August 1, 2010
Ramadan and the God Squad
Ramadan is two weeks away and I’m already dreading it in the newsroom. Life slows down to a crawl in this month in Pakistan and while trying to keep your mind off food, the fast is made all the more difficult by the nausea induced by the fake piety of people around you.
“Are you fasting or feasting?” You will be asked this question by anyone who crosses your path with the exception of a few sensible people who understand that fasting is a personal matter and not something to flog in public. I generally hate being put on the spot about religious choices or matters of faith. And in Ramadan, each day becomes a battle to preserve the sanctity of this private decision.
If I say I’m not fasting, at the very least I will get a judgmental look dripping with moral superiority. At the other end of the spectrum I will get an unwelcome lecture on how it is the duty of every Muslim to fast (Yes, I know, but buddy I’ve got my period/am on medication/am pregnant/have cancer/have diabetes – I’m exempt). We are less obsessed with Islam, I think sometimes, than with the Islam of others. Muslims can be the cruelest measurers of morality. They think they’re passport control and immigration at the Gates of Heaven.
My sister once pointed out, when I went on a rant about an overly judgmental Islamist boyfriend, that in a sense it was blasphemy to sit yourself at the same table as God, who is, in Islam the only one who can and will be deciding who is going to heaven and who to hell. If you judge people you are purporting to set yourself at that level. In fact, this reminds me of Asma Barlas’ stellar work on interpreting the Qur’an (Believing Women in Islam) that when we refer to Allah as Him, we are assigning gender and thus blaspheming ourselves as God as no gender – we cannot give God human attributes.
So I’ve decided this Ramadan to give the Period answer whenever anyone asks if I’m fasting. It shuts men up at least. The Qur’an very clearly specifies that each person will be accountable for their deeds on the Day of Judgment. No one else can intercede for us.
That said, however, Ramadan is one of those times when charity visibly peaks in the city. I am amazed by Memon Mosque off MA Jinnah Road where each day anyone fasting can walk in and break their fast with hundreds of other believers – all for free. Lines and lines of steel trays are laid on the marble floor and bankers and bakers can sit together, shoulder to shoulder to sup together. Individual people and organisations put up trestle tables at bus stops across the city and set out jugs of flower cordial, bananas, melon slices, fritters, samosas and dates for any weary traveler who has not been able to make it home in time.
Ramadan is also a great time to see another side to Karachi. Last night, while driving back from the middle-class Gulshan-e-Iqbal after a night of Qawwali with Fareed Ayaz and his party at a friend’s house, I passed three sets of boys playing cricket at 3:30am in the street. After the break of fast at sunset and the subsequent Taraveeh prayers, young men stay out till sehri or the time to keep the fast again before sunrise. In fact, the Karachi Electric Supply Company even has a deal according to which you can put in a request for extra streetlights in your neighbourhood.
The problem with people in Ramadan is that they take the fast as an excuse to shirk work. I’ve been planning ahead for weeks because reporters simply can’t get enough material for the city section when Ramadan rolls around. People refuse to meet, government offices empty out at 11am, cell phones are turned off 4pm onwards. It is considered impolite to call after the break of fast because it’s family time.
The local wire services go dead and even the press releases dry up. Each page needs about 3,000 words with pictures and art. You’re lucky if you get people to file 300 words. And this doesn’t include fatigued reporters, pagemakers and photographers who don’t always have the energy to work. There is a tacit, silent understanding that pervades the newsroom that you won’t really assign any stories because it’s too hard to get them done. I, on the other hand, fasting or not fasting, have to ensure three pages are produced and sent to press each day. Some days I’m so desperate I’ve even considered using family photos.
And it’s simply unacceptable to actually call people on it. Hey, buddy if you’ve chosen to fast, that isn’t my problem. You’re doing it for God. And fasting doesn’t mean that you sleep till one in the afternoon, wait crankily till sunset and then doze off again. My father, a surgeon, has seen doctors leave patients open on the operating table just so they can go break their fast.
And yes, I do realize that I’m angry and sound angry. I hate how other people get me so worked up about religion. I only hope that this Ramadan I get to meet calm people, who add to my knowledge of Islam rather than my fear.