Hour of None

Early Christians had a custom of dividing up the day into four blocks of about three hours, each with its own mood and prayers to say. It was actually a practice that historians say was adopted from Judaism as a way to structure and honor the passage of time. I was surprised to see the third portion of the day referred to as the “Hour of None.”

The None in this instance was derived from the word “nine,” referring to the ninth hour of the day, which generally fell at about three in the afternoon and led into evening. But what I found most interesting was how this particular chunk of time was characterized. It was considered the portion of the day when businesses closed for the night and people returned home to bathe and eat. It offered both a break from work and a transition before the last prayers; it played the role of sort of spiritual exhalation. I wondered about the synchronicity of the names—if, culturally speaking, we aren’t in our own “Hour of None.” Perhaps we’ve entered something of a pause, a retreat from the normal course of things, an opportunity to reflect and prepare for what comes next.

If we have arrived at such a time, this “time off,” then I have the opportunity to consider what to bundle up and smuggle with me into whatever phase awaits. From Judaism I’ll take monotheism, which I’ve come to appreciate as the birthplace of the radical notion that all beings on this planet—human and otherwise—originate from the same source and are, therefore, intrinsically connected. I want to remember the intent of Sabbath—a designated time to surrender productivity and allow myself to relish the freedom of simply being. I must not forget to take a moment or two each day to focus my thoughts once again on how miraculous it is to be alive, perhaps letting a simple but amazing sight—a cloud formation or a fragrant bloom or a loved one’s smile—trigger the thought. I would like to keep the Jewish custom of keeping the word “dayenu” on the tip of my tongue, letting it tumble out in those moments when I am suddenly overwhelmed with appreciation or, perhaps more importantly, urging myself to say it when I feel slighted or cheated or preoccupied with someone who appears to have it better. Dayenu! I have everything I need—more than enough. I only need tap a deep well of gratitude.

I refuse to go forward without the story of Jesus tucked close to my heart. Here was a free-thinking rebel of his day who broke with tradition so he could best demonstrate his love and care for others. He lives on as a powerful example: all that is noble and good can exist in a person, the divine can be embodied, we are capable of greater heights of love—for ourselves and others. I can’t not think of the way he died, how exposed he was on that cross; how he literally shared his death with the world, demonstrating that strength is possible even in our most vulnerable moments—maybe especially at those times. Even in my darkest hours, I can rest assured that I am loved because I am not exempt from that most personal message Jesus sent to every single person: I love you. But I must strive with all my might to complete the assignment he left humanity. He was quite clear that we are to experience joy and to love others, two things that one might assume are easy but are perhaps the greatest challenges any of us face.

From Buddhism, I’ll borrow the daily practice of sensing “the oneness” to which monotheism points. It shows me how to go beyond recognizing my interconnectedness as an intellectual concept to feeling the truth of it with every fiber of my being. I want to occupy that space of knowing for as often and long as possible, and when I forget I want to find my way back, because great comfort is found there. I can cultivate this sense of wellbeing and then I can turn around and share it, projecting it out into the world where it will manifest in ways too mysterious for my mind to comprehend.

If Buddhism helps me nurture a sense of belonging by focusing inward, then Islam encourages me to fix my gaze outward and translate this unity into a sense of duty. It urges me to assume a position—on knees, forehead to the ground—conducive to embracing my own vulnerability so that I am better able to empathize with people in need. Ultimately, it would have me transform empathy into action, finding concrete ways to help society’s weakest members. Then, as further challenge, it nudges me to expand the collective to which I identify. It wants me to push beyond the obvious affinities such as nationality, race, socio-economic status, gender, or religious affiliation to ever-widening circles of humanity. Perhaps, at last, I can arrive to place where I feel beholden to every living creature and the earth itself.

The Pentagon Chapel

One of the Pentagon Chaplain’s deputies (my second escort of the day) came in and said it was time for both of us to head to the chapel. On our way across the hall, the Chaplain explained that we were joining a group of European visitors. These were government administrators from various countries who were attending a conference in D.C.; they had signed up for a visit to the Pentagon Chapel. Some of them were Muslim, so the official in charge of Islamic services would be joining to conduct a little question-and-answer session, which would lead directly into Jummah prayers for those who wished to stay.

At long last, and in fewer than 10 steps, I was standing inside the chapel. In some ways, it was an exceptionally ordinary space. The size of perhaps three private offices combined and opened into one big area, it retained elements true to its original use like industrial-looking carpet and a drop ceiling covered in generic-grade tiles. Five stained glass panels offered the only obvious sign of the room’s function. All of them had images that spoke to me of patriotism and strength: eagles, American flags, sun beams, stars. Four served in place of windows, but the fifth was at the front above where an altar might go. The only one with words, it read: United in Memory September 11, 2001.

I joined the 15 or so individuals already seated. The Chaplain and Muslim leader greeted each other jovially and then teamed up to answer questions about the chapel’s construction and uses; I studied the room. All the furniture was moveable to accommodate different needs. The Chaplain and I had entered from the hall, but I noticed a more formal entrance at the back, where a glass door led to something like a foyer and, beyond that, doors to the outside. This must provide easy access for guests invited to the chapel for special functions such as weddings or memorials; during certain hours, it also allowed visitors who just wanted to see the chapel to have a peek.

I looked at those words: United in Memory. I thought about the oft-used motto, “United We Stand.” The unity to which these phrases refer suddenly struck me as so narrow. They implied unity against an enemy such as another country or group of people. The common denominator among every religion I had explored was this: the mindset of an all-encompassing unity, all of creation connected. I wondered if humans were capable of forming much broader alliances—uniting, perhaps, against truly universal enemies such as poverty, hunger, illness, greed, hate, and shame.

After the question-and-answer session, it was time for Jummah. The Muslim leader invited me to participate. Within a few minutes, the chairs at the front of the room had been moved and carpets spread on the ground. The chapel was transformed into a little mosque. I fetched my headscarf from my bag. A couple of the men from the European contingent stayed, and more people joined. Most were middle-aged, middle-management types, but some stood out: a young guy in fatigues, an older man whose blue bib suggested cafeteria work, a young woman in hijab. The orientation had shifted: not only were we on the floor but we were no longer looking toward the front of the room. The other woman and I had our backs against the outer wall of stained-glass panels. The men were only a few feet in front of us. We were all facing the interior of the building.

For months I had imagined doing Jummah prayers here; now I was doing them. It was a dream come true. I thought about what a long and demanding road this project to explore religion had been. I thought how religion should help heal and unite but, often, is used to hurt and destroy. I thought about the individuals who had died here. I thought about people all around the world killed because of war. As I bent to place my forehead on the floor, my tears dropped on the carpet. I let them fall because it seemed appropriate to leave some tears here.

At the end, everyone was invited to say a few words to the group. When it was my time to speak, I thanked them for allowing me, a non-Muslim, to join today. “I lived in D.C. at the time of 9/11,” I told them. “Being here today felt….” A sob caught in my throat and I didn’t think I could finish. Quickly, I managed, “…really good. Thank you.”

As we stood to leave, the old man in the blue worker’s bib approached me. I thought he might say something. I recognized the look in his eyes: a mixture of sadness and joy that needs no translation. He raised his hand and, without a word, I knew what was being asked. He wanted connection, but was unsure how. I looked at the floor, giving him access to the top of head. He pressed his open palm to my crown. I suppose what he offered was a blessing or healing of sorts; a gesture of love and gratitude, equally. Unspoken, it said everything.

The Chaplain

Back at the Office of the Chaplain, as I waited, I was still thinking about what the priest had said. It struck me as radical: the idea that faith leaders would cater to the spiritual needs of people regardless of religious affiliation. Chaplains in the military are working with young people whose job description includes not just an ability to kill, but a willingness to die. In the task of war, the differences that exist within the group become secondary to the goal of defeating a common enemy. These factors create an atmosphere in which inter-faith cooperation seems to thrive—but it’s unity forged in the context of a greater disunity.

The Pentagon Chaplain announced that he was free to meet. I sat opposite him in his office. Out in the waiting area, his mood had seemed jovial and light. Now a storm cloud had rolled in. Even his posture looked to be curving in as if he were a kid about to be punished. He appeared unhappy enough that I considered telling him we didn’t have to do this. I hadn’t expected a private conversation. I was still amazed I made it through the front door. I had gotten so much, now all I really wanted was to see the chapel.

Neither of us spoke for a moment and then he apologized. He explained that writers made him nervous. Since the chapel’s official dedication, journalists had come in to do stories that, when printed, never failed to generate a firestorm of criticism. Always, representatives from the general public were outraged that Muslims were allowed to worship in that space. Or someone else was fuming because their particular  denomination didn’t appear to have its own seat at the table. Or another person thought the entire endeavor was a joke and a travesty.

I tried to assure him that I wasn’t THAT kind of writer. I wasn’t a reporter, and the story I was working on wasn’t exactly journalism—it was personal, more like memoir. At the very least, whatever I was writing was unlikely to appear online in some national news publication with an open-access comments section. I told him I sympathized: those comments can be brutal.

He said part of the problem was that people didn’t understand the logistics of how faith groups came to worship in the chapel. It wasn’t determined by him—or any other Pentagon official, for that matter. The groups are formed by Pentagon employees, and not just military personnel. Anyone who works in the building is eligible: secretaries, cashiers, janitors. Islamic prayers are held in the chapel not for the purpose of making a political or social statement, whatever it might be, but because the Pentagon has Muslim employees who have the same rights as every other employee. Groups that hold weekly prayer services also include Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, Episcopal, Hindu, and Jewish. And those are just the ones that gather in the chapel. Other faith groups meet throughout the building. To be given permission to form, the members must agree to certain ground rules. They cannot speak ill of any other faith or faith group, even in private. They sign a contract agreeing to this. Once a year, all the groups are asked to come together to participate in a multi-faith service.

The Chaplain’s demeanor had changed completely—he was back to being relaxed and friendly. He seemed to be thinking out loud: yes, the problem was also one of perception. The chapel had been designed as a space to serve Pentagon employees and, technically, that’s how it operated but this did not account for its symbolic function. The violent events that took place to create the chapel had been a very traumatizing, public experience. The plane crashed into the building at that exact spot. For this reason, people have a sense that the space itself, and all that takes place within it, belongs to everyone.

A goodbye hug

As Salma spoke, I noticed her finger nails were tipped magenta. What surprised me about her disclosure wasn’t that Muslims could have differences, but that such differences might exist within a unit as intimate as husband and wife or dad and daughter without it threatening the familial bond. If ever there were negotiations, it seems they long ago ceased, and now the family members lived in harmonious dissent. Perhaps this was a lesson for unity on any scale.

“It’s important you know that not every Muslim agrees,” Salma told me. “I don’t cover my head in public, but I don’t believe this makes me less devout.” On this last point, she was clear: she considered herself faithful. She performed her daily prayers, and she was true to the other pillars. “It’s important that we educate ourselves and do what we feel is right for us as individuals.” I thanked her for sharing her perspective, and silently wondered if voices like hers might help make some aspects of Islam more compatible with contemporary tastes.

By the time I was ready to go, Raj and his family had showered me with so many gifts that they also had to give me a shopping bag in which to carry them. I received a beautiful Quran, much nicer than the cheap paperback version I had been using. They gave me a box of sweets to share with my grandmother; they were delicious, like extra-rich and dense donut holes. Before his departure, Abdul handed me a jug. It was the shape of a canister one might use for gasoline, but much smaller and made of clear plastic. “It’s Zamzam water,” he said of the liquid inside. It took a moment for his words to register: I was holding water from Mecca. Aside from the Kaaba, the spring from which this water comes is perhaps the most important site in all of Islamic history. Like the Eid itself, its significance is tied to Abraham’s son, Ishmael. It is said that when Ishmael was an infant and desperate with thirst, the earth gurgled forth at this spot and has offered precious life-sustaining water in abundance ever since. “I brought it back from my Hajj,” Abdul told me. “You may have it.” I couldn’t believe this precious item was mine to keep.

After I thanked everyone profusely and promised to stay in touch, Raj walked me outside. At the car, I set my bag of gifts down. I felt an overwhelming appreciation for the effort Raj had made to get my phone number that first day. I was grateful to his family for including me in their Eid celebrations, and for everything they had taught me. If I was to follow Islamic norms, I would have taken care not to touch Raj. I would have driven away with a wave. But that felt all wrong: too formal and not at all indicative of the fondness I had developed.

“May I give you a hug?” I asked. I was emboldened by Salma’s advice. Each person has to assess guidelines for themselves and make judgments about what is and isn’t applicable. Raj seemed pleased by my question. “Yes,” he answered. He smiled and I went in for an affectionate squeeze that perfectly fit the situation.


“Your grandma tells me you are Christian.”

These were the words spoken to me by Judy, Grandma’s paid helper who comes once a week to do whatever needs doing. She’s a middle-aged woman who is a full-time nanny; she does grandma’s bidding on her day off. Judy and Grandma had just returned from an outing to the doctor. Judy’s statement lingered in the air between us: she put it out there, but I wasn’t quite ready to receive it. Of all my characteristics Grandma might have mentioned, this is what she selected?

“Interesting,” I said. Maybe Grandma had a point: perhaps I was a Christian whether I chose to be or not. It didn’t matter if I accepted Jesus as God. It didn’t even matter if I went to church. Some essence that trumps anything I might believe or do has been passed down through generations. I am Christian because as far back as anyone knows, my family has been Christian.

I don’t know if it was her getting older or my religious explorations but since I had been in town, Grandma’s Christian identity had cranked up a notch. She acted horrified by the fact that I had never in my life attended an Eastern Orthodox service. “How is that possible?” she asked incredulously. You never took me, I wanted to say.

Now that Grandma was almost 90, she had a good excuse for never going to church. She said the service started too early and lasted too long. Standing was expected during certain portions of the ceremony, which she could no longer manage. For these reasons, I gave up on the idea that she and I would attend a service together. It seemed strange to go without her, so I ditched the notion of going at all. I thought it was ironic that of all the faiths and denominations I had visited, I would be missing the one that was perhaps most closely associated with my family. I made my peace with this fact. Then, early one Sunday morning, Grandma shuffled into my bedroom in her nighty. “Let’s go to church today,” she said. I looked at her through one squinted eye. I had other plans for that morning, but I wiped them away. If Grandma wanted me to take her to church, by all means, I would do so.

The issue that divides the Orthodox Church from the Catholic Church is reminiscent of the main division within Islam. The Orthodox Church refused the authority of the pope, who Catholics considered infallible. Orthodox Christians rejected the notion that a person could possess an essence, passed down by blood or some other invisible source of transference, which made his relationship to the divine more profound than that of an ordinary person.

This same idea has been hotly contested among Muslims, and it created the Sunni vs. Shiite rift. After Muhammad’s death, a dispute erupted over who should become the next leader of the ummah. Some believed Muhammad had intended his successor to be his cousin Ali, who had been a faithful member of the ummah from the beginning. No one could deny Ali’s loyalty, but others thought Muhammad had specifically wanted to avoid appointing a leader who was related to him by blood. Perhaps he feared his legacy would become like a monarchy where leaders who ascend based on a birthright are assumed to possess an intangible quality that makes them special. This could threaten the equality among members he worked so hard to establish and inspire a devotion that should be reserved for Allah alone. People in this camp believed Muhammad would want his father-in-law, Abu Bakr, to take over.


At the inner-city mosque that broke off from the Nation of Islam, the imam stood to address the room. He sported a trim beard and skull cap. Words didn’t just slide out of his mouth and tumble to the floor, they leapt and danced and marched. “People educate their minds, but they don’t educate their hearts,” he declared.

Muhammad’s guidance for how leaders are to address gatherings is to “speak from the heart.” I noticed that talks given in mosques had a stream-of-consciousness quality to them. They tended to be looser and more spontaneous than speeches I had heard at the worship places of other faiths. This one possessed that same quality, but was delivered in an oratory style reminiscent of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If you want to change your life, you have to change your heart,” the imam said. He paused to let that sink in. This congregation, perhaps more than any I had visited, lived by those words. Every Saturday and Sunday, they operate a program called “Feed Our Neighbors” in which the parking lot transforms into a food distribution center. Pictures on the website show the down-and-out crowd waiting in a line stretching up the street. By some estimates, they hand out 20,000 meals a year. Though far from affluent, this congregation stays true to Muhammad’s instruction to help the needy. The imam took a deep breath and scanned the audience with an intense gaze. “Expand the heart…and you expand the mind!”

By the time we were ready for the communal prayer, a handful of newcomers had shifted the demographics of the room. Before, it had been 100 percent African American, now a small percentage were something else—from various places in the Middle East. I imagined they worked downtown and had found this mosque both convenient and compatible with their needs. As we went through the prayers and my forehead made contact with the floor, I let the last traces of worry melt into the ground.

Our bodies were positioned towards Mecca, but what we were really facing was the little structure in Mecca called the Kaaba. Long before Muhammad was born, the Kaaba had been used as a communal shrine to the various gods worshipped by the different tribes who lived in the region. Muhammad’s message of a single, unified community, or ummah, relied on the unity of the monotheistic one-God concept and his objective became to bring to the Arabian people this fundamental notion promoted by the Jews and Christians before him. When the idea of monotheism gained enough traction in the region, Muhammad repurposed the Kaaba by tossing out all the icons it contained and dedicating it to the one and only Allah.

On my way out of the mosque, I stopped at the information area and picked up a zakat form. I thought if I was going to make a charitable donation, one of their programs would be a worthy recipient. I looked more closely only to see what I thought was an appeal for contributions was actually a zakat application. This was the first I had seen anything like it. Anyone could take one and request financial assistance. The applicant had to specify why aid was needed, circling from a list of options that included housing, electricity, gas, water, telephone, food, transportation or other.

“Sister!” someone called. I turned. It was the friendly man in white from earlier; he was calling me sister. “Come back and visit again.”

The gap

When he first began to spread his message, Muhammad’s focus was almost entirely social justice. He lived in a region where many prospered from trade while others struggled to meet basic needs. In Muhammad’s time, it was normal for the rich to provide loans to the poor. Equally common were unfair lending practices such as high interest rates and payment schedules that put debtors at a disadvantage. Borrowers who failed to keep up might suffer from another caveat to the agreement: being forced work for their lender on terms dictated by the more powerful party. The households of the wealthy would expand as the disadvantaged lost their freedom, trapped in an indefinite loop of servitude.

Women and children were especially susceptible to this cycle. Custom did not permit women to accumulate resources in their own names or inherit wealth. Even a widow was not the typical recipient of her dead husband’s money. A woman who found herself with no male head of house would have no means of supporting herself or her children. If forced to borrow money, she would almost certainly be unable to pay it back. A needy widow might have no other option but to attach herself to a wealthy household by whatever means possible, even as a slave. Children left with no parents were especially at risk of needing to trade freedom for survival.

Both Muhammad and his beloved first wife Khadija faced circumstances before they met that could have relegated them to lives of subservience. They managed not only to avoid the worst consequences associated with those stations, but to go on to lead happy, prosperous lives. Muhammad lost his parents at a young age, but was raised lovingly in his uncle’s household. Khadija had been widowed, but amazingly defied the status quo by obtaining her deceased husband’s wealth and his thriving trade business. But I think both Muhammad and Khadija lived with the “what if’s” of fates narrowly escaped.

Muhammad didn’t start speaking out for social reforms until after he married Khadija. With her love and support, he argued for changing lending practices and abolishing interest rates so that the poor could have easy access to resources. The wealthy elite hated his ideas, but Muhammad didn’t care. He believed women deserved the ability to accumulate wealth and receive inheritance. He insisted that the rich had a duty to care for the needy. While Muhammad’s message evolved and expanded, it was rooted in these issues that troubled him.

The problems that existed around Mecca during Muhammad’s life are not exclusive to that region or time. All over the globe and across generations, people struggle with the same things. The source of the disadvantage may vary—it might be race or education or illness or age. Women and children continue to make the list almost anywhere you go, though certain laws and government programs help.

After my parents broke up, I suppose my mom and I became a modern-day equivalent of Mecca’s widow and orphan. We landed at the bottom of the barrel resource-wise. Fortunately, we had my grandparents who lived in Dallas as a safety net. My mom’s parents lived in South Dallas, in a mostly African-American neighborhood. My dad’s parents lived north, in a much whiter and ritzier area. My mom and I were constantly driving back and forth between those two parts of town—between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Dallas is the first I was aware of the difference between wealth and poverty. Even today, after living in a handful of other cities with similar income disparities, I still think of Dallas as particularly polarized by income. I attribute this association, at least in part, with the low-income status I shared with my mom when we lived there. Ours was a modest means. But the other part of my association is certainly tied to the “Big D” culture of wearing one’s fortune. The rest of the country has since caught on—thanks to reality television, I fear—but Dallas was ahead of the curve: fancy handbags, head-to-toe designer labels, diamonds the size of ice cubes, cars that cost more than my mom would earn in a decade. Maybe the gap just seems so much wider when that extreme is flaunted.


Mostly Fatima and I practiced the passages I would need to perform daily prayers. We would go over the basics: the Tashahod and the Quran’s first sura—both of which are part of every prayer. But she’d also had me print out the phonetic versions of the Qurans last three suras, which are only a few lines each. With these, I would have options for the parts where it was “prayer’s choice.” This was the bare minimum I would need to do prayers right.

Fatima selected what we would practice each day. She would call out the words bit by bit, pausing for me to parrot her. It always reminded me of the famous scene from The Sound of Music where Julie Andrews teaches her young charges the basic components of a song by having them repeat the lines she sings. Only here it was called The Sound of Prayer. Fatima usually sat next to me as we practiced; occasionally, she would move around her apartment, tidying up and checking on her actual children. With my eyes glued to the appropriate cheat sheet, I would try to mimic what she said but sometimes, even after we’d been going over the same line for several minutes, it would turn to mush in my mouth. When that happened, Fatima would get close. It was the only time she was ever stern. “Look at my mouth,” she would instruct because I was always reluctant to take my eyes off the translation. I never thought staring at her lips would help but, somehow, it always did.

I adored practicing short phrases. After the twists and turns of the longer passages, “Alhamdulillah” (praise to God) and “Bismillah” (in God’s name) were like little treats. I wanted to repeat them over and over again. I loved how “Subhana rabbiyal A’ala” felt like marbles rolling on my tongue. Fatima’s favorite phrase was “Insha’Allah” (God willing). It peppered all she said, as natural as breath. She whispered it every few sentences even when discussing something as simple as what she planned to do that evening. But I noticed she said it even more for big things like the approval of her husband’s dissertation. “If that happens, we will be going home soon. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah. Insha’Allah.”

One afternoon Fatima answered the door looking upset. Her concern was a recent headline about her country: an act of terror had killed a slew of civilians, some American. We sat together in her little living room. “I think it is worse now,” she said, referring to the instability since the death of the ruthless leader. She squeezed her eyes shut. “My country,” she said, swallowing a sob. Tears streamed down her cheeks. My own eyes welled up and I reached for her hand. For several minutes, we stayed like that—just holding hands. I wished for something more to say or do, but I could think of nothing better than to make her pain my own.

Fatima’s country

Just as I was settling in to the routine of attending the mosque class on Sunday’s, Fatima suggested we switch it up. She wanted me to come to her apartment during the week for more one-on-one time. I continued to fasten my headscarf in the rearview mirror, only now I emerged into the busy parking lot of a student housing complex. I felt like Clark Kent making the transition to Superman. I walked the pathways to Fatima’s building in hijab. I wasn’t concerned about running into anyone I knew because I felt unrecognizable. I had never understood why Lois Lane couldn’t tell that her super hero boyfriend was the same guy as her reporter colleague, but it suddenly made sense. Identity is so much bigger than a face.

The personal details about Fatima I had gathered at the mosque were skeletal at best. She had come to the United States for her husband’s graduate studies. She had two little girls. I also knew the basics about her homeland: a colonial past; a ruthless leader, initially supported by the west, brought down in spectacularly grisly fashion; roving bands of militants fighting for control. Its story was similar to at least a dozen other countries in that part of the world.

Now, with time spent just the two of us, I put meat on those biographical bones. Despite my preconceived notions regarding the status of women where she was from, Fatima had managed to obtain an advanced degree living there. She had been a professional working woman before coming to the United States. Her husband’s degree in agricultural sciences was being funded by her country’s government—some aspect of which was obviously working well enough to finance such projects. But her family’s efforts to broaden their horizons came with sacrifice. Since arriving in the U.S. more than five years earlier, they hadn’t returned home once. Both of their little girls had been born here. Their grandmothers back home had never held them.

I had only ever met ex-patriots of countries like hers who fled and had no desire to return. Not Fatima. She longed to go back. She spoke of her homeland with a tenderness some might reserve for the dearest loved one. She showed me pictures on the internet of its most beautiful features. She fed me its popular dishes. She called it “my country.” “This is food we eat in my country.” She and her husband had visited another town in the United States that reminded her of it. “The temperature, the way the air smelled,” she said with a serene smile. “I closed my eyes and I was in my country.”

I wondered how she felt about the ruthless leader who had been killed—if his rule was as bad as the media here had made it seem. She hadn’t been back since his death. Her gaze lowered to the floor, her expression went pensive. She nodded, “It was bad,” she whispered. She told me about a cousin who was executed for carrying anti-government propaganda in his car. “I’m sorry,” I said. I meant for her family’s suffering, but also for whatever role my country may have played in creating the situation. “Thank you,” she replied. I searched her eyes but didn’t see any blame there.



Ramadan afforded me the opportunity to approach the precipice of starvation and look out. From this vantage, I could see how food is understood by our bodies as hope and joy; its absence can lead to despair and sorrow. At times I felt its abandonment as if it were an actual friend. It didn’t help that my human pals seemed to be steering clear of me, saying we’d catch up after my Ramadan experience was over, as if our friendships were based on cramming goodies into our mouths. One day I felt so lonely and depressed that I convinced myself a small snack was a medical necessity to cheer me up. I ate a few almonds hoping they might function in my system like Prozac.

Every evening, as the minutes ticked closer to the time for food, I found that my hunger—which had inevitably dissipated sometime in the late afternoon—would kick back in. Just knowing I’d eat soon seemed to reengage some vital link between my belly and my brain. I worried, then, about those for whom hunger is a real problem—the kind of challenge that recurs, persistent and corrosive. What would happen if I didn’t see an end in sight? How devastating to face hunger again and again without knowing if or when you’ll eat again. It’s not just a physical toll, it’s emotional too.

If this experience was designed to heighten my gratitude for food and drink, it did that in spades. I began to think of water as “beautiful, beautiful water.” I ran an errand one afternoon and the cashier was enjoying an icy beverage from a to-go cup—the clear kind with matching lid and a straw. The liquid inside was amber; I imagined it was an herbal tea of some sort. I made believe it was mint-flavored. I waited in her line, mesmerized by the sight of the frosty condensation gathered across the plastic. I could not look away as she picked up the drink. The spots where her fingers gripped displaced tiny beads of moisture causing larger droplets to snake down. Outside, the temperature was a bone dry 95 degrees and I was approaching my 13th hour with no water. I stared unabashedly as she lifted the straw to her lips and sucked. The sight caused a slight dampness to bloom at the back of my tongue, but it was too little to swallow.

After having been apart from water, my very first sip back offered instantaneous relief and pleasure. It was an uncomplicated homecoming. With food, the re-acquaintance process was more measured, as if the time away had somehow damaged my trust. Even though the last 30 minutes or so before the fast’s end were usually some of the most difficult mentally—a point at which my Willy Wonka fantasies often kicked into overdrive—when the hour finally struck, I approached my meals cautiously. I would start with something small like toast or dates and graduate to items with more substance. I would eat methodically, over the course of many hours, my satisfaction building gradually until, at last, I felt absolutely content.

I was so excited by my normal routine when Ramadan ended. No more middle of the night water chugging. I could hydrate whenever I wanted. I resumed drinking coffee, a ritual I hadn’t realized was so vital to my productivity and sense of wellbeing. My appreciation for lunch and mid-day snacks soared. To eat before one’s energy begins to flag struck me as a revelation. My thinking was sharper, my limbs more adept. I could take walks in the middle of the day. I was instantly more cheerful.