Allah O Akbar, Allaaaaah O Akbar, …..
The melodious call to maghrib prayer begins just before the setting sun. A continuation of asynchronous series of azan from the nearest mosque to the farthest, would linger on as many prepared for salat. This was the norm all across Karachi, however, the last maghrib of the month of shaban was uniquely special. Barely after the prayers, quest for the new moon would begin. The whole family including, children and elders would go up to the rooftop terraces, or to a clear, unobstructed site. With faces towards the heavens and shades of fiery ember on the horizon softening subtly into a darkening sky, eyes would search for any signs that would welcome the 9th month of the hijri calendar. Shyly through the cloud, the new moon would appear as a bright waxing crescent. Everyone would raise their hands in gratitude to the Creator that we are blessed with one more Ramazan to wipe our sins, and to start the cleansing of our souls.
The anticipation of the start of the month of fasting in the early winters implied that roza’s (fast) would be shorter as the sun sets early and rises late. With little hardship, most of the children would fast all month long. It was another gift of Allah to provide this shortcut to a self-induced call for awakening. Despite the cold evenings when the skin on my knuckles and hand would crack with dryness, and the lips would be painfully chapped, the viewing of the crescent moon would change the mood magically to that of joy, piety, and sober reverence. It was a tradition, a practice, that transformed the following four weeks; it would open our hearts, calm our minds, our souls and prepare us for a month-long state of submission to the Creator. The summer ramzan was a test of will, endurance and belief. I can certainly say that faith is probably the strongest force when it comes to fasting for upto 18 and 19 hours. I have rarely had to fast that long but it is an exercise in humility and servitude like no other.
The question of “was the moon sighted, would change to ramzan mubarak” , and the planning for the sehri (pre-dawn meal) and the Iftar (evening meal to break the fast), would begin almost immediately after the confirmation by the local mosque. Even though I did not pray regularly, the evening of 1st Ramzan, maghrib, Isha and all other prayers thereafter would become a must. I would change into my Juma clothes, the drawcord (zaarband) in my pajamas had broken so many times and was way too short to tie a loop knot but somehow, I always managed. I was convinced that to welcome this month, I had to change into this uniform of sanctity to display my piety and like a clean slate, donning a starched kurta on the first of the holy month would erase all my sins of days passed.
As if on a cue, all of us would make intentions to start anew, to lead a more meaningful life, to be kind, to be gentle, to maintain a heightened awareness of our shortcomings, to be charitable and most of all, to become an observant Muslim with a purified heart.
There are no shortcuts in life but Ramzan offers a shortcut in repentance. Eleven months of habitual ignorance takes more than 30 days to undo, but this month avails us an opportunity to reset, reboot, and restart. It starts with the realization that our spiritual voids cannot be filled with acquisition of material wealth, with temptations, with denial, or with pretentious charity. It is a reflective exercise of transformation, each hour, each day, and each breath. It is the reminder that just as our ancestors before, this could be the last opportunity for this annual retreat.
With this realization, each intention would become a bit more intense, a bit more honest and a bit more solemn. The first of the ramazan would begin with the acknowledgement that it could also be the last.
In Zoha household it was a month of repentance, prayers, recitation, sharing, charity, blessings and remembrance. In my preteen years, I was convinced that satan was locked up for the 30 days, thus all my mischief (obviously, they were the deeds of shaitan) were going to end by themselves. My temptations would disappear, and my inner goodness would just spill all over and fill me with blessings and morph me into a momin. I would walk slowly, making sure I did not (even accidentally) step on an insect, did not even hurt the mosquito that just bit me. Normally I would have squatted it to a bloody splash, but even a mosquito’s life was sacred when I was fasting. I would restrict my ritual habits and made sure that I stayed true, no matter the consequences, which for me, were, as expected somewhat “punitive”.
The month of Ramzan brings a community wide change in muslim countries. Deprivation from food takes buying, selling, preparation, presentation and sharing of food to a different level. Overnight the kiosks with deep woks and bubbling oil, selling Lacha (ghee fried strands of vermicelli) would appear. Some vendor would set up makeshift kitchen, crispy crunchy ground beef samosa and battered or filled fritters with besan (chickpeas flour), would appear in the evening. The aroma of clarified butter with fried dough is intoxicating enough, let alone the thought of having it after a whole day of abstaining. This was the joy of arrival of Ramzan when each bite would be an exercise in gratitude and each morsel a blessing. Street hawkers would appear with carts of Aseel dates that were sugary sweet and ripened soft. Almost every household would bring out the dates of Mecca or Medina that had been a gift (tabarruk) from someone who had performed a hajj or umrah. I recall seeing them at home throughout the year but they were mostly be consumed in Ramzan.
The first sehri was a festive reunion. Though Papa was the one who woke Ammi up, she would have the food prepared and at the table with help from Appi and Baji in no time. With sleepy eyes and drowsy gait, we would all walk towards the dining room that would be filled with extended family members who had gotten up much earlier. It felt surreal to see them in the middle of the night, though we had just seen each other hours before. The joy of waking up earlier than others was doubled when you could jump in their warm lihaf (comforter) while they ate.
No Ramzan would begin without Lacha, khajla or pheni. A form of fried dough in different configurations of thin strands or a flat bubbly, brittle bread. I loved anything with milk and sugar, but did not like the residue oil floating on milk released from adding pheni or khajla. The dinner leftovers along with an omelet, roghni (buttered) or tahdaar (layered) roti, followed by lots of water, were enough sustenance to prepare for the next day. Voluntary deprivation from food and water is a mental exercise as much as a physical one. We would prepare for the physical challenge but would learn that the spiritual awakening required endurance of a different level.
Some would be lost in eating when the haunting sound of the city siren would signal an end to Sehri. Eating time has ended. I would ponder if this is the same sound before the angel Israfeel would announce the end of the world. For a naive young boy, perhaps it was a precautionary reminder of the lost past, or a gratitude of a new day. I saw it as a warning that I better straighten myself this time before I have to answer for my sins. Siren would begin minutes before the Fajr azan and calls for Pani Piyo, Pani Piyo (drink more water, drink water) would overtake as everyone made sure that all the elders and children were well hydrated for the day. This was also the signal to get ready for the wazoo (ablution) to offer the morning prayers. The Jaanimaz (prayer rugs) would face towards Mecca, and we all would join in, wet and shivering while Papa led the prayer. I loved Papa’s recitation of surah Fatiha each rakat and would recite after him.
After Fjr, It was just assumed that we would stay up and read Quran. A race to finish reading the holy book would begin the same morning between the siblings, cousins and friends. I would barely get to finish the first para when Salman bhaiya would claim that he was on third or fourth juz. The desire to win the race would tempt me to embellish, only to be reminded that this among many other shortcomings was what I needed to work on. I did not understand any Arabic, but I could recite parts of the first para with ease. The goal to finish the Quran was another commitment that showed resolve through the long summer days. Never was the motivation stronger to gain a bonus sawab as it is in Ramzan. And I would go on reading the verses with little comprehension but immense respect for the word of Allah. As I look back, I realize this was the first step to understanding the Quran. Just the familiarity of the verses take me back to the days when life was simpler and heart was purer. The day would start with the Name of Almighty and while I read the suras, I’d start to imagine what the Iftaar would be like…