Feeling Ramadan

Editor's Note: This is the second in a four-part series following Hadi and his family's Ramadan experiences in a Muslim country, comparing it to their Ramadan experiences U.S. Read part one here.

RamadanEvery year, Ramadan presents a dilemma of guilt. In Sha'ban, the preceding month before Ramadan, the lessons, sermons and discussions at Islamic centers and mosques become Ramadan-centric. Though these lessons and talks are meant to put us in the right frame of mind, the pre-Ramadan prep feels a heavy sack being hung around my neck, and in that sack is how my Ramadan is going to turn out—how much of a spiritual awakening I am going to feel.

I certainly realize that the Qur'anic verses, hadith (verified sayings and stories of the Prophet Muhammad), and Islamic stories about how others have experienced Ramadan are in fact mile markers for one's journey in Ramadan. But I cannot help but feel guilty for falling short of those mile markers each year.

These thoughts were on my mind as I came to Riyadh with my family for Ramadan this year. There is quite a difference between mosques here versus the U.S.: the majority of mosques here are like ant colonies. People enter, pray and leave. It is automatic. For those of us accustomed to the Islamic center-style mosques in the US, where people linger and enjoy community events and family oriented activities, it can feel like a letdown—and some might even say flat-out depressing. However, by chance I came upon a mosque that struck me as different.

It is a quaint mosque situated on the grounds of the Saudi National Museum. The famous Riyadh Water Tower looms not too far in the distance. According to local reports, this was the mosque that the late King Faisal attended. The interior of this mosque has pillars and archways similar to mosques in Granada.

The first night we attended this mosque, we were visiting a family friend. I begrudgingly went to the mosque to do the routine, not wanting to leave a very intense game of monopoly. But seeing the families, the young people and kids playing on the grounds of the masjid was refreshing, not to mention surprising. The mosque itself further got my attention due to the amazing sense of tranquility I felt during the taraweeh prayers.

There were no fancy chandeliers or windows with marble trim. It was the simplicity that struck me. This was also the first mosque that I had seen packed for taraweeh prayers. I felt something here. When I have these personal mile markers, I try and capture and stay in the moment as long as possible. I cannot remember the surah or ayah that was being recited. I just recall having this overwhelming sense that I am standing in front of my Creator to whom I owe such gratitude. It felt like I was slowly falling back off of a cliff into something wonderful, like in a dream, except there was no fear and no bottom.

I continued to go back to that mosque, hoping for a return to that moment.

I wish I could say that all of my experiences in Riyadh were as beautiful. But I will say that they have all been memorable.

A Ramadan Waterloo Moment
My best childhood memories are from Ramadan and Thanksgiving. My parents were not your pushy religious parents who forced us to practice Islam. They took us to religious schools on the weekends, practiced openly in the house and were often times the only ones in their social circles who proudly defended Islam against the horrific practices of some so-called Muslims. Ramadan for me, my brother and sister, was a time for family.

This year, for the first time since moving from California to Virginia (where neither me nor my wife have any family), this Ramadan has brought back so many of my childhood memories. Just yesterday, I picked up a packet of crème-filled biscuits from the local baqalah (shop), and with one bite I was transported to our house in Shiraz. They had the exact same taste as when I was 10. As a child, purchasing fresh-baked bread after taraweeh prayers was almost as mandatory for me as were the five daily prayers. 

The smell of fresh baked bread here in Riyadh was reminiscent of my much younger self sitting at the feet of my paternal grandmother and watching her bake bread. I was amazed then, as I am now, as to how the baker sticks his hand into the tanoor (oven). And, it was while I was waiting for my two large rounds flat loaves of bread that I witnessed something that made both of my kids cry.

We drove up to my father in-law's favorite bread baker. He got out first and placed his order, and while I was negotiating a parking spot between the two cars next to me, a can of soda flew through his legs. My father-in-law jumped to the side, and within a few seconds a toddler with cheeks chubbier than the Gerber baby waddled by and picked up the can.