Night of Power: A Ramadan Story

Nancy Lindisfarne writes: The lunar month which began in mid-June this year is the Islamic month of Ramadan, the month of fasting and charity. This is a story to mark Ramadan, and one day in the life of Basima. At forty five, she is still unmarried, on the shelf, and as the youngest daughter of a large Syrian family, she has become the sole carer of her elderly, difficult mother.

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This short story  is set in Damascus in the 1990s, where I did a year’s anthropological fieldwork among well-to-do Damascenes. For me, unlearning academic writing and writing fiction was a lengthy and salutary experience. The impetus came from my anger and exhaustion at countering simplistic, popular stereotypes of Arab or Muslim women and men as fundamentalists, terrorists, or both. My hope then was that the stories might be a way to reach an audience beyond the academy.

During Ramadan, observant Muslims fast each day of from dawn to dusk, preparing themselves for the day without food or water with an early breakfast before daylight, and breaking the fast at sundown, with, if they can manage it, a lavish, sociable meal. Leylat el-qadr, the Night of Power, at the end of the month is a night of prayer, a night when Mohammad received the revelation of the Quran from God.

[A collection of stories, Dancing in Damascus, was published by SUNY Press in 2000. Al raqs fi dimasq, an Arabic translation of Dancing in Damascus by the Syrian poet and playwright Mamdouh Adwan, appeared earlier, published by Dar al Mada in Damascus in 1997. Şam’da Raks, a Turkish translation by H. Ash Kőksal, was published by İmge, Ankara, in 2002. And for a Valentine’s Day Story click here]

NIGHT OF POWER

‘God is Eternal. God is Eternal.’ The chant rang through the streets calling the sleepers to wake and eat before the day’s fasting began. Basima plunged her head deep under the pillows, but the insistent beat of the musahher‘s drum cut across rhythm of the chant, and invaded her room, banishing the last remnants of a dream. Each morning Basima responded with greater and greater reluctance to the intrusive noise, but each time, of course, she crawled out of bed, wrapped herself in an old brown robe and slipped silently to the kitchen. She was still shivery as she watched the kitchen lights snap on in the neighbouring flats. She began to prepare a breakfast tray for her mother. She liked getting it ready, liked pleasing her mother, but by the time the musahher moved on to disturb the night elsewhere, his sobering message had drained Basima of any energy she might have had for the day.

‘Mama-daughter’, her mother’s voice wavered from the larger bedroom.

‘Coming, Mama-mother’, Basima replied.

She hated her own bleating response, but she never thought much about how mothers and daughters were the same female flesh, ‘mama‘ the same reversable term, or about the reversable roles, the perpetual story.

‘Mama.’ Her mother whimpered.

She wanted help to get to the toilet, to be washed for breakfast. She wanted help, could do without help, but wouldn’t. Basima knew that much and she knew her mother liked her to witness her commitment to piety and her determination to complete the fast. Basima also knew that if she were really sick, she would be excused fasting, but this year her mother seemed particularly conscientious. And this year she had become more and more enthusiastic about the idea of dying.

Her preparations for death had begun in earnest at the beginning of the month. ‘Mama’, she’d said over the tray of yoghurt and olives and a round of maruk bread made specially for Ramadan. ‘Mama, you must get down my death towels. They need to be washed and fresh. I felt cold this morning when I woke; I know I don’t have long now to live.’ She was slowly chewing a piece of bread, making regular smacking sounds with her lips. Basima was irritated by the complacent little noises and then disgusted when a clump of sticky crumbs fell from the corner of her mother’s mouth onto the pink flowers of her crumpled cotton nightdress.

She’d made the same request on earlier occasions and the towels were beginning to become limp with washing. How often had she heard her mother say that being ready for death was the measure of a good housewife? Basima never considered which one of them would be awarded this title, and by whom. Rather she had answered dutifully, ‘Yes, Mama. But Mama, you’re strong, and inshallah, you’ll live a long time yet.’ Maybe because her protestations sounded as limp as the towels, her mother began, as she often did, to speak dolefully of how terrible it was to be old and what a burden she had become to her children.

A mouthful of tea slipped down Basima’s throat and she felt her insides shrink and knot as she winced at the touch of the burning liquid. She could hear her friend, Ilham, telling her what her mother refused to see. That it wasn’t her six older children who cared for her, but only Basima who gave a damn. Basima, the seventh child, the youngest and now never to be married daughter at forty-five. She could hear Ilham saying these things, but she didn’t want to listen. Her mother, who may have detected some of Ilham’s lack of charity in Basima’s silence, had asked plaintively, ‘Will you promise me, Mama, that you will not let anyone else touch me when I die? I want you to wash my body when I die.’ The pathos of her request had trapped Basima forever.

‘It will kill me’, Basima thought every time she looked at her mother. But then she had taken to thinking this about almost everything. The money for the telephone bill was today’s killer, though at least paying the bill gave Basima an excuse for leaving the flat early, before the late spring sunshine warmed the air and provoked a nagging thirst and the headache that would go with it. She should have enjoyed the month away from work – the library had closed during Ramadan, so there was no food for thought either. Day by day she felt more and more frightened about what would happen when her mother did die.

Not that it was very likely in the near future. As Ilham insisted on pointing out, the old woman was clearly going to squeeze every drop of gratification from her going. And why shouldn’t she?, Basima had answered Ilham. Being the beloved mother of children successfully scattered all over the globe was what she’d worked hard all her life to achieve. Then Basima thought of her own tiny salary and was grateful that at least her mother didn’t phone her brothers in the States, or the one in Australia, to seek assurance. At least she was prepared to wait until one of them bothered to phone her. Then she would beam down the line, telling them how well she was, that she loved them and their children dearly. She never said a word about how Basima could barely pay their bills, or even how Basima was.

Well, Basima was fine, sort of, on this spring morning. She looked up at the lambkin clouds grazing out towards the oasis, teasing a woolly mist over the blue of their pasture. And when a clear patch emerged, the colour was so deep Basima wanted to soar up and join the clouds and be floated away to some other world.

In the middle of the next block, two old women chattered amiably about an Egyptian soap opera as they lumbered down the pavement. Their breadth was doubled by the heavy shopping and Basima had to step out into the street to pass them. She wondered vaguely why her mother didn’t find some companionable old lady to befriend, but her mother’s emotional needs seemed perfectly satisfied. Her life revolved round being the mother of seven children. This made her a good woman and much loved, or, in other moods, a good woman who was shamefully neglected by her ungrateful children. Her moods varied according to whether or not any of them had recently telephoned. Basima felt sorry for her mother when she was sad, and she too was happy when one of her brothers or sisters remembered them in Damascus.

A peasant with a large pile of stringy licorice roots on his barrow stood at the next corner. Basima stopped to buy a kilo of the brown shreddings; it would be good to have some sous to drink that evening when they broke their fast.

Sometimes Jamal, her eldest brother, would telephone from France. Her mother loved Jamal best. They all knew that. It felt as if they’d had to make do with Jamal’s left-overs and their mother’s hand-me-down love. When he phoned, he always reassured them that he never forgot his responsibilities as head of the family. It had been Jamal who’d explained that Basima’s most recent, and now final, suitor was an acquaintance of his and that the man was a womanizer and thoroughly unreliable. ‘Basima is too precious to go to such a man’, he’d said, and she heard an echo of her father’s voice when he’d added, ‘I don’t want to lose her, she’s my little girl’. Though she didn’t agree with his verdict, she loved Jamal and knew he had her best interests at heart. And she owed her father everything. She’d been his favourite and she missed him achingly, even now years after his death.

Since Jamal had finished off Basima’s suitor, her mother hadn’t left the house, not once for four years. Not once, after she’d had what they all called her stroke. In fact, it was her mother’s stroke that had finished the suitor off. The poor man had made every effort to be helpful and understanding. He’d even visited her mother in hospital, but whether he appeared with flowers or mabromme sweets which he knew her mother loved, Basima had watched her purse her lips, sniff loudly and turn her face to the wall. So eventually the man had given up and disappeared and he’d taken with him Basima’s lingering hope.

Basima paid the phone bill, then walked on to Salihiyya to buy vegetables for the last few days of Ramadan. As the sun climbed, the shadows of the buildings grew slim and the fumes from the cars didn’t help her thirst either. She wondered what she’d do when her mother died, where she’d live, whether there would even be a phone bill to pay. She was ashamed now of their dingy flat, but it was large and central and it would be worth a lot if it were sold. Her brothers and sisters wouldn’t want to keep it. They would prefer to sell up and divide the money amongst themselves. Then what would happen? She’d never be able to get another flat – not even a nice room – with her share of the inheritance. And she had nothing else.

A mixture of panic and self-pity threatened to overwhelm her. It was all she could do to keep walking without turning herself into a spectacle of distress and tears. Mercifully, her thoughts turned in a more manageable direction and she began to worry how she would be able to find the money to get the balcony door repaired. Maybe the caretaker who worked at the library would be willing to do the job. She was pleased she had always bothered to stop for a word with him and could remember the names of his three young daughters. It was important to know people like him.

But she knew lots of people. That really wasn’t the problem. She especially liked those she’d met through her friend, Ilham. ‘A waif and a stray’ is what Ilham had called the two of them. Ilham was also unmarried, but she seemed to survive the condition with better humour and more style than Basima. It was through Ilham that Basima had joined The City Association and though the people, the family outings and the lectures were worthy, and safe, and rather boring, what else was there for her to do that her mother wouldn’t find completely objectionable? And she and Ilham always managed to have fun when they were out together.

Basima arrived at the street market. Early as she was, she was always later than the truly exemplary housewives. She looked over the tired spinach and decided she wouldn’t give herself the task of washing it, so she bought a marrow and a couple of small heads of lettuce instead. Stepping carefully through the debris of rotting vegetable tops, she then considered the barrows of fruit on the other side of the market. Basima tried to stop herself falling in with the desperation of the other shoppers who acted like people stockpiling food in anticipation of war. She knew that if she caught their frenzy she would be barely able to carry her shopping back to the house.

Once she had surveyed the remaining piles of fruit, she decided on bananas. Though they were blackish-brown and looked like amputated monkey paws, they would be soft and mushy. The bananas would please her mother and pose no problems for her ill-fitting dentures which had a tendency to click forward and slip out of her mouth and onto her lap. Finally, there were the dates, walnuts and coconut for the helwiyat Ramadan. If she didn’t settle down to making the sweets soon, they’d not be done in time for the Feast.

Basima rounded the final corner before their house and caught a hint of the fragrance of the pines in Sibki Square. She wasn’t sure if she could actually remember when the Ramadan cannon had stood in the small park, but it pleased her to think she did. The Feast at the end of Ramandan was fun when she was a child – the new clothes, the carpets spread in the streets, the man with the dancing bear. Once she’d sat with friends on a double swing facing a group of three little boys. The girls had begun the competition: ‘Ouuli, aleikum ya sabiyan – Boys are a disaster’, and the boys had screamed ‘How disgusting you girls are – Tafoo, aleikum al binat’ in return. She suddenly wondered how it could be that only six-year olds knew and sang that rhyme.

A cool breeze slipped out of the flat to greet Basima when she returned home. Across the room her mother was sitting on one of the sofas, her head covered with a thin white ghata. She was quietly purring to herself as her finger traced the words of the Qoran in her lap. She didn’t look up when Basima entered the room, but at least she wasn’t dead.

Having rushed to prepare for the iftar meal, Basima was denied the precious nap she hoped to snatch. The first time she heard the static sounds of the doorbell, she found two deep-eyed women and several grubby children staring at her with alert, imploring looks. ‘Merhaba, ya Sitti, any old clothes or shoes for the poor?’, asked the taller of the women, the one who carried a tiny infant in her arms. Basima gave a nod and left the women at the door to rummage at the bottom of her wardrobe for the two ugly dresses her sister had jettisoned during her last visit from Beirut. It’s good to be generous, she thought, and she remembered how she’d clung to her mother’s knees the first time she had watched such people come to the door, and how puzzled she’d been when her mother had muttered something about a beggar’s curse.

Later that afternoon the ancient doorbell cracked and buzzed a second time and a man who had worked for her father, came to pay his respects, accompanied by his wife and a young granddaughter. ‘Our little Nazira is fasting for the first time today’, the man said, and the child responded by making a special effort to look particularly demure and modest. ‘May God accept her efforts’, Basima’s mother replied with such unction that Basima wondered if her mother wasn’t a bit frightened of death after all. But the thought passed as she listened to the man and her mother tell themselves the stories of her father’s industry and sense of fair play. Basima felt gratified that her father was still well-loved after so many years, and she was relieved that these afternoon guests could be offered just a few polite words of thanks at the end of their visit. Those who came in the evening would expect coffee and sweets.

As Basima set out the dishes for the iftar meal, her mother switched on the television and sat cross-legged on the sofa, the tips of her soft white feet peeping out from under her nightdress. She was watching a sheikh intone the ayyan prayers, his heavy body swaying as he sang in a falsetto voice. Basima recalled Jamal’s tantrums when he’d been sent to learn to read the Holy book from a muallim who lived nearby. The day her big brother refused to go back to the Qoran school she had tucked herself in a corner. ‘The muallim stinks of yoghurt and garlic’, Jamal had shrieked. ‘He made me sit on his lap, and has a stick made of pomegranate wood to hit boys who don’t pay attention’. And from her corner, Basima had watched their father beat Jamal for his disrespect.

She shook away the memory and tried to give her whole-hearted attention to the sheikh, as her mother did, but she was distracted by the rush of noise from the street as people dashed to do last minute shopping and be home in time to break the fast with their families. It is hard to cross the street just before iftar, Basima thought, waiting patiently for the television to relay the sound of the cannon fired at some army base, and for the television sheikh to call out ‘Allah hu Akbar‘ and for a sweet silence to fall across Damascus as famished citizens slaked their thirst before gorging on the evening meal.

‘Last week Basima went to an iftar banquet for members of The City Association at the Sham Palas Hotel’, Basima heard her mother tell the two elderly sisters, her father’s cousins, who’d come for an evening visit. ‘Can you imagine us doing that in our day? Breaking the fast with people who aren’t family?’

‘But they all know each other’, the older cousin replied, smiling at Basima, and Basima nodded. Her mother ignored the exchange. ‘I’m sure they are all good people, but it’s the waste of it all. Ramadan is for remembering the poor. It isn’t our religion to fast and then gobble rich food like that, and in a public place.’

‘But mother, the meal wasn’t lavish’, Basima interjected, though what she had found funny was the sound of two hundred people salivating as they waited for the boom of the cannon on the top of the Commercial Bank.

Her mother sniffed and turned pointedly to address the cousins, ‘And can you imagine. There were Mellawiyyah dervishes performing on stage as if they were entertainers in a revue’.

‘But it’s good for people to remember their religion, and keep the old customs alive’, Basima said and looked again at her mother, but the younger cousin, the one with heavy, dark grey hair, was tut-tutting in response to her mother’s judgement, and Basima’s remark passed unnoticed.

‘Our grandfather, our jeddat, was so well loved’, the older cousin began, becoming so animated that the mauve crepe quivered over her bosom, ‘that the neighbours didn’t play their radios for forty days after he died. The night of the Mellawiyyah service – you were still tiny then, so I guess you don’t remember’, she excluded her younger sister from the memory, ‘that night, men from the quarter came to the house and I slipped in between the men’s legs to watch the dervishes. I thought they were angels’, she laughed, ‘and for a long time afterwards, I imagined that heaven was full of young men in long white robes spinning to the music of the drums and flute’.

‘It was good then, when children began to know religion early’ Basima’s mother said. The two cousins nodded, happy to think they too shared such an upbringing. Basima was grateful for this turn in the conversation. She’d been waiting all day to speak to her mother about her evening plans, and it would be much easier now that these mild old women were present. ‘Mama’, Basima said, ‘later this evening Ilham and the others are coming for me in Asmet’s car. We’re going to see the dervishes again, this time properly, at a zawiyyah in the old city. It’s the Night of Power – Leilat el Qadir, it will be a good to go there tonight’.

Basima’s mother raised her head stiffly and began to swell as she drew a deep, noisy breath. ‘Oh Basima’, the mauve cousin interrupted, ‘you were always such a serious, thoughtful child.’ Then turning to her mother, she added, ‘You must be so happy that Basima loves religion so much’, and Basima could hear her mother suppress her reply with a shorter, less audible sniff.

Basima poured the old women second cups of tea, as her mother, reminded of her dutiful children, began to speak about the overseas phone calls she was expecting during the Feast. Basima thought how unkind Ilham had been about what she’d called her mother’s good relationship with God. Her mother’s wishes were likely to come true, Basima thought, and she was looking forward to the phone calls as well. Then, with another swift glance at the old women, Basima slipped away to her bedroom and put on the blue jellabiya whose long sleeves would offset the gold braid around the yoke. Nor would the beaded edges of the black and red scarf matter, so long as her head was covered.

As she knotted the scarf around her head, the doorbell gave a dull bumbling ring. Before turning to answer it, Basima snatched a quick glance in the wardrobe mirror. Instead of her father’s little sparrow, the one which usually peered out at her from the mirror, she saw a tiny, dark woman dressed in what might be one of the outlandish oriental costumes of the dance troop who performed every night on television. ‘You look ridiculous’, she muttered to herself, but at least her mother wouldn’t say anything with the cousins here, and anyway, Basima muttered with a touch of defiance, ‘Good intentions are what counts in religion, not what people say’. Then she allowed herself a fleeting smile as she wondered what the elderly cousins would make of her transformation. She felt sure their praise for her piety would be uttered with less conviction after she’d gone.

Basima fairly rushed out of the house to greet her friend Ilham and Ilham’s sister who were already sitting in the back of Asmat’s old Peugeot. Asmat was Ilham’s cousin and he’d managed to miss marrying just as they had. As Basima tried to slide on to the seat next to them, the sister’s seven year old let out an unpleasant squawk when his mother asked him to make her some space. Asmat turned around and chided the boy with avuncular good humour, then glowered more menacingly when the child cackled with laughter at the sight of Basima’s scarf and reached up to snatch it away. ‘Oh, don’t be so rude’, Ilham joked. ‘Such a little man’, she added with a flirting lilt which encouraged the little boy to make another grab at the scarf. When the scarf then snagged and tore on one of the pins in Basima’s hair, Ilham cried out, ‘Oh, you are so naughty. You must apologize to Aunty Basima immediately’, but the boy only laughed at her chiding and gave Basima a shove to make some more space on the back seat for himself.

Wondering why this was all so familiar, Basima remembered that, of course, this was just how her brothers behaved when they were young. Then she too laughed at the child’s boldness, ‘Don’t worry. It’s only an old scarf’. She wasn’t used to children and a familar dart of pain reminded her that she would have liked to have had a child if things had been different, if a man she’d respected had asked her to marry him.

As the car trundled southwards through the traffic towards the old city, the child’s energy caught hold and the three women in the back seat began giggling as they retied their scarfs in a variety of extravagant styles. As the noise rose, Cousin Asmat, who was neither young nor what Basima considered eligible, became increasingly stern and insisted on telling them more about the Mellawiyyah, but they were too excited by prospect of a night out in the old city to pay much notice.

From the end of the souq, where they had parked the car, they walked into the area of the old city near the Great Omayyid Mosque where the Ministry of Tourism renovations were most visible. ‘The old city is so helu now, so sweet; let’s stop for some tea’, Basima said. The other women agreed with enthusiasm and then watched as Basima skittered round chasing the little boy who had by this time snatched the scarf off her head and was taunting her from across the plaza.

However, Cousin Asmat’s determined sobriety prevailed as they walked toward the zawiyyah. Entering the thronging house, Asmat was directed towards the men’s place in the large interior courtyard on the ground floor, and the three women and the little boy were taken to the women’s quarters on the two upper floors which ringed the courtyard below. Basima looked at the waggle of the women’s fat bottoms as they jostled each other, pushing forward to the balcony railings to watch the men’s congregation below. She was surprised by their casual good humour, and shocked at the ribaldry of some of their comments.

Only when she elbowed her way to a place by the balcony railing on the highest floor could Basima see the lines of devotees, dressed in white jellabiyas and skullcaps, standing round the central rectangle. And she could see, at one end of the courtyard, several elderly sheikhs, each with a tall felt hat and each with their brown caftan robes mysteriously lined with a different colour of brilliant satin – red, green, black and blue. Then, as she was meant to do, she turned her attention to the open space in front of the sheikhs where two young dervishs were spinning to the music, their wide circular skirts bell-shaped as they turned effortlessly to the monotonous beat. From the high balcony above the courtyard, the dervishes looked like spinning tops hurtling round the marble floor below. As the rhythm pulsed, the lines of devotees would surge forward. A few men, themselves swaying trancelike, would break ranks and move forward to where the dancers revolved with greater and greater speed, until a man, dressed in the white shirt and dark trousers of off-duty policeman, scolded the devotees and reformed them into tidy lines to keep the long narrow space clear for the dancers.

Rapt and childlike, Basima peered down at the men below. She’d just spotted the light glinting off Asmat’s glasses, when Ilham pushed her way to Basima’s side. ‘You know’, she said, eager to share the titbits of religious knowledge she’d acquired from one of the older women, ‘our Prophet received the Qoran on the Night of Power, and a prayer said now is worth a thousand times one said on any other night’. Basima nodded. Of course she knew that, and she felt a rush of pious virtue warm her body.

Basima felt the heat of the women’s bodies pressed against her back and sides. Only the women immediately next to her along the balcony were quiet as they peered down to where two new dervishes had taken the places of the others who had spun themselves to a climax and, half-fainting, had been led over to the sheikh whose hand they kissed before retiring. This time, as the music rose and the bell skirts began to spin out further and further, Basima’s gaze fastened on one of the dervishes and on the whirling diagonal line of his head and arms. His left arm was a white column reaching downward, describing a tight circle on the marble floor, as if tethering his body to the earth to resist the lift of his skirt. But the balance of his body was upward, his cheek rested on his right shoulder and the line of his brown fez ran parallel along the length of his upper arm. The line then continued on through his fingertips pointing heavenward in an ever-widening gyre. Basima felt the invisible energy shooting upward from the spinning axis of the dervish’s body. It pierced her own until she too felt a movement which spiralled her toward the vaulted roof of the zawiyyah high above her.

Just when Basima felt herself losing all sense of time and place, Ilham jogged her elbow again and said excitedly, ‘And do you know that any wish you make tonight is sure to be granted?’ Basima, still disorientated from the rush of movement, said ‘Yes’, and in that moment she knew the wish she would make. Then she turned again to look down. Though the ecstacy of spinning had passed, Basima felt overwhelmed by her soaring flight and tears began to slip down her face to drop on the men far below.

It was very late when Asmat drove along the street which edged Sibki park. Basima was surprised to see light glinting under the door as she turned her key in the lock. Her mother was still up, sitting as she must have been for hours, impassive and disapproving. ‘Oh, Mama’, Basima cried as she entered the room, before her mother could begin the lament Basima knew she would have turned over and over in her head while she waited. ‘Oh, Mama, it was so lovely. I’m so glad I went to the zawiyyah tonight. And Mother, tonight I made a wish. They say wishes made with a pure heart on the Night of Power are always granted.’

Her mother sniffed with annoyance, but Basima didn’t pause to think further about what was expected of her. She said again, ‘Mother, at the zawiyyah, I made a wish, Basima said in a tiny voice. Her mother sniffed again, but this time she looked at Basima with far more attention than she usually gave her daughter.

‘Mama, I need your help’, Basima said as she knelt at her mother’s wide knees. ‘Dear Mama, I’ve been so frightened about what will happen to me when you die that I’ve been fighting with God, praying that God will treat you differently from other people, that God will never let you die. Mama, this is haram, it’s a blasphemy and I am ashamed. I know you accept what is written, that you are ready for death, but I’m resisting it, Mama, because I’m frightened. Mama, what I need, what you can do for me, is help me to find a safe place to live when you are gone.’

This outburst, the first Basima had ever allowed herself in all the years that she had cared for her mother, had a strange effect on the old woman. She looked startled. Then she reached down and stroked Basima’s dark hair and began to mutter the fatiha prayer. When she had finished, she asked, ‘What is it you want, child?’ There was alarm in her question.

For the first time, Basima had a chance to explain the idea which had hovered at the edge of her thoughts each time her panic threatened to overwhelm her. ‘Mama, I know you can do nothing about our inheritance. That’s fixed and we’ll all take our shares after you’re gone. But, Mama, it is possible for you to bequeath a third of your property, a third of the house, separately. Mama, I’m not greedy, but I don’t have a family like Jamal and the others. Would you make that bequest for me? Then, with my other share, I could find a small flat when you are gone. Please, Mama, I’m not greedy, I am just frightened about what will happen.’

When Basima had finished speaking, she could feel a tremor in her mother’s hand, and looking up from her lap, she could see that her mother’s faded eyes had widened. ‘Yes, Mama. I’m sure that is what God wants me to do. It’s good to be generous in Ramadan’, her mother said, and then began to whisper the fatiha prayer again. When she’d finished, she added, ‘We’ll call in a lawyer after the Feast is over, and I’ll make provision for you in my will’, and Basima suddenly understood much more about her mother’s good relationship with God.

On the first morning after the end of Ramadan, the doorbell trobbed with perverse insistence. Neither Basima nor her mother were awake. They were part of the silence of the Feast when sleepers rest long and late for the first time in a month. When Basima finally struggled to the door, she was greeted by the musahher who was carrying the large frame drum which had battered the dark mornings with sound. Basima looked at the man and his one good eye. ‘What’, she exclaimed, ‘you wake us all month and then you come and wake us again on the first day of the Feast?’ But he saw the smile on her face and grinned, ‘Kolle amm watun be xeir, ya Sitti‘. Then, as he repeated a second time the greeting that would be heard throughout the days of the Feast, his little son held out a clear plastic bag towards Basima and in it she could see the wads of paper money, and some coins, that others had given to thank them for their trouble. As Basima emptied the contents of her change purse into the bag, the man said, ‘Thank you, Sitti; Praise be to God, and blessings to you for the Eid’.

As she watched the musahher and his children trail down the pavement to the neighbouring house, Basima repeated, ‘Alhamdilillah, and blessings on us all for the Eid’.

 

 

 

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