Chasing the White Thread of Dawn: On Ramadan, Family, and Spiritual Growth

In my grandfather’s house in Khartoum, during the hottest summer I have experienced to date, I wake up at 4:00 A.M. to the sound of a man’s voice calling for people to wake up and eat. He repeats the call as he walks down the street, his voice echoing. It’s my first time back in Sudan in over a decade, and I am still not accustomed to the routine occurrences that take place here. At first, I’m annoyed at the strange and unexpected wake up call, wondering why it’s necessary. I don’t realize yet how communal my home country is, how everyone looks out for each other regardless of circumstance.

The power had gone out at some point during the night, so the room is hot and stuffy despite the early hour. In the hall, my aunt is already moving about, her flashlight casting a glow on the tray of breakfast foods she’s prepared. There are two plates of each dish: boiled eggs, feta cheese and black olives, lentil stew, fava beans swimming in sesame oil, and my favorite: pudding made with vermicelli noodles and milk. I shuffle to sit on a chair and eat at her insistence, my mother and siblings joining us moments later. I chew with my eyes half-closed, silently praying for the power to come back. The pudding is a sweet burst on my tongue after the tartness of the olives, and I wash it all down with water. In the distance, I can still hear the man on the street calling out cheerfully for people to rise from their beds. My aunt covers the tray with a cloth when we finish eating, leaving it for my cousins and uncle, who live in the house next door. I take a plate of dates to my grandfather’s room, watching as he eats seven dates and drinks his glass of water afterward.

It’s a simple routine, one that brings me comfort and joy. I can’t help but think that Ramadans in America are lonelier than this. There was no tray of food for the meals we had in the early morning, no extra dishes to account for cousins and uncles who might decide to join in on a whim. The suhoor times of my childhood were a chaotic affair during which my mother dashed between the kitchen and our rooms, knocking on doors and demanding that we get up. She threatened not to come back another time, but her worry that we wouldn’t have time to eat always won out over her annoyance. We finally woke up after many attempts, sitting at the table reluctantly, too young to appreciate the blessing of this time of the night. Iftar times were not much different; we ate in a hurry so we could catch Taraweeh prayers at the mosque, barely tasting the samosas and soup my mother made. In Sudan, the calm of the predawn hour is different in every way from what I am used to, which adds to the charm of this place I never had the chance to call home.

As the sun descends on the horizon, my aunt sends us to the corner store for bread and milk. My grandfather is in the courtyard, reading Quran. He looks up when we open the gate, telling us to be careful. On the street, I see neighbours bringing out circular trays of food, setting up chairs and stools outside their gates. Maghrib time is close, and the men will sit outside, inviting anyone who passes on the street to join them for the meal. This is the spirit of Ramadan that I haven’t witnessed until now. This is what I imagine Ramadan looked like in Medina in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). There is nothing hurried about breaking the fast in Sudan. Everyone is content enough to take their time, to eat in a way that shows their gratitude for the blessings they’ve been afforded.

The call to prayer rings out from the mosque down the street, clear enough for us to hear it inside the house. We break our fast with my uncle and cousins, reaching for dates and water glasses. The first few minutes are silent, everyone making dua under their breath. My uncle pushes up the sleeve of his shirt, dipping a piece of bread in the green bean stew. He chews with gusto, thanking my aunt for the meal. There are too many people crowded around a small table in a hot room, but I feel at home.

That summer, we took turns sleeping over with aunts and uncles, trying to please everyone. During the last week of Ramadan, we stayed with my father’s parents in the house he had built for them many years before. My grandmother summoned me to the kitchen and instructed me to watch as she made my favourite soup, a recipe from the Turkish side of her family. I remember how she didn’t need a cutting board or a fancy knife. I watched in awe, and a little bit of fear, as she deftly diced onions and cut up greens without looking. Later, after we broke our fast, my uncle brought in crates of mangoes that we bit into without bothering to cut them, the juice running down our hands.

These images stay in my mind now, years later. There is something about eating meals with relatives that ensures those moments are cemented in your memory forever. The scent of spices in a cramped kitchen, the synchronous movements of multiple people preparing a meal and serving it, the first taste of your grandmother’s specialty soup — these aren’t experiences that are easily forgotten. My first Ramadan in Khartoum was pivotal because I saw how this sacred month could be about strengthening familial ties. I formed relationships with cousins and other relatives whom I hadn’t seen in years, and because of that I now have memories I can reach for whenever this sacred month comes around.

This is not to say that Ramadan spent here in the U.S. was not special. I can appreciate now the energy my siblings and I had when we were younger: I remember the boisterous way we would enter the kitchen when it was time for suhoor, each of us trying to grab the cereal box first. No one ever finished a full bowl, so the cereal became soggy, floating in the lukewarm milk like wilted petals. My mother, exasperated, ate the remains of our breakfast after she finished her tea and biscuits, urging me to wash the dishes before I brushed my teeth and made wudu. Then, when the dust settled, we would stand in a row behind my father in the living room for Fajr prayer, trying to keep our eyes open. I recall those times now in the way we often think of the past—hoping to relive it knowing what we know now, with a greater understanding of our own lives and decisions. In spite of the circumstances that we face, we are human, so we can’t help but make memories, build stories. Ramadan for me has always meant being with family. It is safety and love and the incomparable feeling that you are part of something larger than yourself, something with too much significance to ignore.

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My siblings and I are fortunate, because my mother’s love language has always been to feed us. This does not change during Ramadan, though she does cook smaller portions. As a testament to my mother’s determination, I recall the offhand comments I often made about the dishes I was craving, which would then show up on the table the next day for iftaar. It is not so much about food, I know now, but about the act of giving. My mother gives abundantly and without fail. Her insistence on feeding us is a blessing. It is a declaration of her love, a determined stance that says: I will continue to give you what I can for as long as I can. For me, this is the spirit of this sacred month. It is to be in a constant state of reaching out and giving, even when someone isn’t always open to receive.

My Ramadans look a little different now than they did when I was growing up in my parents’ home. When you have your own space, it becomes easier to form habits and rituals separate from the ones you learned as a child. Although I remember that beautiful chaos of the pre-dawn breakfast time with fondness, the meal is now a simple affair. I make myself some toast, gulp it down with half a glass of cold milk. Then, I make sure to eat a date, remembering my grandfather’s love of them. Sometimes I drink tea like my mother likes to, even though I know I will regret it during the day. I hold onto these small inherited habits, hoping to form bonds.

In a world that has changed and continues to change due to the pandemic, Ramadan has become less communal, less familial, for a lot of us. I have learned the benefits of being alone in prayer, without the external distractions we sometimes find at the mosque. The month has naturally become more about the individual spiritual experience and our relationship with Allah (SWT) independent of other influences. In the last two years, I’ve learned that Ramadan can, and should be, a deeply personal experience. It’s a chance to reflect and meditate during a period that is miraculous in nature, with each second serving as an opportunity to be blessed and rewarded by Allah.

I still remember how quiet my grandfather was, how he always stayed either in his room or in the courtyard, holding prayer beads in his right hand at all times. He spoke only when he thought it was necessary to do so, not just during Ramadan but everyday, and I imagine he spent the time he wasn’t making dhikr or reading verses of the Quran, thinking about his life and the choices he’d made. And while I have always been comfortable in silence, there is a difference between a silence that is left empty and a silence filled with productive, spiritual practice. My grandfather’s silences, even from the outside, seemed full and purposeful. There were so many habits he had that I knew followed the sunnah, and I pray that I can one day achieve that kind of contentment, to be able to sit still and with greater purpose.

This Ramadan, I hope to sit comfortably in the silence, and while I miss my relatives and Sudan every year, I recognise the blessing of having this time to myself. I will sit in the corner of my room and imagine it is my grandfather’s courtyard. I will wrap my prayer beads around my wrist and remember Allah (SWT) as often as I can, praying for His blessings and mercy.

By Nihal Mubarak
Nihal Mubarak is a Sudanese-American poet, fiction and non-fiction writer whose work centers themes of home and African lineage. Nihal’s work has been published in Solidago, The Gordian Review, Copper Nickel, Mizna, Arkana and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Emerson College. Follow Nihal on Instagram: @nihal_writes

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