Ramadan Reflection: Olives


Green Spanish Manzilla olives with pimentos.

My father's plate was decorated with them during iftars -- the daily breaking of the fast during Ramadan -- and somehow sneakily made it on to my plate. Olives reminded my dad of his beloved college days in Turkey where he opened his fasts with olives, feta cheese and bread.

And, orange juice. He'd always drink orange juice as part of his nightly ritual but first asked me to call the local time and date hotline to verify the time because sunset signified the end of the fast.

We ate olives and dates, as was a custom of the Prophet Muhammad, and this being a Pakistani household, meant the table was filled with dishes with something almost always fried. There were samosas, triangle-shaped delights filled with cumin-flavored potato or ground meat, or pakoras -- vegetables like onions and potatoes drenched in spiced chick pea flour and fried until they billowed to a crisp. All fried foods came with sides of tamarind, cilantro and yogurt-based chutneys and ketchup (the American-Pakistani's kid's preferred chutney).

During dinner, my father told us stories of prophets and saints from Adam to Abraham to Moses and Muhammed, (peace and blessings upon them all). Each story had a lesson in patience, forgiveness, and understanding for things being the way they are because God only knows for which we do not.

Then my dad was off to the local mosque where he offered "taraweh," non-obligatory extra prayers, which followed the recitation of the Quran. When he came home, my mom had a glass of cold milk with crushed almonds and pistachios drizzled with Rooh Afza -- a pink, sweet rose water syrup -- ready for him.

But there was the one Ramadan he couldn't fast. His heart ached, knowing that cancer was beyond his control. Fasting is exempt for the ill, pregnant women and young children.

Cancer wasn't going to stop him from "zikr" or worship. He may have been carrying a chemotherapy case in his jacket pocket hooked up to a port in his chest, but he still made it to taraweh. With rosary beads in hand; he'd say to mom and me, "Everything is from Allah." The cancer was a test from Allah. A year later, he was back to fasting for four years until the cancer returned.

I can't remember all details of my last Ramadan with him. But I remember my father's routine during the Ramadans I spent with him -- those little things that many of us remember when we spend holidays and special occasions with loved ones.

I remember him waking me up for suhoor -- before the morning prayer -- to eat breakfast. I remember his enthusiasm for the month because it outweighed any interest he had in anniversaries or birthdays. I remember when he was sick, he was sad he wasn't fasting, but he glowed with acceptance and contentment. I recognize those looks today in my mom, who for the last three Ramadans has been unable to fast.

For three hours a day twice a week, my mom is welcomed to her dialysis clinic by soft-spoken nurses with hearts of gold. As they start to hook her up to the dialysis machine, my mom has her Quran in hand. She can't wait to go online to hear Islamic lectures and participate in religious classes. She squirms as the needles are put into her graft. Doing this every few days is painful and tiring. She's surrounded by other patients, some sleeping, some watching TV. Dialysis works to keep her body in balance by removing toxins and chemicals from her blood. Spiritually, she's given life over and over by just reading the word of God. It's what keeps her moving, gardening, laughing, and cooking amazing dishes.

One day, my mom will fast again and family reminds her that good deeds, worshipping, and time spent helping others not only during this month and throughout the year will, God-willing, be accounted for. We're all looking for this extra time in our lives, not realizing we have plenty and if we were given less, what we actually might do.

Ramadan is a time for reflection, gratitude, conversing with God, and praying you won't forget to talk to him the rest of the 11 months of the year. By taking away the food, we are encouraged to think not about the material life but rather think about others and do something to help. We are so worried about nourishing our stomachs, and by extension, worried about ourselves, sometimes we forget those around us, those without enough to eat, those who are ill but have much more patience than you and me.

Through sickness and in health, faith remains constant but you have to feed the soul all year long for it to sustain you. Of the many lessons learned from Ramadan, I have learned this from my parents. Ramadan holds a special place in their hearts as does mine. My parents arrived in this country from the Karachi desert to the Vegas desert in August of 1979, the 15th day of Ramadan. They were excited to be on a new journey together even if that meant leaving family behind. They did not let go of their traditions and immediately began fasting.

For my parents, fasting has been a privilege, not a chore. When not fasting, they could have been left with a sense of emptiness, despair, or anger. But they knew there was always a bigger picture in sight, and by exercising spirituality; faith would help them keep going even in their darkest hour.