I am deep in slumber when I hear knocks on my bedroom door. “Wake up, it’s time sehri!” I hear a voice singsong while my door is timidly opened.
For a moment, while my eyes are closed, I think the voice is my Mom’s. I’m in my childhood bedroom, in my childhood bed with those childhood plastic stars on my popcorn ceiling. If it had been Mom, she would have left the door open with the light from the hallway spilling into my bedroom. I’d wake up drearily and silently and make my way to kitchen where she would have put a box of Frosted Flakes, milk, and a bowl at my seat of the dining table. Dad would be eating mangos, poha and yogurt. Mom would be standing by the sink eating leftovers. It’d be dark outside. We’d eat quietly. We’d all keep an eye on the clock making sure that we didn’t eat through fajr.
“What time is it?” I mumble into my pillow. I put my hand out searching for my phone and try looking at the time through bleary eyes.
“It’s 2 a.m.! Get up and get ready!” my sister says, both sternly and fake cheerfully.
“It’s only 2 a.m.! The end of sehri isn’t until 4:17 a.m.! I just fell asleep at 1 a.m.! Why!?” I snuggle my face deeper into my pillow.
“Because we have to drive to Denny’s and order food. Hurry up!” she says, curt, as she walks away.
I turn over and stare at the stars on my ceiling. I remember that I’m at my parents’ house for the weekend like I have been for every weekend this Ramadan. My sisters are here too, and I had come home this night so that we could go on a sehri trip to Denny’s. I don’t know at what point eating diner meals at 3 a.m. became a part of our annual Ramadan ritual as sisters. But it had.
My two sisters and I silently make our way out the door to the car. It is dark outside and the neighborhood is lined with silhouettes of California ranch homes. The streets are eerily empty with only streetlamps lighting our deserted way. I think to myself that at 2:30 a.m., this is usually the time when people at bars come stumbling home and but here we were heading out to eat. Only religion or alcohol would compel people to leave the house this late at night.
We are driving about six houses down from our home when my youngest sister exclaims from the backseat of the car: “Is that a real fire? Should we do something?” I look up and to my right. There’s an orange glow behind a fence, and as I look longer, a red blaze leaps up 10 feet high, silhouetted by the outline of white roof. The fire looks like it’s between two houses, or maybe it’s the backyard of another house. The fear makes us all wake up instantly.
My other sister backs the car so that we can get a better view. It looks like a fire that just started, but it was big and growing quick. There’s no way that flame was from a backyard barbecue. We can see now that we are looking at the back of a house on the other side of the block. I look around — there is not another car on the road, the lights on the houses are off, and no one is around. I jump out of the car as my youngest sister calls 911. I run up to the house with the American flag and bang on the metal door. “The house behind you is on fire!” I say to the man who opens the door. He is an older larger middle-aged white man. He says, that he just woke up and he knows and he disappears back in the house.
There are now a couple of other cars have stopped by ours and a few neighbors come out to the sidewalk to stand by us. A guy in a big red truck tells us that he had driven by the house on fire on the other side — the man had gotten out safely, but couldn’t ask much else since he spoke another language.
I go to the next house in the path of the embers and knock on the door — but they ignore my knocks. I know that they are in there because the window blinds are parted. My youngest sister goes back to the that house a few minutes later — she talks to a teenage Filipino girl who is taking care of her elderly grandparents. She listens to my sister. We see the granddaughter struggle in evacuating her grandparents — one of them needs a wheelchair — but they are moving too slowly. So my sister goes inside to help the Lola find her keys — she finds five sets of keychains and throws them all in the bag before helping the Lola out.
My sisters and I stand on the sidewalk as we watch the house go up in flames. It is clearer now that we are looking at the back of the house between two houses and behind a fence — and that a back bedroom was the origin of the fire. The fire moves like a slow creature across the house, it creeps into the attic and flames slowly lick out of the various windows. We gasp as fire bursts through cracks in the eaves of the roof. We clutch our hearts — it looks like the flames are alive.
The fire is deadly quiet.
When you watch fires on television or in person when you are sitting around a campfire, there is a sound to the fire — you can hear the crackling of the wood or crunch of the lumber. Fires are devastating and loud. We are shook — how could a burning house come apart so quietly? As we stand watching, you can hear the night birds chirping in the trees. The streets are still eerily silent.
The fire trucks pull into our neighborhood without sirens — we see their blinking red and orange lights behind the growing smoke. It took them 15 minutes to get there — by then, it seems the whole house is engulfed. We hear the chainsaw as they cut holes into the attic. We see the spray of water and a column of smoke rise. We look onward with fear as embers fly onto the houses we had just evacuated. We stand there until the last flame has disappeared, as if our mere presence could have served to fight against lingering embers. By the end, everything was singed.
I kept thinking about how if we had left the house later, we wouldn’t have been there in time to call 911. Would there have been anyone else on the road to see it? Or what if we had decided to do our sehri diner tradition on a Saturday instead of a Friday? And what were the chances that the one night of the whole month of Ramadan that I leave the house for sehri, that this should even happen? They say it is sunnah to eat food at sehri — but not obligatory in Islam — what if we had simply made the choice to not eat sehri? What opportunity had presented itself in this moment? Was this a sign from Allah of some sort? Or was it just an ordinary miracle?
We get back in the car and debate continuing our trip to Denny’s — it feels a bit disrespectful to the soberness of the moment but our adrenaline is ramped up way to high for any of us to go to sleep. It is only 3 a.m. and we still have another hour to eat. While we eat pancakes at Denny’s, we see a Muslim family walk-in — the parents are in their 30's and the three young boys are rambunctious. They are sitting too far to say salaams, but it is warming to know we were sharing the same meal. I think about how these sehri trips to Denny’s will become a part of the little boys’ future nostalgia.
On our way home, we drive by the street where the burnt house is. The street is covered with fire trucks and it is impossible to drive through. We turn the car around and go home for last minute gulps of water. We laugh as we fight to fill our glasses and drink the water quick. We enter restless sleep. I find comfort in knowing that my sisters tonight sleep in the same house as me.
I keep thinking about the man who didn’t speak English whose house was burned down. Did he have fire insurance? Sure he was alive, but would he be okay? Was he alone? Would Allah provide for him?
Ramadan is supposed to be a month of reflection, prayer, and fasting. But here we are at the end of the month, and I am not sure that I “got” anything out of it. This year, fasting brought my rage closer to the surface, and I found myself unable to get spiritually grounded. My Muslim-ness was often performative as I read poetry on stages and hosted activist-y events, but where was the heart in it all. I fasted every day that I could this Ramadan. But I didn’t go to the mosque, I often broke fasts solo, I didn’t keep all my prayers and didn’t write as much as I had intended to. I was searching for that spirituality clicking that feels so centering this time of the month that just didn’t happen this time. And, I think, that I had been unconsciously asking for a sign. A burning house at sehri time sure feels like a sign.
I had forgotten. Ramadan is about empathy, and giving, and the humanity of all. I hard forgotten it is about charity and giving back to your community. I had forgotten that this life we lead is temporary, and life can change in an instant, and we have no control. I had forgotten that we needed to find joy in our every day life because life is indeed fleeting. We must find joy and humanity whenever possible. That finding joy in hardship is a form of radical resistance and that is a form of worship.
I drive by the house the next day. Besides the plywood on the front door and front window, and some black soot along the eaves, from the front of the house it looks like a fire hardly touched it. I am shocked that something that had seemed so tragic could have left such little echoes of its presence.
May we all have the humanity to always step up when we are called.
May this be a Ramadan lesson for us all.
Taz Ahmed is a storyteller, activist, politico, and artist based in Los Angeles. She is cohost of #TheGoodMuslimBadMuslim podcast that has been featured in Oprah magazine, and recorded live at South by Southwest, and the White House. In 2016, Taz Ahmed exhibited at the Smithsonian. In 2004, she founded the national organization: South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY). Taz is currently a campaign strategist with 18MillionRising.