Enough faith to fast?
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA — I returned from a trip to the States to find my home city transformed.
Multicolored strings of lights blink from shopping malls next to large "Ramadan Is Generous" signs. Restaurant stalls are draped with the traditional red, green, white, and black Bedouin textiles.
It feels something like Christmas in America.
When I arrive at my parents' house there are workers in the garden wrapping tiny colored lights around the palm trees, and inside they're painting the walls and arranging newly upholstered furniture.
"What's going on?" I ask my mother.
"I'm welcoming Ramadan," she says. "This is for the happiness that Ramadan brings."
"All this for a month marked by hunger?" I ask.
"Not hunger," she says, "Spirituality. God is never as close to us as he is during Ramadan."
The month-long Muslim holiday - marked by all-day fasting - starts Friday, with the sighting of the new moon. It's the ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, but actually predates Islam.
Prior to the prophet Muhammad, Ramadan was an Arabian tradition. The pious devoted a period of each year to a retreat of asceticism and prayer. According to his biographers, the father of Islam used to retreat every year during the month of Ramadan to an empty cave two miles north of Mecca. He brought minimal provisions and devoted himself to meditation, forgetting himself, food, and even the world around him.
It was during that month more than 1,400 years ago that the angel Gabriel revealed to Muhammad the first verses of the Muslim holy book the Koran. Fasting during Ramadan, the third pillar of Islam, is seen as a form of self-denial and restraint that strengthens the relationship with God. It also helps people appreciate God's bounty and identify with the poor and hungry. During the fast, Muslims must abstain not only from food, drink, and sex, but also from getting angry, swearing, gossiping, and bad thoughts. The Sufis call it fasting from everything but the presence of God.
I'm always surprised by the enthusiasm and delight with which my family and others immerse themselves in this event. But what's the point of being a perfect Muslim for just one month out of the year?
"That's one of the great things about Islam," says my sister Taghreed, herself an occasional "sinner" just back from two months in London. "It gives you several chances to redeem yourself. And Ramadan is one of them."
Complete the fast and you emerge with not only a cleansed soul but also a clean slate. "Hopefully you keep it that way," says Taghreed.
My cellphone beeps almost hourly as more than a dozen messages arrive from family and friends. One message includes a crescent and star, the symbols of Islam: "Ramadan is near, may you have a happy year." From a friend in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I receive a picture of a small devil with a pitchfork: "Don't get too comfortable. It's only one month. I'll be back."
Another message from a Tuesday-evening youth club offers me a chance to feed a widow or orphan for the whole month of Ramadan for 300 riyals ($80). I think about it, but decide to pass. I'd rather provide charity to make people's lives better, not just to help them eat during Ramadan.
Another message is a nude drawing of a very fat woman. "Watch out for the fried dough balls and sambousak if you don't want to look like this," it warns against some of the traditional Ramadan dishes.
Iftar, or the breaking fast, when it finally arrives each day after the call to evening prayers, is lavish. Star-studded Egyptian soap operas are scheduled one after the other for prime-time Ramadan viewing, right after iftar, when people are usually too full to move. And with an eye toward the following day's deprivation, most people stay up, snacking until dawn.
The propensity to put on weight during Ramadan has been on my mind since I first committed to writing a weekly journal about the holiday. And I'm toying with the idea of fasting myself for the first time.
To educate myself, I've bought some books about Ramadan, including two for children. While raised in a Saudi home, I've never observed Ramadan nor been a devout Muslim.
I go to my sister for advice. "It's not just about abstaining from food and drink," Taghreed gently chides me.
"You deny yourself the world daily, so that you get closer to God. Fasting is a present you give to God. It's the only thing He's asked you to do just for His sake. And you have to inform God every evening of your intention to fast the next day. And it has to be sincere."
I'm not sure I could fast during the day for one week let alone 30 days. The idea scares me. If I'm going to do it, I want to do it right - and I don't want to fail.
Wednesday night I look outside my window for the new moon. The palm trees in the garden blink at me. The sky is a dark marble gray. For Ramadan to be officially announced two people must see the thin crescent moon signaling the new month and call the office of the Grand Mufti, or chief cleric. I don't see anything and apparently neither does anyone else. State television announces Ramadan will start Friday.
My friend Ahmad, who's not planning to celebrate Ramadan, is making his own preparations. With the city's restaurants shuttered during the day, he has bought a small refrigerator for his bedroom and stocked it with Pepsi, Cheetos, potato chips, and chocolate bars. Over coffee, he tells me why he's not fasting. "I don't like to be commanded to do something," he says. "As if God is some kind of dictator like Saddam Hussein. Fasting should be voluntary. Anyway, I sympathize with the poor and weak all year round as it is. I don't need to identify with them during Ramadan."
Fasting is obligatory for everyone except those who are sick, pregnant, very young, or on a journey. Muslims who can't fast should feed a hungry person for a month.
"I'm not hurting anyone and I don't have any bad intentions. In my book I'm not committing any sin," he continues. "Anyway, you have to really mean it or feel it for your fast to be accepted. Right now that doesn't apply to me."
I'm not sure if it applies to me either.
I ask our Yemeni driver Izzy, a very moderate Muslim, whether he's going to fast. "Of course, I've never missed a day," he says.
But, I object, "I've seen you: you don't pray and you'll drink an occasional beer."
"This is different," he tells me. "One of the beautiful things about Ramadan is that after the hardship of the hours of hunger and deprivation, about half an hour before the call to prayer you feel different, you feel at peace."
"It's probably just fatigue and relief," I say.
"No, you look different, your skin glows, you feel cleansed, as if your insides have been washed with shampoo. You feel at one with everyone else in the city because they're all like you. You're all fasting together and eating at the same time. You speak less. You don't waste time saying useless things. You feel light. Every time you feel hunger pangs, you remember that you're obeying God's commands. It's wonderful. I wish you could see what it feels like.
"Try it this year," says Izzy. "Me and you, we'll fast together."
I'm tempted but am not sure I can go the distance - or muster the proper intentions.
Later, I pull out my cellphone and scroll through the messages for the one from the Tuesday-evening youth club. "Just send us a message and you can pay later," they had said. I reply that I will sponsor a widow or orphan this month.
Just in case.
• Next week: Saudi nights become day.