I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

I don't know exactly what a prayer is
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, originally uploaded by yaznotjaz.

My Ramadan in disjointed pseudo-bulletpoints:

Just before Ramadan began, Anjum started a “Ramadan mubarak!” email thread. Hoda replied, “RAMADAN MUBARAK, EVERYBODY! I’m stoked!”, to which I added, “I’m kinda not stoked. Is that BLASPHEMY? (I think it kinda must be.)”

To which Anjum, being a smart one, had this to offer: “I think thats the point of getting stronger during Ramadan.. to get to the point (&beyond iA) where we are really *stoked* that it’s here and really *bummed* when its gone.”

The night before the first day of Ramadan, I wore my pirate t-shirt to first taraweeh, the nightly, congregational prayers held during the holy month. “Don’t you mean tarrrrrrrrrrrrrrraweeh?” queried Z via GChat, and I had to laugh and shake my head for not having thought of it myself.

The first day of Ramadan, A pointed out that I wouldn’t be getting lunch updates from him for a month. This is the guy who, all the way from Toronto, used to look up Zabihah.com links for me so that I could have lunch while working in Silicon Valley (“Did you have lunch yet? There’s a halal deli close to your work. Not sure if you know that”), and who IMs me almost daily with messages like, “I had chicken teriyaki and sushi for lunch today” or “I had seafood fettuccine. Where are you going today?” or “Chicken shawarma platter! Halal!”

I spent a lot of time sitting in cafes and coffeeshops during Ramadan, working on getting things done. Who knew that fasting during the day – and, thus, not constantly contemplating what to eat next – would open up so much free time for productive pursuits? Amazing! I also somehow managed to spend far too much time at the grocery store. And I am here to tell you that shopping to re-stock your refrigerator and pantry while fasting is never a good idea.

While at the grocery store during the first afternoon of Ramadan, the girl at the checkout counter kept glancing at my t-shirt. “The Kite Runner!” she finally exclaimed. “Did you like the movie?”

“I did,” I said. “Not as good as the book, of course, but I thought they did an amazing job with the casting.”

“Just like in The Notebook! Did you see The Notebook?”

“Mhmm,” I said noncommittally. (I hated that movie.)

“Wasn’t it so awesome?” And here, her excitement clearly knew no bounds. “They left out some scenes from the book, though. Remember that part where Noah and Allie…[blah blah blah…] …” I grabbed my groceries and hurried out of the store as soon as I could.

Later in the day, towards the end of a getting-things-done session at a local coffeeshop, the man across from me looked over as we both began gathering our possessions together, and said ruefully, “I hope you had a more productive afternoon than I had!”

“I wish,” I said, wincing. “I’m really too good at distracting myself.”

“Hey, The Kite Runner!” he exclaimed. “Nice t-shirt. Did you watch the movie? What’d you think?”

“Good movie,” I said. “Rocking job with the casting. I highly recommend you check it out, just for that.” Then, I ran away really quickly before he could begin talking about The Notebook.

If there was one single thing I learned over the course of the past month, it was this: How to bend my torso at a nintey-degree angle to the rest of my body. This was something I’d been meaning to perfect for a long time – not just half-heartedly hunching over during the bowing portion of the prayer-cycle, but actually bending in such a fashion, knees unbent and back completely parallel to the ground, so that one could, as is often said, rest a glass of water on one’s back without spilling the water. By the end of the month, I was so limber that I could almost touch my toes.

One thing I didn’t perfect, however, was how to gracefully rise up again from a sitting position without feeling wobbly or brushing my hand(s) against the ground for balance. Sometimes, it worked; sometimes, it didn’t. If you have any tips and tricks for this hands-free-return to the standing position, let me know. Really, I’m serious! Is it about rising up so quickly that you have no time to catch yourself off-balance? Is it about briefly rocking back and then up? Is it about bracing your hands on your knees or thighs on the way up? I must know. You. Tell me.

In Ramadan, my mom kept making chapli kabob and pakoriyaan to go with dinner at the end of the evening, and nothing makes me wrinkle my nose more than the thought of heading out to congregational prayers while smelling like spices. But then I would remember how much I love breaking up the chapli kabob into little pieces to go with my salad, and I would sigh and eat and eat and eat. One evening, I had an epiphany: “Where are those croutons I bought weeks ago? Do we still have them?”

My dad laughed. “They’re probably in a cabinet somewhere, with the bag knotted up and tied inside another bag and placed all the way in the back of the shelf where no one can find it until it’s past the expiration date. Isn’t that how it always is?” I laughed, too, while the ummy didn’t so much as crack a smile. (She doesn’t always think we’re funny. And making fun of anything related to how she runs the kitchen is never funny.) A few nights later, I did indeed find the croutons in the cabinet. Sea salt and garlic! O mein Gott!

During the course of Ramadan, I learned to recognize people in prayer by their feet. It got to the point where if, in the middle of prayer, my new favorite taraweeh-buddy, M, came to stand next to me, I knew it was she by the look of her toes, with the glimmer of a recently-scrubbed-off pedicure.

One of the things I loved the most about the taraweeh is hearing Quranic verses I recognize. On the first night, I particularly recall hearing Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajioon and Innassafa wal marwata, min sha’a irillah. On the second night, I heard the Ayat-ul-Kursi – which made me smile widely in prayer, and tear up a bit – and Amanar rasoolu…

Another one of the things I loved the most about Ramadan was the synchronicity and unison I felt in the nightly congregational prayers: How everyone, men and women alike, would hum, “Ameeeeeen,” at the end of Surah Al-Fatihah, The Opening, recited during each of the twenty prayer-cycles. How we would all bow, then stand, and then hear everyone’s knees crack in unison as we fell into prostration.

One of the things I disliked (it must be said) about the congregational prayer was performing the taraweeh directly behind tall people who couldn’t seem to properly fall into line with rest of their own row. Instead, they’d stand enough inches behind their line that they’d hit me in the head with their bum every time we both rose from prostration. This aggravated me. A lot. Much inaudible sighing and gritting of teeth ensued.

All that said and done, the last day of Ramadan was about this prayer. As I told erstwhile blogger Faiza when she IMed me about the post, “I kept thinking to myself through Ramadan, ‘There’s something missing. I can’t put my finger on what I’m supposed to be asking for.'” The morning of the last day, I remembered that piece on “authentic prayer,” and scrambled to print it out, then spent a bit of the day sitting quietly and reading through it a couple of times. As a result of pasting that link into my GChat status message [“remembering some duas i could still be asking for while there’s this little sliver of ramadan left”], I ended up having at least half a dozen unexpected and beautiful conversations, regarding prayer and faith and that post, during the course of the very last day of the blessed month. I am humbled, and honored, that a prayer that is so deeply personal to me has managed to resonate with so many others as well.

One of my favorite professors in college, herself nonMuslim, once referred to Ramadan as a time of “witnessing without judging,” and a period of “heightened consciousness.” It took me until Ramadan was nearly over this year to realize that I’m too good at witnessing without doing much of anything, and that I spent the month talking about physical hunger but depriving myself of spiritual sustenance.

In re-uploading the above photo (of the Islamic Center of San Diego) to flickr just now, I found a post I had written during Ramadan five years ago, and felt an unexpected lump in my throat for the month I nearly wasted this year. How could I have forgotten all this that I was seeking? And how is it I’ve remembered all these longings and prayers only now that Ramadan is over?

I’m re-reading my favorite lines from Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, as both consolation and a kick:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

11 thoughts on “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is

  1. The mere thought of Ayat-ul Kursi sends a wave of electricity down my spine. In fact, as I type this I have an Amélie-esque grin on my face thinking about it. The beauty of that verse is so overwhelming, much as I feel the beauty of God is overwhelming and beyond our comprehension. It’s always my favorite part of taraweeh, just ahead of the recitation of Al-Qadr.

    A belated Eid Mubarak to you!

  2. First off, HIGHFIVE at finally writing a REAL post! ;)

    This post made me laugh (about Daddy and Ummy and their croutons) and smile (about too many things).

    Is the local coffee shop the one I introduced you to? They have great mochas with whip cream on top!

    Oh the Kite Runner…great book and movie, but I wish they had balanced out the depiction of Pathans/Pukhtoons and the book hadn’t catered so much to the American viewpoint of Afghanistan and the so-called “War on Terror.”

    Re. getting back up from sujood: I get up and put my weight on my toes and place my hands on my thighs to steady myself up. I had to practice this.

    Cool professor! She totally got it! And cool poem! Yay!

  3. getting beaned in the head by someone’s bum is not fun. nor is being asked about ‘the notebook’ (unless you are lamushy). but the spiritual rejuvenation, extra free time, and added benefit of calisthenics during prayer deserve high fives.

  4. great post, yaara, and tahts a really lovely photo. i love those arches. im’ so glad you shared your ramadan ups and downs with us! i didnt get to taraweeh much, and my fasting days were as productive & busy as my nonfasting days – which kind of made fasting harder. sigh. I did get bummed to see the month leave, so maybe I did get some of “the point.”

    PS i was surprised to read my name in my rss feeds, so thank you for that. :)

  5. also, good job on attending to your rookuh! its very easy to go through motions without attending to their perfection. small achievable goals… good job.

  6. I think I’d rather get hit with somone’s behind than smelly smelly feet..Unless the person is wearing socks. But socks smell, too. I hate anything that ruins the bun Inside my hijab. I’m short so people have a tendency to hit my head with the arms/elbow. rawr.

    Your Ramadan sounds a helluva lot better than mine. I just fasted and read a little Qur’an. I’m still in India and there isn’t a nearby mosque which allows women for taraweeh.

    I have yet to watch the Kite Runner movie.I read the Notebook. I think Nicholas Sparks is soo muchy gushy. Remember A Walk to Remember? {I am pretty sure than was also by him}

  7. You know, I’ve only been to this blog three or four times… Ramadan started right after I discovered you, and I guess you were posting on Flickr? At any rate, I know this is weird, but I missed you?! Told you it was weird. But, I read this post today, and I realized why. You’re just…so cool. Great post.

  8. Freckles,
    at the end of jummah last week, the imam recited ayat al-kursi, as he always does, and we all chimed in, as we always do, and i remembered your comment here. =) somehow, people’s voices are different when reciting ayat al-kuri – deeper and more resonant. i don’t know what it is, or how to explain.

    HIGHFIVE! we finished the seasalt&pepper croutons this evening. they are ama-ZING, and i’m going to have to buy more next time i go grocery shopping. thanks for the sujood tip! ;)

    i haaaaated The Notebook (and i’m saying that in my fobby desi accent, for full effect). also, L lowved that filum?! (interro-ugh!) must have a discussion with her about this. INCONCEIVABLE!

    you keep getting referenced in my posts. i lowve it! am tempted to post all those ‘i hate the word suhoor‘ convos i had with folks on gchat; what do you think? :D also, my end-of-ramadan was less about being bummed along the lines of ‘ramadan is awesome and i’m going to miss it’ and more like, ‘o mein gott, i didn’t do jack!’ sigh.

    but…thank you for the ‘small achievable goals’ highfive. you’re right. this year in ramadan, i perfected my rukuh, and that makes me happy. =)

    me, too! let’s stab all those fuckles.

    hahaha there was one taraweeh where the woman next to me didn’t believe in the concept of personal space at all, and kept smushing her feet up against mine while we were seated, which gave me a bit of an icky feeling. i love my feet, and i generally don’t have adverse reactions to other people’s feet, but this was just too much. also, is it blasphemy to admit that i did like A Walk to Remember (the film)? mainly because i’m a fan of Switchfoot.

    that was such a sweet comment – thank you. you made me smile so much! =) i’m very glad you stop by regularly. you’re pretty rocking in my book, too, for reals.

  9. Thank you for this beautiful and sunny post, Yasmin. I have officially have a girl-crush on you! I love the way you look at life. You are so beautiful mashaAllah.

  10. zed,
    hahaha ‘girl crush,’ eh? thank you, i’m flattered! =)
    am glad you enjoyed the post; it’s a bit all over the place, as much of my writing seems to be these days, but i’m glad everyone is managing to pick out whatever resonates with each of you.

    i hope you keep stopping by! (i remember you now, and it’s been a while, i think. =))

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