A full out brawl ensued when the bus I was taking from Peshawar to Islamabad punctured a tire the other day. But the brouhaha didn’t break out right away. At first, all of the passengers just sat there, dumfounded, in the middle of a major thoroughfare. It was nearly a half hour before all the men poured out of the bus to replace the tire, no one of them willing to be left behind in the heroic task. Unsuccessful, there was a lot more sitting before the shouting broke loose. “We’re only 15 minutes from the bus station! Have them send another bus over!” The company did, but it took another hour before it got to us.
I should add here that it’s highly likely that each one of us stranded souls was fasting based on the prescription for Muslims to give up all food and drink from sunlight to sunset during the Islamic calendar month of Ramadan. It’s no easy task in a place that’s been plagued by triple digit temperatures and nearly 100 percent humidity, plus the added menace of rolling power cuts, day in, day out.
Although the month is one of spiritual reflection, the factors at play aren’t ones that most would add up to enlightenment. In fact, in my first Ramadan in a Muslim majority country — and one stuck in the sweltering and sweaty prelude to monsoon season to boot — I’m finding that the Holy Month doesn’t bring out the best in people.
Perhaps this shouldn’t have been as surprising for me as it’s been given the circumstances, but Ramadan has long held this sort of revered place in my mind as a time to master patience and cultivate empathy. A Muslim who is fasting is supposed to give as much charity as possible, to reflect on God’s bounties, and to refrain from uttering harsh words, not to mention actual fights. But far from it in Pakistan where street skirmishes seem to have gone up and bomb blasts appear to rattle with the same unfortunate frequency.
Tempers have certainly quickened but everything else has more or less fallen into a lull. When I didn’t see the tailor that stitches shalwaar kameez in his shop, I gave him a call only to find him sleeping in a heap of rags on the floor. With electrical cuts nearly every other hour, tailors, like so many others here, have long had an excuse for delay, but ever since Ramadan started, they have an even easier out. As Eid nears, there will be only an increasing number of people screaming at their tailors for keeping them from the new clothes that are customary on the end-of-month holiday.
But that doesn’t mean that work isn’t being done. Construction workers building a house for one of my uncles work from an hour after the faster’s much coveted sunset meal to a few hours after the pre-sunrise feast known as sahoor. For many, staying up nights to get work done or even to pray or just talk have become a part of what fasting in these long, languid days. Of course, pulling all-nighters for 30-days straight while dehydrated and deprived of regular nutritional intake probably only adds to the zombie-until-provoked-to-werewolf irritability that’s characterizing Ramadan for me this year.
That and the fact that there’s still food around all day. I was used to seeing people eating in school or at work in the States. And while I haven’t spotted many sneaking tastes here,exposure to heaps of hot samosas or pitchers of fresh juice probably doesn’t help the grumpiness factor.