My forehead sinks into the lush carpet. It’s comforting and enveloping like a dear friend. The imam calls out the final prayer position. In unison the row of women rise from prostration and we bow our heads in concentration waiting for the evening prayer to finish.
I’m reciting the required formulaic Arabic and then take a moment to make a final supplication in English. As I do so, a waft of heavy, oil-based perfume smelling of rose and jasmine floats past me. These refreshing scents found in mosques throughout the world temporarily mask the flint and dust coming from my abaya. The dust seems to get into everything, no matter how many fans and air purifiers are used. Kuwait city is gorgeous with modern architecture and bright lights — but everything is made slightly dull by a thin layer of the desert.
The prayer ends and instead of announcing the intention for additional evening prayers, as is customary during the month of Ramadan, the imam starts reciting a special chant called the takbirat. A collective, “oohhh” runs through the women’s section as we realise the new moon has been sighted. It’s the start of ‘Eid.
My heart explodes with happiness and I catch a glimpse of a woman who obviously feels the same — her face is simply shining with pure light and joy. Suddenly we’re all hugging, crying and wishing happy ‘Eid to complete strangers. In this moment we are all sisters — no one separated by race, ability or status.
I’ve had mixed feelings about spending the last ten days of Ramadan in Kuwait. Like the thin layer of dust detracting from all the glitz, I immediately noticed the indulgences and excessive lifestyle lived by many and often felt uncomfortable staring at my own privilege.
Ramadan is supposed to be a month of austerity and self-control where people attempt to develop their empathy for others. In a place where extreme class division is practically required for the country to run, the glaring disparity between the nationals and ex-expatriates, and the indentured servantry and street cleaners can be overwhelming.
The only reason many are afforded the opportunity to spend all night at the mosque in prayer and spend all day sleeping is because they have a live-in maid at home to take care of of the household chores. And sometimes the city looks so dirty because people know there’s a street cleaner who will pick up after their litter. Even though there’s 5 public refuse containers on each street corner, it’s just easier to dump your McDonald’s bag on the ground. People from Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and the Philippines are lining up to collect garbage for less than $100 a month. For some, cleaning up after others is the best, or their only option.
Indulgences regarding food and drink is ironic during a month of fasting. The one time we ate at an all-you-can-eat restaurant for beak fast, I was amazed at how much food the restaurant wasted. Fasting with a toddler means I have to be very aware of the amounts of food I give her, since I’m not allowed to finish her cereal or sneak a bite of her hotdog. I’m hyper-aware of portions, hate throwing out food and just couldn’t understand why so much was being wasted when so many within the country go hungry.
Outside of malls and businesses, the city itself is also just a collection of fast food restaurants and mosques. I have never seen so many of either in my life — and sometimes wonder who they’re catering to.
Later, when praying at the Grand Mosque, I broke down when a woman explained that the mosque provides free water during the entire month of Ramadan to people who come to pray. When she pointed to one of several outdoor fridges keeping the water freezing cold in 40C degrees heat, my heart broke and I carried immense guilt for my position. I couldn’t fathom the amount of money it was taking to produce this water or the amount of energy being expended just to keep it cold. Not when I know there are people who debate using their last mouthful of water to save their children, or to wash the ones who have just died.
Tonight after prayers I played “the Qur’an game” — that’s where you close your eyes, flip through the Qur’an, stop at any page and randomly point. The verse I found reminded me that,
“God does not wrong anyone by as much as an atom’s weight; and if there be a good deed, God’s Grace will multiply it and bestow a mighty reward.” (4:40)
And it was a clear reminder to me to also reflect on all of the good I’ve seen.
During Ramadan every mosque in Kuwait provides free dinners. Tents are set up to accommodate the thousands who come. The dinners are either sponsored and catered by generous philanthropists or are supported by local families who cook extra meals especially to donate to the mosque. And today when we went to donate our ‘Eid charity tax, I was astounded by how many cars were lined up, giving money, bags of rice and clothes to a local distribution centre.
And while there is certainly a class of working homeless claimed by many who “volunteer” to work as cleaners — I have also frequently seen those who are better-off give money freely, pass out water or even share food and clothes with street cleaners.
Despite any issues that made me question how the privilege of living in an affluent Muslim majority affects the meaning behind Ramadan, I am very happy to be here. I am also very lucky and intend through words, deeds or prayers to help effect change in positive and helpful ways to whomever needs it.
As I type this, henna is drying on my hands and dawn is breaking. As the day of ‘Eid approaches, I would like to ask forgiveness for any wrongs or offenses I have caused as well as correction for any ignorance I hold. Please teach me so I can better understand and balance inequities caused by my privilege.
I would really like to think that whatever good we have learned or experienced during this month is carried forward in the upcoming year. There is too much suffering, wars, poverty and ugliness in this world that can be changed by the actions of just one person.
Imagine the difference if we all worked toward carrying just an atom’s weight of good.