When I looked out the small vacuum-sandwiched window, all I could see was a blur of opaque white. It had been more than a day’s journey. I was three months pregnant, and sorely missing my husband, who was already settling down in rainy Seattle.
The month was January 1997. We had set out on this long journey across the Pacific from tropical Malaysia to four-season United States in the beginning of Ramadan, landing smack dab in one of the possibly worst winters in Iowa. The blizzard forced us to hover in circles above the Chicago O’Hare airport before we could land. That Ramadan was my first Ramadan on foreign soil without family except for my unborn baby.
It has been eleven years since then, and ironically, I have never spent Ramadan in Malaysia since. Do I miss spending it in my home country?
In a way, yes I do, but to another extent, no I don’t. I grew up fasting 12 hour days in blazing heat. I grew up in the culture of Ramadan Bazaar, and looking forward to it as the end of the fasting day drew near. I remember the the smoky and spicy aroma of Ayam Percik. I remember the Ramadan bazaar din, consisting of a smattering of droning machines, sellers’ shouts, and customer’s orders. I remember the heat cooped up in the long crowded aisles formed by canopied stalls selling Malaysian delicacies, which made the heat tolerable. I miss that.
Here, in the United States, Ramadan is completely different. The only family I have is my husband and children. I am the cook, thus I am the one furnishing the table with iftar. No Ramadan bazaars here, sorry. Malaysian food? Ahhh…that is where I wish I am back home. Nevertheless, Ramadans here have taught me the true essence of the holy month.
I not only get to spend it with other Muslims of various cultural backgrounds, thus giving me the opportunity to treat my taste buds with new tastes, but I also get to experience the spiritual part of Ramadan in a way that is different from back home. Let’s just say I have learned a lot about Islam since I set foot in the United States. Don’t get me wrong. I was raised a Muslim, though some people have asked me,
“What’s your Muslim name?”
I spent five full years in an Islamic boarding school. But what I learned about Islam here have taught me to be more careful about determining the sources of information about Islam. Islam and culture tend to mix a lot, especially in Muslim countries. But here in America, because of the diversity and setting, Islam’s true hue tends to shine through the various shades of cultural baggage.
Though of course, that is not to say that Islam in America is without any problems. We still have the 21 versus 11 rakaah tarawih debate, don’t we? Nevertheless, it’s easier to learn Islam when you are in the midst of so many differences as opposed to being in a place where only one way of practicing Islam is known and expected.
In my boarding school days, Ramadan nights were usually spent in tarawih which was held in the Great Hall, led by our Ustadhs. We would put on our white prayer garments, slip on our sandals, grab our prayer mats, and stroll in happy chatty girlie groups down the zinc-roofed corridors from the girls’ dormitories, past the blocks of classrooms all the way to the Great Hall where Monday assemblies were usually held. However, due to limited space, yes, even in the ‘Great’ Hall, one year, the school decided to hold the tarawih prayers in the open parking lot, under the star spangled night sky. I have to say that was one of my favorite tarawih experience in my high school years.
I still remember the flyers distributed to us at the beginning of Ramadan, consisting of the list of virtues of praying tarawih on night 1 all the way through night 29. Some of us lazier and mischievous school girls would refer to the list and choose which tarawih night to pray, and spend the rest of the nights either snoozing in the dorms or doing other things like hand washing dirty laundry, studying, or completing homeworks. It was not until later that I learned that the source of the list was weak, but being an Islamic boarding school in a Muslim country, it just doesn’t make perfect sense that such an erronous or weak information was distributed.
Growing up, I was used to breaking my fast by devouring the whole iftar meal right after the azan was called. Of course, that tends to make you heavier and lazier when it comes to prayer, and it was only until I spent Ramadan here with my husband, that I postponed the full meal until after the Maghrib prayer. Very interestingly, as true to what is always said about our stomach needing to gradually get accustomed to breaking up food after a long day of resting, I didn’t feel as famished after the prayer as I was at sunset. Over the years, that has become our family’s sunnah; to do as the Prophet sallallahu alayhi wasallam did; break our fast with water or dates, pray Maghrib and then eat the full meal. Subhanallah, when done this way, you tend not to eat as much as you would had you eaten the meal right at Iftar time.
Overall, the way I spend my Ramadans has evolved, and even though I do miss the gastronomical delights available in abundance in my home country, I also am grateful to Allah for giving me a different experience altogether, which has led to better changes, alhamdulillah. The arrival and memory of my Ramadans here in the United States highlight the changes I have embraced with regard to my practice of Islam. It’s a month in which even the harsh-tongued become nicer, and the non regular masjid attendees are more regularly seen at the masjid. It’s a month of blessing and more. Subhanallah!
I came here eleven years ago in the beginning of a wintry Ramadan with a baby in my womb and very naive. In a few weeks inshaallah, we will embrace Ramadan in the remaining dog days of summer and beginning of fall. I now have four children under our roof, alhamdulillah, and I would like to think that I am a bit wiser than I was eleven years ago. Depending on where we go next from here, this might very well be my last Ramadan in the United States. If it is, I will surely sorely miss spending Ramadans here.