Waiting for the Call From the Minaret

THE old mosque stands at one end of Bussorah Street, a glass and steel skyscraper at the other.

Two blocks of picturesque shops buffer the golden domes of the Sultan mosque from modern Singapore. Five times a day the muezzin calls the Muslim faithful to prayer, his voice transcending the hum of expensive cars, cellular phones, and the video cameras of tourists.

Five times a day the familiar sound knitted my days together and wove itself into my dreams. From my skyscraper I looked down with pleasure but little understanding as the Muslim community went about its business and its prayers.

It was just another panel in the tapestry of Singapore, another thread in the complex warp and weft of Asia.

Then came the month called Ramadan.

It disturbed me to see the little food stalls go up along Bussorah Street as Ramadan began. The concept of fasting through a long, hot month in this very modern city seemed harsh and anachronistic. I looked down from my skyscraper with misgiving.

The awnings filled the narrow street, and beneath them vendors arranged enticing stacks of samosas, prawns, and colorful sweets - delicacies foregone by the faithful during daylight. Cold tins of fruit juice beaded under the searing sun. The stalls were crowded with hungry shoppers - Chinese and tourists buying lunch, Muslims buying food for after dark.

A young Malay barbecued chicken over a coal fire. The fragrant smoke spiraled up to shimmer away in the midday heat. "Makan," he called to me as I passed. "Come and eat."

How could he smile, I wondered. I tried to imagine what it must be like to have the aromas and textures of food always before me while my stomach hollowed through the long day. Once or twice I bought something to take home and ate it guiltily behind closed doors. But then I would think of the hungry women selling food to others, and the savory meat turned tasteless in my mouth.

Tonight I walked the tangle of old streets near the mosque just as the sun was setting. Every sidewalk cafe was crowded with silent men sitting before plates piled high with food.

WITHIN the compound of the mosque itself, hundreds more sat in front of untasted feasts and tumblers of iced drinks. A tension greater than physical hunger bound them together like an invisible web.

They sat, not talking with one another, waiting for the exalted voice from the minaret to chant the sun down and free them from the fast.

There was no passion in the waiting, no discernable lust for the food. They seemed almost to be hungering for God.

As daylight dimmed in the narrow street, the waiting took on an almost mystical shadowing. Unmoving, the men sat before their meat and rice as if frozen in prayer.

The vendors quieted as dusk began to pull the light out of the sky. Even the restless children grew still. For a sliver of time between light and darkness, the collective spirit of the street drew in its breath.

Then it came, the welling, winding wail of the muezzin; the sound washed down the old street. In the shadow of the mosque, 500 people exhaled in a single sigh.

The tension broke away, as fragile as a flower. The fasters bent to their food with hungry grace. Free again to smile, they looked up and smiled at me. "Makan," they invited, making room at the table.

I sat with them, and ate.

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