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Fast Fear

“Mama, it’s not bad, please,” reassures Abdurrahman. He’s come early from office, and is sitting on the living room carpet. Ibrahim and Amna are busy building with two large stacks of legos on either side of him.

I scarcely hear my mother-in-law’s voice, but Abdurrahman has been trying to reassure her for at least 10 minutes. I meanwhile am sitting at the kitchen table, desperately trying to catch up on my own work. Time is fleeting, especially during Ramadan, and I have fallen far behind. Also, the children’s long summer holiday, while wonderfully ‘free’, leaves little time for anything else.

What follows is an excerpt from the 10th chapter in the sequel to ‘A Qur’aanic Odyssey: Towards Juz Amma’, published by Greenbird Books in April 2012. The sequel, 'Ya-Sin' narrates the family’s ongoing journey through the Qur’aan with a focus on Surah Ya Sin, the surah they set out to learn following completion of Juz Amma. Although each of the chapters are connected, each one may be read as a stand-alone text.

“Mama, it was his decision. We didn’t force him,” I hear Abdurrahman say, his own voice rising slightly. Ibrahim picks up his head, sensing that he is the subject of conversation.

“May I speak to Nonna, again?” asks Ibrahim, sticking out his hand toward his father, as if to take the phone.

“No,” says Abdurrahman, more sternly than one would have expected. Ibrahim in turn shoots a look of hurt and confusion at his father, who is visibly struggling.

“Mama, I think we should speak later, per favore,” says Abdurrahman, obviously trying to exit now and avoid any further conflict, with either mother or son.

“Papa, I really want to speak to Nonna. I need to explain to her that I wanted to fast and that you didn’t force me, and that Sabir was doing it, and that Yaseen was doing it and I thought…” Ibrahim rambles on.

“Ok, bambino, here she is,” says Abdurrahman, finally relenting, and passing the phone to his son.

“Nonna, Nonna, did you hear me?” asks Ibrahim to his grandmother.

I have dropped my work, and also am listening, keenly.

“Nonna, I’m ok, really, I’m ok. It’s actually been pretty fun. I wish you were going to be here when I break my fast tonight. I think you might even be proud of me,” says Ibrahim, smiling, and looking back at his father and then over at me, in the kitchen.

There is a long pause. Nonna appears to be speaking, but is inaudible. Ibrahim changes his expression several times, listening intently.

“Well, I may take a break tomorrow,” he finally says to his grandmother. “But honestly, I feel like I could fast for the rest of Ramadan.”

I cringe slightly at his last statement, hoping that my mother-in-law will not grow increasingly anxious. Abdurrahman and I exchange glances.

“But I won’t, not this year,” continues Ibrahim. “Maybe next year, I’ll try half, and maybe you could even…”

Nonna appears to cut him off, as again he is listening hard.

Bambino,” Abdurrahman finally says. “How about you pass the phone to your sister so she can greet her grandmother, and then I think we need to move toward iftar preparation?”

“But Nonna says she might do one fast with me next year, provided she gets to drink water,” responds Ibrahim, putting his hand over the receiver. “I said that I don’t make the rules, but if she wants to, she’s always welcome.”

MashaAllah, very encouraging,” Abdurrahman responds. “Now, how about it, Amna do you want to speak to your grandmother?”

“Yes, after I build tractor,” she responds, fixated on her legos.

“Well, how about before the tractor?” says Abdurrahman. “Your grandmother is heading out to the theater, and I think you’ve got a very limited window, Ms. Amna.”

“Window?” says Amna, picking up her head, finally.

“Yes, the window of opportunity, and the door, for that matter, are about to close. The tractor might even stop running, so quickly let’s talk to Nonna and then finish up,” encourages Abdurrahman.

“Nonna,” says Amna, taking the phone from Abdurrahman. “I miss you, but I’m making you Otis,” she adds.

Abdurrahman looks quizzically at his daughter.

“Remember, Oh-tis,” she then says, slowly, looking at her father, but still speaking into the receiver.

Again, a pause. Nonna’s voice is unintelligible.

“So I love my birthday Otis, and I love you, and so I make you Otis,” Amna finally concludes, passing the phone back to her father. [1]

“Mama, I didn’t quite follow that last bit, until the end, when Amna mentioned her birthday gift, but bottom line, you have a room full of people here who love you a lot, tractor or no tractor, fast or no fast, and wish they could all jump in your pocket and accompany you to see The Tempest tonight,” says Abdurrahman.[2]“ I really wish you weren’t so far away; per favore, consider another visit after Ramadan,” he adds, lowering his head and his voice, then finally, “addio.”[3]

I watch Abdurrahman. The children also have their gaze on him. I sometimes wonder about all the different worlds he juggles. I can’t quite imagine a conversation with my mother, trying to explain or justify my son’s fast, then segueing effortlessly into a Shakespearean comedy.

“Papa,” says Ibrahim, slowly to his father. “I’m sorry I mentioned my fast to Nonna at the beginning.”

Bambino, nothing to be sorry about. She was concerned about you. Most of my colleagues at work are concerned about me too, and do you know that your Uncle Geo nearly had a panic attack the first time I told him I was fasting. I think it’s hard for someone who doesn’t do Ramadan to fully understand. And remember what I told you about mothers on Sunday,” responds Abdurrahman.

“Mamas were made to worry,” says Ibrahim, quoting his father, exactly.

“Hey, I take issue with that,” I finally pipe in, putting my papers to rest, and walking over from the kitchen. “We were not made to worry. You all simply give us too much to worry about. I think that Nani and Nonna would both agree with me on this one….now, what time is it?” I ask Ibrahim.

“I’ve got two hours to go, Ammi,” says Ibrahim, looking down at the watch that Abdurrahman lent him today, and then stretching and leaning back against his father. “I’m starting to feel like I could use another nap, or a glass of water, or a…”

“A distraction, bambino, that’s all you need,” says Abdurrahman, standing up and pulling his son into his arms. “You and I have a tree to climb and one surah to review before we start preparing iftar and celebrate your first fast.”

“Papa, I don’t have the energy,” says Ibrahim, making his body go limp.

“You do, bambino, you really do. Your mother has kept you under such close watch today, from what I’ve heard, that you must have tons of energy in reserve, just waiting to climb trees.”

“Papa, I really don’t think I can,” responds Ibrahim.

Janu, please don’t force him; he’s never done anything like this before,” I say, looking at Ibrahim with concern. “Why don’t you simply let him rest here on the couch until iftar?” I propose to Abdurrahman.

“Because I know my son. Give us a minute and don’t worry, I won’t cause him any harm,” responds Abdurrahman, starting to walk towards the backdoor with Ibrahim now slung over his shoulder. His navy tie, twisted around, rests on top of Ibrahim’s back, and his office shirt has come un-tucked, but there is still a slight aura of formalism, which seems in stark contrast to the tree climbing activity.

Amna gets up, not wanting to be excluded. “I climb trees,” she says.

“Yes, bilcul baita, but maybe not now,” I caution.

“Bhai jaan climb trees,” Amna adds.

“Preferably not right now,” I repeat. Meanwhile, Abdurrahman and Ibrahim have exited. I follow suit, genuinely concerned about Ibrahim, and not fully trusting Abdurrahman’s judgment of his son at this point. By the time Amna and I reach them, they have already made their way to the third branch of our backyard tree, which is half the size of the one in the park, but still prodigious.

“So I can climb, but I can’t recite right now,” I hear Ibrahim say to his father.

“Why not?” responds Abdurrahman.

“Climbing is easy, reciting is hard, especially when you’re fasting,” says Ibrahim. “My brain wasn’t very clear today, but Ammi said I could take a break and just listen to all my surahs and draw pictures of the ayaat like I used to do in the old days.”[4]

“Nice mom, and soft teacher today,” says Abdurrahman, who sees me approach. Then switching gears into our characters, he says, “So, Lieutenant Laila, apparently Captain Kashif is taking a break from any serious work, today?”

“He’s doing just fine, mashaAllah,” I respond, not playing along, and taking a minute to readjust my dupatta around my neck. “But I would really like for him to come down Abdurrahman. I don’t think he’s up for this right now. You know he could faint up there.”

Amna meanwhile is trying to climb up on the lower branch.

“Ammi, I’m really ok, up here. Papa’s holding my hand. And we’re just going to hang out on this branch, but I think I’m going to park Ya Sin for another day, unless Papa just wants to recite to me.”

“You’ve got a pass on Ya Sin until tomorrow, but promise, no higher,” I say, looking up at both of them.[5]

“Promise, Lieutenant,” says Abdurrahman. “Now, why don’t you leave Amna with me and grab this moment to finish some of your own work. You’ve got a little too much on your plate right now, especially taking into consideration Bihar,” he adds.

“Ammi, we’re all ok,” says Ibrahim, gesturing at the small quorum of tree climbers.

“Ok, but only for 30 minutes,” I respond. “Then, I’m coming to get you all. I need your help in the kitchen if we’re really going to prepare an iftar party for our master faster.”

“Master faster,” repeats Amna enthusiastically, who hangs upside down now on the first branch.

“Yes, master faster,” I respond, looking at our son, who seems to have grown up a lot today.[6]

[1] Otis (Long 2009). See also Otis and the Tornado (2011). Both books tell a wonderful story of friendship and loyalty. Although only snippets of the conversation are audible, we may deduce that Nonna has given Amna Otis for her recent birthday.

[2] The Tempest by William Shakespeare c.1610.

[3] The Qur’aan is replete with references to respecting and honoring ones parents, including Surah Al Isra (17:23), “Thy Lord hath decreed that ye worship none but Him, and that ye be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honour,” (Abdullah Yusuf Ali 1989, p.680). In the case of Abdurrahman’s reversion to Islam, this ayah has particular significance, namely worshiping Allah and simultaneously honoring his non-Muslim mother. In the commentary, Abdullah Yusuf Ali goes on to write, “The kindness to parents is an individual act of piety [worship],” with no reference to the faith of the parents (n.2204, p.680).

[4] In Chapter 3, ‘Sirat al Mustaqeem’, as they are working on Surah Al Fatihah, Abdurrahman asked the children to draw how they envision ‘sirat al mustaqeem’; drawing is among the activities in which the children engage throughout A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma to enhance their hifdh experience (pp.7-9). In terms of Ibrahim’s specific comment about his ‘brain not being very clear today,’ this is often a normal sensation experienced on the first day of fasting as the body adjusts, however, most Muslims report a heightened awareness and sense of iman throughout the holy month of Ramadan.

[5] ‘Checklists and Saint Francis’, Chapter 20, narrates how Ibrahim took several weeks to complete the hifdh of Surah Al Bayyinah. Although at times, Khadija has exerted more pressure, the predominant theme and approach has been slow and steady, “Remember what Papa told you that night when we were working on Surah Al Fil: your hifdh is not for me, or him, it’s for Allah Subhanahu wa-ta‘ala and also for you; it’s like your own treasure map for this world, and inshaa Allah you will find lots of treasures as you make your way through it. Do you know that the Qur’aan was revealed to Prophet Muhemmed, Salla Allahu ‘alayhi wa sallam over 23 years…” (A Qur’aanic Odyssey, Towards Juz Amma, p.69).

[6] Children are not required to complete the fasts of Ramadan until adolescence, however, most children opt to fast earlier due to the communal experience. Parents are also encouraged to introduce fasts gradually, including half-day fasts with younger children, so they may experience the sawm. See also footnote 7 from Chapter 1, ‘The End’, which emphasizes the spiritual nature of the fast, which is also reinforced throughout Chapter 2 of Ya Sin Odyssey. Among other resources, the author recommends the Ramadan Memory Book by Umm Ibrahim (Talibidden Jr) as a wonderful outlet for recording and animating fasts (and Ramadan in general) for young children. Also recommended is Fatimah’s First Fast Day available via Mini Mu’min Publications.