When I think of Ramadan, I think of many things, but the first is almost always my mother, up before the rest of us an hour and a half before dawn to prepare the food we would sleepily consume in the last half hour before the fast began.
My mother, a doctor with a strong interest in nutrition, was always sure to get as much protein into our systems as possible: there were scrambled and boiled eggs, fava beans slow-cooked the traditional Egyptian way, tuna salad. But there was always something for our teenage taste buds: My mother would wake us up with home-cooked french fries, still sizzling on the plate. Into our bedroom she would sweep, singing “wake up, wake up, your food has come to you” in a jolly voice, and as I rolled over on the top bunk to face her, I would find a handful of hot, salty fries stuffed into my mouth before my eyes were even open. It certainly was an effective tactic.When we were younger, we would “fast” from breakfast until lunch and then from lunch until dinner, feeling for the first time what it was to have sustained hunger, to not cure it immediately with a stop at the fridge or the cupboard. The pangs in our stomachs would knot first, then twist, and there was something so satisfying about not succumbing, about defeating that part of ourselves that cried out to be served, to be given now now NOW!
Experience is learning, is knowledge, and the value of that knot in the pit of my stomach can never be underestimated. I knew, ever so briefly, what it was to want; knew the slight pain, the slight light-headedness that came with it; but more than anything, knew the gratitude of sunset, of taking that first sip of water, that first sweet bite of a date, sweet and soft and buttery, melting on my tongue. And as I got older, I knew too the gratitude of having that water, that date, having what so few have, and especially what so many everywhere can't reach: a fridge full of food; a house with a roof; a blanket to cover my bed; a loving mother who would wake up in the middle of the night to make sure her daughters were well-fed before the fast began.
My father broke his fast with a glass of hot milk, heated to the point of scalding in the microwave, nearly foaming at the top, and three or five dates to go along. It was my father who taught us the supplication to make when breaking our fast:“Oh God, for you I have fasted, and from your blessings I have broken my fast, and on you I depend, and in you I believe”. And then each one of us would turn inward and think of what she wanted and pray a private prayer, just between her and God, before that first bite, that first sip. It could be anything: I would pray for a good grade on an upcoming test, for a class trip somewhere fun, to get out of babysitting that Friday at the mosque, for forgiveness for my sins – a rude word, a look of ridicule, the missing of one of the five daily prayers.
After the dates and milk we would pray our sunset prayer before having a proper meal, and there we would stand, my mother, my three sisters and I behind our father, reciting the Quran, choosing, somehow, the verses that would nudge our hearts that particular day, his words poetry, a calling to God.
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