan Taraweeh prayer. To bed at midnight; then up again at 3 a.m. — the daily ritual for 30 days.
Now that you have had a glimpse of Ramadan in Pakistan, do you blame me for chickening out? Think of it: a sleep-deprived new mom nursing a week-old baby, having to wake up at that odd hour, cook, eat, try to sleep; and when she finally sleeps, baby wakes up; then she is hungry and thirsty all day. ... Thank you, God, for exempting nursing mothers. But what was my husband’s excuse? And what was my excuse a year later? Or the year after? Or the year after that? Let’s just say that the environment and the support system were not there. There was no flow to go along with. And we did not have the wherewithal to create that flow. Not yet. Unable to integrate our religious rituals into our new lifestyle, we put religion on hold.
It was the birth of my children that created that gap. Later it would be concern for my children that would close the gap. We would go on to building a Muslim community, break our fast in a communal setting, and when my children went away to college, they took the ritual of fasting with them, enlisting the support of the cafeteria to prepare special meals for them. And at the workplace, my colleagues saw to it that luncheon meetings stayed off the calendar. Ramadan is now a larger thread in the fabric of America.
Sabeeha Rehman lives on the Upper East Side. Her memoir, “Threading My Prayer Rug: One Woman’s Journey from Pakistani Muslim to American Muslim,” will be published on July 5 by Arcade Publishing.