The image is pretty much a cliche. A distant, clear cut moon in a perfectly black sky silhouetting a minaret. But it is what it is — and Ramadan is starting. It’s the time of year when life takes on two dimensions in the Muslim world. During the day, it stills as work slows down, people fast and await dusk when a very different life begins, full of colour, festivities and feasts. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, even if you are not a Muslim, you had better not be seen eating or drinking in daylight or you could be in big trouble. In Lebanon, with our mixed sects and communities, it’s very different. You only have to look at how our mosques and churches stand next to each other in the centre of Beirut. But on the muslim side in West Beirut — where I come from — it is a matter of respect even if you are not a muslim not to consume food or drink in a way that would make others who are fasting feel bad. Sadly, these days there may also be pressure put on people, too. At Friday prayers, there is security now around the mosques downtown that might be targeted. But there is still that wonderful anticipation as the day wears on for the sun to become a great copper disk that will burn out and quickly fade, turning the Corniche along the sea front into a burst of red and orange.
My memories of Ramadan as I grew up in Beirut are almost as golden-hued, even though when I first discovered — by accident at the Catholic school I was attending — that I was a muslim, I burst into tears. I ran home to my mother to ask what it meant. Religion had been quite undefined to me up until then. At school, my sister and I only sensed a small difference from the other girls in that we weren’t able to take Communion, which made me jealous and angry. It was a Shia girl who had told me I was Sunni. She might as well have been talking in hieroglyphics. My father was never religious — except about business and food. Back then, my mother wasn’t either, although that changed later. Even when the war started, it didn’t seem to have anything to do with religion. Now, when I go back home and pass one of the biggest monuments of all that pain and craziness, the empty, pockmarked shell of the Holiday Inn at the end of my road, it reminds me that for me at least, the war did become entangled with religion. Having known nothing about being a muslim, I began to embrace my heritage. As a teenager, for the first time I started to pray — in earnest. Five times a day, veiled and in white. The whole shebang. I think it was when the Israeli fighter jets came at us in the middle of the night, as a US ship bombarded the mountains above us during the day. The story has been told a thousand times — and heaven knows, so many other people in other countries have had to experience the same terror when their whole city is shaking and you want to run but have nowhere to run to. You fear that the buildings will collapse and bury you beneath them. I remember that my grandmother was visiting us from the countryside at one of the worst times. She was the one who knew how to pray, how to appeal to God to save us. So, we all gathered round her in one room and followed her prayers. We asked her exactly what we had to say, what gestures to make, how to kneel, when to kneel — everything. It was from her that I began to learn all these rituals that I had never known before. Religion became my refuge — and something I began to love as well. I learned how to recite the Koran and the basic rules of Islam. With the city closed down and divided in two, I moved from my Christian school to a Muslim one. I loved the religious education — to me it was not just a duty, but a pleasure. I thrilled to the muezzin as it burst out throatily from the ancient mosque facing the sea just below our apartment. It wasn’t the normal thing for a girl of my background to do then — not with Beiruti girls who wore mini skirts and jewellery and big eighties hair as I did. I owe my religion a lot — it probably kept me sane during the Israeli invasion and the other terrible moments we faced. It also stopped me going off the rails as a teenager when so many others lost themselves in the war — turning to violence or some pretty hardcore drinking and drugs. And it made me strong enough to leave when it was time to go.
So, as the sun is preparing to sink across the Arab world this evening, I feel warm with memories of past Ramadans. When I was twelve, going to pray all night with my aunt in a room full of women on Leilat al Qader — the Night of Destiny when muslims believe the first verses of the Koran were revealed to Mohammed. The room was packed and full of a strange life that I had never experienced before, overloading my senses with praying, laughter and food. And in the darkness, running petrified this way and that as I tried to find my aunt, not even daring to go home to wash before we started our prayers again at dawn. And I remember the Ramadan drummer who used to come an hour or two before sunrise to remind us that it would soon be time to stop our eating and drinking if we were still up or to prepare us if we were sleeping to get up quickly so that we could have our breakfast before the sun rose and it was too late. The drummer was a volunteer, who would give himself over to the task for the whole month. You’d hear his drums first and then as he got closer, you could make out his words, urging everyone to wake up, eat and then pray. If you didn’t hear, it was too bad, you’d have to go the rest of the day without food.
Oumou Ala Souhour’koum Boom boom boom
Ijaa Ramadan Yzourkoun Boom boom boom
Ya Nayem Wahid Al Dayim Boom boom boom
And I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it could well be. When the war was at its height and no-one, neither man nor beast, would be out in our neighbourhood next to the Green Line , the man with the drum would be there. It was his religious duty and he took it with the utmost seriousness. But the drumming and the singing suddenly stopped one day. Maybe he finally and very wisely put his survival above his sense of religious duty. But nothing as banal as self-preservation could ruin a good story for us. And many in the neighbourhood believe he was actually mauled and eaten by wild dogs who patrolled the Green Line that had become a mythic terror where any horror was likely to materialise. Just one of the ghosts that still linger around what is now a busy and fraught thoroughfare edged by vast new buildings rising into as shaky a future as the high-rises that shot up in the 70s just as everything was about to fall apart.
Food. Beyond religion and all its complications, it is the one simple thing that I learnt and kept with me from those Ramadans in Beirut. In the middle of the war, as I started at university and made a more independent life for myself, I used the month of Ramadan as a testing ground for my cooking skills and recipes. After fasting all day, I’d rush home to make a feast for my friends — many of whom weren’t fasting in any case. I loved to show off my skills. With the leftovers, I used to roam through our building and the neighbourhood when it was safe, feeling both virtuous and smug as I distributed them to the old, the house-bound and pretty much anyone else. Before I left Beirut, during my last Ramadan there, I remember giving a Christian friend of mine who was about to get married a crash course in cooking. We went through every dish I could think of. She was a fast learner and the pleasure I had in teaching her was the first indication that I might be able to do it not just for friends, but for a living. That idea took many years to come to fruition. But it is another blessing that I owe at least indirectly to Ramadan.