Farewell Ramadan

Ramadan has left us for another year…so sad to see it go, although it was a tough one.  For all of us in Marrakesh, having day upon day of intense heat, hardly ever dipping under 45 degrees, well let’s just say it was a Ramadan to separate the men from the boys.  When we go outside in that heat, simply breathing becomes a laborious task, struggling to draw a breath like one struggles to draw water from a well.  It made most of us do as little as possible.  And that is hard too.  Not only do you give up your food and your water, but also your sense of pride in any accomplishment.  I barely walked this Ramadan, let alone worked out.  I had high hopes of reorganizing parts of my home, re-stacking the books in the bookshelf, clearing out the little storage room, but had to just let all that go. It was a “being” month, not a “doing” month.  I’d never thought of Ramadan that way, but this one took me to a new place, a difficult place.

With Ramadan coming 11 days earlier every year, I’ve fasted short days in winter, cool fall days where we all say to each other “I don’t feel thirsty or hungry at all, it’s like I’m barely fasting”, and more recently, the relentless summer heat.  Whereas Ramadans before this were like a cool stream running over me, cleansing and calming, this one was like being in the pounding surf, with nothing to do but hold on.  And yet, this Ramadan had the most potential for transformation.  When else do we get a chance for everything in our life and world to change?  When else do we get a chance to explore our limitations in such a painfully real way?  Our city, Marrakesh, had record high temperatures this year, and yet the feeling of all of us fasting together made it all the more wonderful.  When you go out, you see people with wet towels on their heads, you see someone with a hose offering the service of drenching anyone who needs it, you read it in people’s faces.  There is such a feeling of camaraderie under these circumstances of duress.    It’s not the month of spiritual devotion I imagined for myself, the heat made it difficult to do as many prayers and reading of the Quran as I’d hoped, and yet I found goodness and blessing in the intensity of it, the bending of my every desire and hope into this giving up and letting go.

Ramadan is a month where Muslims are content to be fully Muslims.  We are reminded everywhere of our aspirations towards God; charity increases, mosques overflow with worshipers, even the radio stations start to play devotional music of all kinds: Berber, Gnawa, Andalusian, Nasheed.  The instruments and melodies vary greatly, but the words don’t, “La ilaha illa Allah… Mohamed habibullah… There is no god but God…Muhammad is a beloved of God”.

When I am fasting my thought process slows down, although often my thoughts are clearer and deeper.  But I become incapable of multi-tasking, especially right around the time of breaking fast.  One day my husband and I broke our fast with a date and water, and then went inside a mosque to pray the sunset prayer (maghrib).  As I was praying I became aware that my purse was not by my side.  As soon as the prayer ended, I started to look for it, and realized that I had taken off my shoes at the door, but instead of leaving my shoes on the doorstep and taking my purse inside, I’d done the opposite.  Of course, I don’t expect anyone to steal my purse from a mosque doorstep in Ramadan, yet I was relieved to see it there, because I had stashed both my husband’s wallet and my own, our phones and the keys to the car in it.  Honestly…

As I said before, I don’t feel like I “did” enough this Ramadan, but still I hung my hopes on the saying “A moment of sincerity can purify the heart” or something to that effect.  Luckily I wasn’t left to my own devices in this respect.  So blessed that in Marrakesh people really turn out for Laylat al Qadr, the Night of Power, which is the best night of Ramadan, maybe of the whole year.  This is the night when Archangel Gabriel spoke the first words of the blessed Quran to Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.  The Quran says that prayer during this night is better than a thousand months of worship.  We don’t know when this night is exactly, only that it’s one of the last ten nights of Ramadan.  The only real way to know is to sense it, and to stay in a quiet enough state that if it were that night, you could feel something different and special about it.

In Moroccan Islamic culture, most people generally accept the 27th night as Laylat al Qadr, and so it’s celebrated with special food and whatnot, which I don’t particularly care about¸ because really, it’s a night for prayer and I don’t care if I’m eating couscous or beldi chicken or whatever.  If you must know, I made lasagna that night and I can assure you that’s not traditional Moroccan.  What’s really great about that night is that the mosques don’t stop prayers all night long.  So it wasn’t that unusual that a friend of mine picked us up, me and my daughter, at 1:30 a.m. and we headed for the Koutoubia mosque, where we joined a good 50 000 people in prayer.  Every mosque was the same, full inside and out onto the streets, all night long.

The prayers were beautiful, as they always are there, and ended in a long, soulful supplication.  Among the words that stayed with me are these: “oh Lord here we are, among us are young and old, male and female, healthy and sick, obedient and transgressors, have mercy on us all…Don’t deny hands that are outstretched to You in supplication, don’t deny hearts that yearn for You”.  (Now I wish I had recorded it somehow to share with others that weren’t there but wanted to hear it).  At one point the Imam breaks down in tears and can barely speak, and I think, here is someone who has spent all of Ramadan leading thousands of people in prayer both at night and before dawn, he has spent his entire Ramadan in an amazing state, and here he is in tears imploring God to have mercy on his soul.  And what of me?  And that was the moment I had waited for all of Ramadan, the breaking point.  And I think that’s all I can say about that because my words aren’t sufficient.

And lastly, I’d like to thank all the new readers of this blog.  During Ramadan I had the honor of having this blog appear on the WordPress.com homepage.  This is referred to, among wordpress bloggers, as being “Freshly Pressed”: for a fleeting 24 hours or so, the blog is viewed by potentially thousands of other bloggers.  A lot of you “liked” the last post, commented on it and subscribed as new readers, and all I can say is, I’m humbled that you would take the time to read this blog.  On the internet, words are seemingly endless, and our time is limited, so I’m honored that you’d use precious minutes reading what I have to say.  I can only promise you that my intention is to bring sincerity and beauty to these pages.  And as a happy coincidence, one of my good friends and favorite bloggers got Freshly Pressed at the same time!  (It’s pretty rare to be FP, out of a good 400 000 blogs, only a handful are chosen, so it was doubly thrilling that it happened to both of us at the same time).  Her blog is called http://towardbeginnersmind.wordpress.com and she writes amazingly well.  Here she wrote about how the weather is changing irreversibly in her hometown, but does so in a very human, passionate and skilled way.  It struck a chord with me because we are both from hot, dry places and the trend is that they will continue to get hotter and drier.  Marrakesh certainly saw some record highs this summer (49C/ 122F).  Will this reverse the tide of people who are making Marrakesh their home?

Speaking of making Marrakesh your home, I was bemused to see that this article http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20120723-living-in-marrakesh/2 about moving to Marrakesh had linked to my blog as an additional reference.  Thank you, it’s nice to feel connected to others via my writing in this way.  Some of the article is devoted to buying land in Marrakesh¸ which is not something we have done, so sorry, I won’t be offering any help with that.  But I got a great idea for a BBC show: our family is given 100 000 pounds and tasked with buying land in Marrakesh…it’ll be quirky and human…will we buy land in the Ourika valley, the Palmeraie, the Medina?  Will we buy land and build on it, or restore an old ryad?  It will be so enlightening for viewers who have the same dilemma.   Where is best to raise kids?  What is land really worth in Marrakesh?  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy watching that show!

It’s not detox, and other Ramadan reflections

As the day of Eid draws to an end I could not let this special time pass without jotting down a few reflections on Ramadan, fasting, what I have learned this year and what others around me have shared…

Ramadan myth-buster: fasting 15 hours a day from food and water in 100+ degree heat is NOT a detox, cleanse or anything related to weight loss.  If it were we’d all be sipping chilled water with a squeeze of lime.  Fasting is hard on the body, especially at first (then again at the end.  The middle is ok).  The  intention behind fasting is not some sort of “perfecting” of the body.  That would be a waste of intention.  Our intention is like a container that we bring to a river…if we bring a thimble, we will get a thimble-full of water…if we bring a glass, we get a glass-full…so in Ramadan we make sure to the bring the biggest possible container, and bring more as they fill up.  And that intention is to please our Lord and taste closeness to Him!   It is the perfecting of the soul that is in play here, as C.S. Lewis said “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul.  You have a body.”  For now.

Ramadan is a time of increased worship.  Many people endeavor to read the entire Quran during this month.  They do this by reading one thirtieth of the Quran daily, which takes about an hour.  There are also extra prayers every night after the last of the 5 prayers, which last about an hour and a half.  Read my post about that from last year.   At the beginning of the month, for those of us not accustomed to a lot of worship (I definitely fall into this category), these extra practices seem quite daunting.  At the same time, for me, without those things Ramadan would just be hunger and thirst.  It would be like coming to the thresh-hold and never passing through to the higher level of existence.  The thing is, even though I did not do those extra practices every day, by about the 2/3rd mark of Ramadan it totally changed for me.  As my dear husband said, in the beginning, you are pulling your practice along, and it takes a lot of effort, but by the end, it’s pulling you along, effortlessly.  I felt this the times that I got to pray at the Koutoubia, my favorite outdoor mosque.  I’d be giddy with excitement and anticipation for the tarawih prayers, the thought of standing with thousands of sisters and hearing the imam’s beautiful recitation of Quran, thinking to myself, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.  I understood, to a very feeble degree, the teachings of the Prophet when he would say that one of the most beloved things to him was the joy he found in prayer.  Or the man from that time who needed to have his leg amputated, and he said, wait until I begin the prayer (because he would be in such an altered state that he could bear the pain).  Or the great saint Rabia when she said “Oh lord, it is night, and every lover has gone to her lover, and I have come to you”  (paraphrasing because I don’t have the exact quote).  I know that for these people, that is their station, their permanent state if you will, whereas for me, I’m all too aware that it is a state, among many, and undoubtedly it will pass (or it has passed already).  Nevertheless, I am thankful.

This Ramadan it seemed, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that many people entered into the Islamic faith here in Marrakesh.  I myself witnessed, on two separate nights, two French ladies who took their shahada at the Koutoubia mosque.  They uttered the words over the microphone to be heard by the thousands who were there.  It is such an emotional moment, like seeing a baby being born.

During the last ten nights of Ramadan, there is a night called “The Night of Power”.  Prayer during this night is better than 1000 months of prayer (!!!).  The thing is, we are not told which night this is, although the Prophet (peace and blessing upon him) said “Look for it among the odd nights”.  That means starting from the 19th, 21st, etc.  In Morocco there is a widespread idea that the Night is the 27th, and as such, there are many practices, both cultural and spiritual.  The cultural ones I’m not so familiar with, but for one thing, children who have never fasted try fasting for this day.  There is special food, djaj el beldi (free range chicken) and other dishes.  As for the spiritual practice, people try to spend all night in prayer, either at home or at the mosque.  This year I had the immense pleasure of going to the Koutoubia mosque with my friends Safia and Zineb.  We arrived at 1:45 a.m and found the place packed, the overflow area had overflown and people were praying in the garden behind the large open air pavilion of the mosque.  There was such quiet, no other sound beside the beautiful quran, no other reason to be out than to worship God.  As I stood in prayer I saw, several rows ahead of me, a tiny face looking back at me, a baby in her mother’s arms.  I admired that mother’s determination; in Ramadan we are shown again and again that what we think is impossible is in fact, possible!

When the imam finished reciting during the last cycle of prayer, he made a long, soulful supplication to God.  Among my favorite lines…”we seek refuge in You from eyes that do not weep, from a heart that does not feel awe” (na’udhu bika min ‘aynin la tadma’, wa min qalbin la yakh-sha’).  Several times the imam would make a supplication that was particularly meaningful to him, and he would break down sobbing.  Throughout the du’a we would hear sobs rising from people as their hearts opened, faith turned into certainty; sobs of humility before the Creator of the worlds.  I felt to incredibly lucky to be there on one of the most special nights, during the most blessed hour, right before dawn, when “The Lord descends every night to the lowest heaven when one-third of the night remains and says: ‘Who will call upon Me, that I may answer Him? Who will ask of Me, that I may give him? Who will seek My forgiveness, that I may forgive him?’”

When the prayer was over, Safia, Zineb and I stood in the street watching the thousands of people flooding home, and it was like being in a river of light.  We commented how usually we only see these kinds of crowds for soccer games or protests, and it’s heartening to know that life in this land can transcend those kinds of preoccupations.

Thank you for taking the time to read this.  I did not have the focus to write during the month itself, but needed to put down these words now.  As my husband pointed out, it’s not my usual style of blogging, not as fun/funny perhaps.  But I know that you all appreciate what is real, and right now, this is what’s real to me.  I’m left subdued by this month, both the physical hardship of it, and the spiritual uplift.  I appreciate all those who have subscribed to the blog and who check in to see what is here, I’m honored to offer you my writing.  And may we all catch a glimpse of more than the eye can see.