A child prepares food for Iftar (evening meal) before the breaking of fast on the first day of Ramadan. (REUTERS/Athar Hussain)
The story originally appeared in the anthology, POW-WOW (Da Capo Press, 2009).
The young boy – ashamed, dishonored, and fearing the wrath of a vengeful, omnipotent Allah – promised his Pakistani immigrant father with conviction and resolve.
“I promise not to eat during my fast. I will only eat at maghrib, after the sun sets, with every other fasting Muslim.”
This previous promise fell victim to a delectable and treacherous “M & M.” Like Eve and her apple, the young boy discovered his “fall from grace” stuck to the inner linings of his Husky pants’ pocket covered with a still edible chocolate-y goodness. His first attempt at fasting was hijacked by a stale, melted candy.
But, that was 2 days ago on the 27th of Ramadan. The blessed month – the young boy was taught – in which Muslims fast from eating, drinking, and being bad people, so Allah would be happy with them and forgive their sins and let them enter heaven and not go to Hell, where they would burn forever and ever and ever.
During the month of Ramadan, fasting Muslims were also forbidden from engaging in “adult activity” and “fornication” until sunset. The young boy asked his parents, “What does adult activity and for-nee-katyon mean? Is that what happens when men and women go to their rooms, lock the doors and it sounds like they’re hurting each other? ”
The parents, flushed with concerned, grave looks blindsided by a question they hoped to avoid till the boy was a teenager, sharply answered, “We’ll tell you when you’re older! Who taught you this word?”
“It’s in the book you gave me about Ramadan.”
The mother’s eagle eyes honed in on the father, whose lowered head conceded a confession.
“Just – don’t worry about that now. Tomorrow is the last day of Ramadan, and you will inshallah – God willing – do your first roza, right?” coached his mother.
“First successful roza,” added his father both proud and hopeful. “Mashallah – what a big boy doing your first fast. So much sooner and younger than all the other boys! Everyone at the community iftar will be so proud of you.”
“Be sure to tell the uncles and aunties you fasted,” reminded his mother. “Then, they will give you more eidi money and presents on Eid. Except of course for Shabnam Aunty and Abdullah uncle – they are kanjoose makhi choos [Literal translation: Misers who suck more than a fly]. Never once have they given you eidi. We’ve given their 4 children eidi money on every Eid year after year…” and the young boy, accustomed to his mother’s rants, stopped paying attention and ran upstairs to play his Nintendo.
Later that night, the father quietly entered the boy’s room as the boy violently mashed his thumbs against the plastic game controller. The father smiled looking at the son. “What’s so funny?” inquired the young boy. “Nothing” remarked the father.
“Beta, I want to give you this,” said the father as he placed two crisp George Washingtons in his son’s pudgy hands. “Is this my eidi already? But it’s not even Eid yet! And last year, you gave me $10.” The father smiled and calmly replied, “It’s not your eidi, relax. Inshallah, you’ll get more on Eid. Don’t be greedy! I’m giving you $2 dollars now on one condition and one condition only: you promise me again not to eat during your fast tomorrow. After the sun sets, then you can eat iftar with all the other Muslims – only after sunset. If you complete the fast, I’ll give you $5 at iftar.”
“Whoa!” exclaimed the boy.
“Yes. 5 whole dollars just for you on top of this 2 dollar down payment. Ok? But, if you break your promise and eat like you did before, then, well, I will be very disappointed, beta. So, do you think you can do it? Think before promising. Remember, Allah knows all our intentions and thoughts. Can you make an honest promise?” questioned the father, still holding on to the green.
“I – I promise – this time I’ll do it. I swear.”
The father released the money, kissed the boy on the cheek – which prompted the boy to wipe the disgusting wetness off his face with left palm as per custom of all young boys. The father made his way for the door having successfully completed the contract. Just before leaving, the father put his hands in his khameez and remembered-
“Wait, beta. Here, I want you to have something.” The father looked down at the furry item, and his eyes -if only for a moment – recalled a youth long since passed but not entirely forgotten.
“My father gave this to me when I was a boy your age- many, many years ago, beta. It reminds me of you. So, now it is yours.” The father gave the young boy a small plush toy that looked like a white cow with two small horns.
“Why are you giving me a cow?” asked the boy.
“It’s a bakra – a goat. It’s zidee like you.”
“What does zidee mean?”
“It means stubborn.”
“What does stubborn mean?”
The father smiled, and before leaving, answered, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
The boy examined the plush toy that wiggled around in his hands making a “whish” squishy sound when he pressed it. He tossed it aside and thought to himself, “Why do I get so hungry when I fast? I get so hungry especially towards the end. I’m always hungry” the young boy mused to himself, fearing tomorrow’s impending dietary discipline. This piety exercise seemed unfair and almost cruel to the portly seven year old boy, whose famished innards played a vigorous game of pinball with his organs and growled like Chewbacca only 2 days ago during his initial aborted fasting attempt.
Praying to Allah as he nuzzled, comfortably, in bed underneath his Batman blankets, wearing his Spiderman pajamas and Incredible Hulk t-shirt, the boy earnestly pleaded:
“Dear Allah-mia, please let me not eat tomorrow until maghrib. I will try very hard, but you made me so hungry the last time I tried. So, please, Allah-mia, please help me fast so Ami and Abu don’t get sad and mad at me. And, also, please give me lots of eidi and also Tecmo Super Bowl for Nintendo on Eid. I promise, promise, promise I’ll be a better person and Muslim – so please don’t let me go to hell. Ameen.”
And so, on the last day of Ramadan, the young boy sat by himself swinging on the masjid’s lopsided, downtrodden swing-set, that was independently constructed by the community’s Muslim uncles for their American-born “youth.” Across the street, a large ice cream cone was lit in front of Briar’s Ice Creamery, which sold fudge twirl with “M & M” toppings on a sugar cone – the young boy’s favorite.
The center’s staff repeatedly asked the Muslim leaders, “Why are there pools of water by the sink in the restroom?” however, they never received an adequate answer. How could the uncles confess, let alone explain, the Islamic ritual of ablution, a quick water cleansing ritual where Muslims washed their face, arms, and feet three times before offering their daily prayers?
Instead, when asked this question week after week, Ganja uncle, aptly named for his shiny, bald head that resembled a brown Mr. Clean, simply pointed to Mota uncle, nodded his head, and said no more.
The scapegoat and martyr for the community’s religious idiosyncrasies was Mota uncle: a morbidly obese, middle aged, nearly invalid Pakistani uncle who barely spoke English and always sat in the corner eating his wife’s sweet, homemade halwa. When the young boy would grow older he would fondly recall Mota uncle’s bright colored suspenders attached to his corduroy pants that he wore up to his chest like a Desi Santa Claus. His bellowing laugh consumed all other noises and sounds and reddened his face like the strawberry syrupy color of a Rooh Afza bottle. Mota uncle used to feed the young boy halwa, and then bless the boy by grazing the boy’s head with his hands and saying, “Allah khush rakeh” – May Allah keep you content. The young boy always thought that Mota Uncle was much smarter than he appeared and secretly knew all along of Ganja uncle’s deception; but, since he was a nice man, he kept quiet, played dumb, and ate his halwa. The young boy always liked Mota Uncle for that.
This was to be his last Ramadan.
“Brothers, brothers. Sisters, please. Please. Please stop talking. Please -” begged the thick, accented South Asian voice cracking the audio on the homemade speaker system. The young boy could recognize this distinctive voice even if he was deaf, blind and mute. Pakistani dari-wala uncle, aptly titled for his lengthy and scraggly beard that looked like curly Velcro stuck on his face with a Glue-stick, dominated the mosque’s only megaphone pleading members to give “funds” and “donations” for “the unfinished community mosque project.” Dari-wala uncle also always complained about “the brothers and sisters” who parked their cars illegally on the road or pavement and never in the rented parking lot. As the years eventually passed, the young boy never recalled seeing any cars parked in the lot – ever.
However, today, the dari-wala uncle kept requesting, in fact begging, that the shoes, jootas and chapals be placed outside the center, next to the door. The young boy saw nearly one hundred shoes inside the center – in front of the door.
The young boy, naturally shy and bored by the iftar preparations inside the hall, awkwardly sat on the deformed swing chair, uncomfortably squeezing his above average. “healthy” rear in the seat, and casually swinging back and forth waiting for maghrib. He could smell the kheema samosas made with ground beef, the deep fried, potato pakoras and the chicken tikka – no – wait – no. Ah yes, sorry, the lamb curry. Mmmm. The young boy’s stomach started to jab and shimmy.
Meanwhile, the other boys played a make shift game of tag football, in which the bigger and older kids would always play the fun positions of QB, Running back and Wide receiver, forcing the younger kids to play the lame position of offensive line. Normally, the young boy would try to play – he was, naturally, the “center” on account of his “healthy” size – but today he recalled yet another promise he made earlier to his mother.
“Beta, for the last day of Ramadan, I want my shehzada to look like a handsome prince. Here, wear this brand new cream colored shalwar khameez your aunt bought you. It’s from Pakistan and is 100% cotton! It is extra large on the account of your healthy size. Promise me you won’t get this dirty or spill khana on it like you always do! Promise, ok?”
The young boy’s daily meals could easily be ascertained by observing his t-shirt at the end of the day. Yesterday, the evidence alluded to a smudge of purple (peanut butter and jelly), a blotch of dark brown (chocolate milk), a yellow spot (mustard indicating a halal turkey sandwich), and some turmeric powder on his collar indicating a nourishing, authentic Pakistani salan or curry for dinner.
To honor this second promise, the young boy quietly swung on the set by his lonesome avoiding the dirt, grass and mud stains that could potentially be acquired by a harmless game of football.
The other Muslim boys had already made fun of him on account of his costume and called him “hella gay” for not wearing t-shirt and pants. The young boy retaliated, “I only wore this because my mom made me!”
This comment borne from ignorance and honesty, the young boy later learned, was a grave mistake – as it fueled the other boys’ laughter and ridicule. In addition to being “hella gay” he was now also affectionately known as “mamma’s boy” and “Jabba the Hut” on account of his “healthy size.” His stomach now started throwing counters and hooks.
He fumbled around his shalwar khameez’s one pocket and found the two crumpled and wrinkled George Washingtons. His plush toy goat, completely concealed in his pocket as to avoid mockery, served as his only companion. With one hand squeezing the goat, the young boy’s other hand unraveled the green paper. He turned around and saw the Ice cream cone across the street – illuminated. The sun prepared for its daily retirement as the moon began rising for its nightly comeback. Within ten minutes, the sun would set, the last fast of Ramadan completed, and the community would eat iftar together, joyously awaiting the next day’s Eid festivities.
The young boy shamefully entertained a wicked thought. His stomach threw a knockout combo and went down for the count.
The Adhan could be heard across the street – even at the ice cream store. The call to prayer announced maghrib, the daily prayer at sunset, commencing iftar – the opening of the fast. Throughout the day, Muslims practiced a spiritual discipline of moderation and restraint. That discipline died the moment the aluminum foil was removed from the pakora and samosa tray and the sweet dates were placed on the fasting tongues. Chaos, screaming children, garrulous women, hungry uncles, nonstop commotion, the hustle and bustle for food, the laying of mats preparing for prayer: another typical iftar thought the father spying the crowd for the young boy.
As the grease ridden plastic plates and date seeds accumulated in the black garbage bags, the father stepped out to find the young boy. His first inclination was to look on the field and ask the older boys who were playing football if they had seen a young boy in a shalwar khameez. The boys, upon remembering, again laughed. The father looked around, called the boy’s name, and then saw the swing set that barely moved as if someone had recently abandoned it in haste.
The father approached the swing, saw no one, but heard a quiet whimpering from behind the tree. Nearing the tree, the father heard the whimper transformed into small sobbing noises reminding the father of his son’s voice. Hiding, the father found a young boy, with his back turned, quietly crying. The father spun the boy around and saw his son.
The young boy, with tears streaming down his cheeks, held a half eaten, fudge twirl ice cream on a dripping sugar cone in his left hand while squeezing the plush toy in his right. Most of his mouth and chin, like his t-shirts, resembled a Pollack painting smeared with melted chocolate and vanilla ice cream, including pieces of “M &M” sugar coated shells stuck on his lips.
At that moment, it appeared the boy had only broken one of his promises.
And then – a drop of ice cream from the sugar cone fell on his khameez.
This short story by Wajahat Ali is reprinted with permission from Goatmilk blog. The story originally appeared in the anthology, POW-WOW (Da Capo Press, 2009). Wajahat Ali is a lawyer and a playwright; his play The Domestic Crusaders is published by McSweeny’s.