Ramadan is upon us and American life continues to whiz along at its "normal", hectic pace, quite indifferent to the fact that this is supposed to be a time of quiet reflection and prayer for Muslims.
This is the time of year I always wish I were in a Muslim-majority country. Like a Jew who ends his Passover Seder meal with the prayer, "Next year in Jerusalem!" I vow to myself everyday during Ramadan, "Next year in a simpler place and a simpler life."
Of course, being in a Muslim country is no guarantee of peaceful fasting, as I discovered during the Ramadan in 1423 (i.e., 2002) when I was working in Doha, Qatar (I spent the 2nd half of 2002 working on an I.T. project there while my wife remained in the USA to complete her PhD coursework). Without getting into the gory details, let’s say that I discovered how "volatile" working in Qatar (and all of the Gulf) can be for foreigners when I was suddenly fired without explanation, and during the last 10 days of Ramadan, no less (so much for Islamic solidarity). Someone high up decided they didn’t like me anymore and they didn’t need to bother to explain why.
I wasn’t terribly sorry to be leaving Doha–a dull, unfriendly, artificial and emminently forgettable place–but I was very sorry about the timing, as it meant that I was trapped in a surreal limbo.
My wife Shabana had been visiting her family in Pakistan was waiting for me in Lahore–our plan was for me to join her there for Eid, but this was not meant to be– but I was unable to leave the country till my exit visa had been granted by my sponsor (most foreign laborers in the Gulf, whether bricklayers or banking executives, must be sponsored by a national to get a visa into the country; they are unable to leave the country without their sponsor’s permission).
Like most Muslim countries, government in Qatar grinds to a halt during Ramadan (and especially during the last 10 days), so I could not get my exit visa for weeks. What’s more, I no longer had an office to go through during the day, and everything (and I mean everything) was closed during the day. Unlike most foreigners, I wasn’t living in a compound which has its own parallel world of socializing and revelry; I was living on my own in a small apartment in Najma, in a neighborhood of mostly Indians. Finally, the weather in Qatar is scorchingly hot and humid during much of the year, so chilling with a book under a palm tree wasn’t a viable option, either.
In utter desperation for something to do other than twiddle my thumbs at home while watching incomprehensible Egyptian comedies on TV, I sought refuge in the only public space that wasn’t locked down: the Starbucks in City Center. It was the chain’s only representative in Qatar and, so far as I know, the only cafe in the country that bucked the trend and kept its doors open for the kuffar. There I sat and read, and read and read. And feverishly intoned Inni Sa’im! Inni Sa’im! ("I am fasting! I am fasting!" a traditional prayer to ward off temptations during Ramadan) to myself as an endless stream of "tourists" (read: American soldiers in civilian garb) cruelly guzzled latte after latte around me.
When that torture became too much to bear, I adjourned to an Internet cafe whose mostly Filipino staff appeared to believe that all musical entertainment was to be found in a single Eminem album, which was in constant rotation. The staff spoke English well enough to chant along at times with Slim Shady, but didn’t speak it well enough to understand when things were getting a overly risque. After I heard Eminem rap about killing his mother for the 10th time, I made a ruckus and convinced them to find some new music.
Such was my daily routine for last 2 weeks of Ramadan that year.
There are several things I really miss about Doha, though.
First I should note that I did make some wonderful friends. I met some extremely kind and generous people. (Whether they were exceptions that make the rule, I’m not sure…)
Second, I really miss the cats. Doha is absolutely crawling with ’em (including
some types we’d consider exotic in the States–I saw many scraggly, emaciated Siamese patrolling the city’s alleys).
Being a cat lover, I found their constant presence soothing. One of my favorite
rituals was to go one of a local mosques late at night, pray, and
come out and site in the dark and watch. I’d just look down some empty street or alley in the dead of night and, within seconds, a cat would silently emerge from the shadows.
What I miss the most was the neighborhood mosques during Ramadan. I’m not talking about
the big, ridiculously over-air conditioned moques frequented by Qataris, but
rather the small "laborer" mosques that dot Doha. Used mostly by
Indian laborers from places like Kerala–Wudu instruction posters and Qurans were in Malayalam–these masajid were humble and made of concrete. They were open-air with a thin layer of bamboo mats
over the floors.
But these places buzzed with Quran and zikr during Ramadan. I found the sight of these people, many of whom were poor and at the bottom of totem pole–Indians are often treated with great disdain by Qataris–taking time out of their hard lives to pray and recite at all hours very moving.
Most of all, I miss the slower pace of life, which allowed me to spend quality time with friends and go to tarawih without worries of missed deadlines or other distractions from the rat race.