“Mommy, why do we have to fast during Ramadan?” I questioned. “If I don’t eat or drink – how does that benefit Allah?”
I nudged my mother against her knee to bring her attention to me. She was stuffing the sheets with cheese and folding it to give a perfect triangular shape. After keeping the lovely triangular cheese samosa on the baking tray, she raised her eyes to reach my level and smiled.
“What makes you think that your fasts are supposed to be for Allah?”
She always loved answering my questions in the form of other questions.
“Then what’s the point?” I ask her again.
I poke my finger against the cold cheese and slowly put it in my mouth. The sour taste tickled my taste-buds. Four more hours to go. How does she survive without giving in to the temptation?
“Oh, Fareeha! Ramadan is not about fasting. In fact, fasting is not about fasting. Please do not put your finger again in the cheese bowl,” my mum said, raising her eyebrows.
“You still didn’t answer my question. Then why do we fast?”
She took another sheet and rolled it into a cone. While she was stuffing the cheese she said, “You know not everybody can afford food. Forget about eating food three times a day, like you do, my little princess. There are people who get to eat just a little each day. And there are also people around the world who do not get to eat for two days straight. Or sometimes even more.”
My mother paused. I looked at her dry lips which she licked as she placed the second samosa on the tray.
“There are small beautiful kids like you, who do not have the luxury of food. And this is very common around the world. There are people out there who even sleep hungry, for days – not knowing what food tastes like.”
My mouth formed a small ‘o.’ I was shocked and sad. I did not understand what exactly I felt at that moment – but perhaps that was the first time when my heart ‘sank.’
“Do people actually not have access to food for days? Do they not have a fridge or something where they can store?” My four-year-old self was desperate for some silver lining in all of this.
Was the world really such a cruel place to live in, for some people?
“No, honey. Things are not always so simple,” my mother answered with a dazzling smile and kissed my left cheek.
“You will understand when you grow a little more. Now that you know all of this, I think you would have understood why we fast,” she said with a wink.
My mind reeled with all the information that she just gave me. I liked answering questions. And I liked being right. I took a pause and stared at the small bowl with water that sat on my mother’s right. And before I could process my thoughts completely, my mouth shot an answer with its own accord.
“We fast because it makes us understand what poor people go through. They do not have access to food or even clean drinking water. We fast to realize what it means to be actually poor and helpless.”
I paused and looked at my mother for some sign.
She beamed with pride and kept the unfolded sheet aside and pushed the tray away from herself, and made space for me to come closer to her. She then gently pulled my high chair closer to hers.
“Yes, we fast to understand the real pain of the poor. This is why we fast from sunrise to sunset. Most of the underprivileged population do not eat to work as we do. They work to eat. And that is what we do during Ramadan. We fast the entire day, only break the fast after the sun sets.” My mother paused and kissed my head.
She then continued, “And that is why, while you are fasting, you cannot utter any bad word, cannot hurt any living being, or do something wrong, or lie or cheat either. You cannot get angry at anybody because you are deprived of food.
“Fasting during Ramadan is not only about keeping away from food. Ramadan is about sharing, giving, helping and forgiving. It’s about building a better version of you and practising those small acts continuously for thirty days so that it becomes a habit.”
She then took the final sheet for samosa and stuffed the leftover cheese. While she sealed the sides with water, she said, “And then before the month ends, every adult Muslim is supposed to give away 2.5% of their unused wealth to charity in the hope that at some faraway house – a family will get the happiness of having food at least once a day until Ramadan next year. That is also a part of fasting during the Ramadan you know.”
With that, my mother got up from the table with the baking tray, leaving me with my own thoughts of everything that she had just shared with me.
I got down my high chair and walked to my bedroom and peeked under my bed, pulling out a small wooden chest that my father bought me last month. I opened it. I had collected a few one-riyal notes neatly folded inside a small pouch. I opened the pouch and removed the money and ran into the kitchen, where my mother was setting the temperature of the oven.
“What is it now, baby? And please, save some of your questions for tomorrow,” she said with a half-smile, while she filled my pink flask with water.
I showed the neatly folded notes to my mother.
“Now that I have been keeping 4-5 fasts in a day, I think I am also eligible to donate some money to charity. Plus, I have not used this money since forever. Also, I don’t know how much 2.5% of 23 riyals will be, so could you please calculate and give me back the rest?” I asked, pushing those notes into my mother’s palm.
My mother dropped down to her knees and kept the notes aside on the dining table.
“You are supposed to donate 2.5% of the wealth that you have not used for a year, darling. Daddy gave you this pocket money a couple of months ago. Plus you don’t have to do this baby, not until you start earning your own money. Daddy and I will take of this on your behalf,” she said, tucking my loose strands of hair behind my ears.
“But I want to give away. I have been fasting after all,” I replied stubbornly.
“Okay, I will calculate and return your money by tomorrow, young lady. It’s late, and I have to make those twenty parcels that you and daddy have to deliver to the poor people down the lane. It’s almost six and we don’t have much time,” my mother said with a pout mimicking mine.
“Okay, I think I can live with that,” I said nodding, trying to sound like my dad.
The next morning, when I woke up, I found a couple of coins and a few notes on the table beside my bed.
I smiled. I was happy that my money would soon make someone’s day.
Empathy over sympathy.
That is the Ramadan I grew up with.
About the Author
Fareeha Arshad is a forager of meaning, a reader by passion, a writer by choice, and a scientist by vocation. The Arab born, confused Desi lives on the Persian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia with her parents and siblings, where she spends most of her time studying, teaching, writing or cooking.