Sunday, October 07, 2007

Ramadan - fasting and feasting

The BBC Urdu service's Masud Alam in Islamabad wonders if Ramadan is the longest month in the Islamic calendar, or does it just seem so?

A Pakistani boy arranges Iftaar, or food to break the Ramadan fast
Are deep-fried samosas too unhealthy?

There is life as portrayed in the media. And then there's life.

If you follow Pakistani media these days, you'd think the only thing people care about is President Musharraf's chances of getting another term in office and which former prime ministers are being deported or plotting their return to the country.

But in real life, people have a very different set of issues on their mind, right at this time.

Are three samosas, deep fried in recycled palm oil, too unhealthy for iftaar, the evening meal that ends the daily fast during Ramadan? How long can one go on eating after the official start of the fast at dawn? Is hangover a valid excuse to skip a fast? Is Ramadan the longest month in the Islamic calendar, or does it just seem so?

A Sufi Muslim prays in Pakistan during Ramadan
Ramadan is the holy month in Islam when the devout fast and pray

Yes it's the fasting month. A time for a change in lifestyle whether or not one observes the spirit, or indeed the act of fasting.

This is no time for fickle pastimes like politics. It's a time for reflection. Time to discipline oneself. Time to think and ask some hard questions.

On the eve of Ramadan, I was with a group of colleagues, smoking at our usual spot outside the office building.

It was late evening and the gentle breeze had a hint of autumn. Someone just stepped out of the building and announced: "The moon is sighted. Ramadan starts tomorrow."

There was a moment of thoughtful silence in the group. Then someone asked, without a hint of panic in his voice, "where are we going to smoke then?"

Rehmat, our in-house chef, has his own egg to fry. He is Christian, and he is a workaholic.

His work is most clearly defined of all the people in this office. He has to cook lunch for 20 and make 100 or so cups of tea every day.

These days he is ashamed of himself in a way only an out-of-work workaholic can be. He is desperate to do something.


He comes to me with a grave expression on his face, bends down and whispers in my ear, much like a drug pusher approaching a reluctant customer in the street: "Shall I bring your tea here or will you have it in the kitchen?"

Not that people around here are sensitive to eating or drinking in the presence of fasting colleagues. So far people don't seem to mind. But then you never know how a cookie will crumble.

An anti-Musharraf rally in Pakistan on 21 September
Politics or current affairs doesn't grip everyone in Pakistan

If not food, a bottle of chilled beer, a whiff of smoke, a bar of chocolate may arouse someone's anger. One learns to be careful in choosing the limits of one's basic freedoms in these situations.

I learnt mine when I was a teenager in the town of Sargodha. It was a very hot day during that Ramadan and I was out running some chore for my mother in the blistering early afternoon.

Most businesses were closed and the streets were deserted, even of stray dogs. But there was a big crowd at the open firewood stall.

A worker at the stall had just killed a young passer-by with his axe. Police hadn't arrived as yet, neither had the ambulance.

The murderer was waving his bloody axe about while explaining his act. The crowd seemed to understand, and to some extent sympathise, with the motive of murder.

After all, what else can an upright, fasting Muslim do with an insolent youth eating banana on the street?

If you fast, it's between you and Allah. If you don't, someone around you will make it their business. That's the Pakistan I remember.

A place in heaven

But that was ages ago. Things must have changed. I haven't heard lately of anyone being killed for eating a banana on the street.

Instances of relatively minor violence are, however, still rampant.

The other day I was sleeping in a hotel room in Karachi. The phone rings. It's the wake up call. At 0330? I did not ask for it, I protest.

A row of shops selling dates in Pakistan
People have different issues on their minds

"I noticed you hadn't sir," comes a sharp but syrupy reply.

My tormentor was one of those excitable people who want to collect the entire year's worth of sawaab (that's the currency to buy a place in heaven) in the 30 or so days of the holy month.

In their hasty campaign, apparently masochistic acts like beating drums on the streets at little past midnight - in the name of waking up people to prepare for pre-dawn meal or sahri - become acceptable source of strange pleasure on the part of drummers and means of pious suffering on the part of their victims.

Both can expect sizeable sawaab for their troubles.

"I was just going through the list of guests and I'm making sure that I at least check with every Muslim guest if they didn't forget to ask for a wake up call for sahri. The meal is served in the coffee shop. God save you," the man hung up with a chilling prayer for me.

I sat upright in the bed. He's got his 50 units of sawaab, by waking me up. But if I am not seen in the coffee shop for sahri, will this gentleman want to score a thousand points or so by killing me?


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