“Shahr Mubarak…Shahr Jameel” is what we’ve been hearing around Sana’a since Ramadan has begun. Literally, it means “Blessed Month…Beautiful Month” and that’s exactly what Ramadan is for us. On the days leading up to Ramadan, we saw more vendors than usual selling pocket-sized copies of the Qur’an, prayer beads, and miswaks (chew sticks). Almost every person in Sana’a has one of the three in hand. The mornings here are quiet, since most shops and businesses open later in the day. This facilitates spending your night and early morning hours in worship and enjoying a light meal before fasting begins at dawn (about 4:30am here). After the mid-day prayer (about 12:15pm here), it’s as if the city has awakened. Everyone’s hustling and bustling, traffic is a hot mess, and folks are shopping for dinner’s ingredients. After the fast is broken at sunset (about 6:30pm here), many head to the mosque for evening and night prayers. When you enter the mosques before the prayer begins, it’s as if you hear the humming of bees! People are quietly reciting prayers or reading the Holy Qur’an; you don’t hear the usual small talk and chit-chat!
This is our first Ramadan in a Muslim land and you can easily feel that things are not business as usual. Everyone is beseeching Allah (God) more fervently through personal acts of worship, giving charity, and extending generosity to others. Of course, these are things we ought to be doing all year but sometimes we need a reminder to show us how little we do throughout the rest of the year. Fasting itself is so much more than abstaining from food, drink, and marital relations between dawn and sunset; it is a time for self-assessment and self-rectification. It is said that the one who eats a lot, drinks a lot; the one who drinks a lot, sleeps a lot; and the one who sleeps a lot, misses a lot. Constant satiation is known for dulling the senses and sometimes hunger is the perfect cure for reawakening your senses and heightening your awareness of the Sustainer. Some might say that we should not deprive ourselves by voluntarily subjecting ourselves to hunger and thirst, but fasting has been a spiritual discipline in nearly every religious tradition and its benefits are tried and true. The self-restraint we can learn through fasting can apply to curbing negative habits, blameworthy traits, and evil actions. As a dear friend once told me “the root of the word spiritual is ritual”. Outward actions alone may not seem like much but they can connect us to the liberating inward reality that we hope to attain- the reality of walking a path of peace and sincerity; a truly ethical, harmonious life; and nearness to Allah (God).
As odd as it sounds, you can hardly find any vegetarian food at the restaurants until after about 10pm. I guess the logic is that most people want meat after a day of fasting. The most popular veggie dishes in Sana’a are foul, falafel, and fosolia; all just happen to start with the Arabic letter “faa”. Bread is everywhere. From regular pita-type bread to huge oven-baked flat breads that are about 14” in diameter. In our neighborhood, many of the Ethiopian restaurants sell their crepe-like bread called injera (made from a grain called “teff” that is only found in Ethiopia). There’s a Yemeni version of that bread here too.
The last thing to mention about Ramadan here is that you hear recitations of the Qur’an being played all the time- when you enter a bus or taxi, shopping in the supermarket, from the loud speakers at the masjid (mosque), as you walk pass a crack in the wall- you can hear it everywhere!
Enjoy the month, wherever you are! May it be a blessing for you and yours- ameen! Shahr Mubarak! Shahr Jameel!