<%-- Page Title--%> A Roman Column <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 130 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

November 14, 2003

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Of Slow Scrabbling and Fast-breaking

Neeman A Sobhan

"A-M-E-N-T-I-A.........YES! I have a seven letter word!” Late afternoon of a lazy Sunday, the slow slide to 'Iftaar', a game of Scrabble to accelerate the sun's declension, and a seven letter word glowing on my letter-tile rack: life is beautiful!

“What the hell is 'amentia'? No such word, unless you mean 'dementia'.” My husband is understandably sullen. He can't stand Scrabble, is not fasting so he doesn't need to kill time, he is losing, and on top of that, his wife is crowing with a seven-letter word: his life sucks!

“It also means mental disorder,” I mumble. “Says who?” He grumbles. “The Official Scrabble Player's Dictionary.” My stomach rumbles, but I'm smiling as I eye the board. But wait! The only possible way I can use my prized noun is to attach it to an 'S,' hopefully hanging at the end of a pre-existing word on the board, like a hook ready to haul up my awesome score. No luck! But there is a 'HE' in an open space. I juggle my letters and roll gibberish sounds in my mouth.

“How about ANTHEMIA?” I ask myself aloud. “What the hell is 'anthemia,' unless you mean 'anathema'?” My sullen spouse growls. I howl, “Oh! No! That still leaves my 'E' unused! And for your information 'anthemia' means some Greek floral design. Stupid word!” “So it's not a seven-letter word? Oh! Then I think 'anthemia' is a fine, classy sounding word. Use it.” “Scrabble is NOT about using words because they are fine or classy,” I grit my teeth, my mind mouthing other scrambled options.

My fast is telling on me; my faith in a rational world, where tiles with the seeds of a seven-letter-word hiding in them are obliged to bear fruit, is rapidly diminishing, when I spy an 'R' in an empty space, and in almost spiritual ecstasy I make 'ANIMATER', turning to my husband in triumph. Ah! It's almost sundown and I have made a seven-letter word: there is justice in this world after all.

He ignores me and starts putting down 'EXACT' with the valuable 'X' on a double-letter square. I hate to admit it, but that's not bad at all. But wait! He adds on an 'A' at the end, covering a double- word square, too. I am grim: “And what exactly, or if you'll excuse my Italian accent, what exacta is 'EXACTA'?” He is prim: “It's a type of horse racing bet.” “Says who?” I bark, my post-seven-letter-word formation after-glow vanishing faster than the sunlight. My husband beams pinkly like a pre-Iftaar horizon: “Says your holy book.” “What?” My tea-deprived brain is pulsating feebly in my intestines. “Your Official Scrabble Dictionary.” So, for my hard earned 50 he has acquired a quick 44: there is no justice in this world!


I look at the clock, it's time to break the fast and put away the scrabble board. And another uncharacteristic day of Ramadan in Rome is over. And this is the thing. There is actually nothing either characteristic, uncharacteristic or memorable about a Roman Ramadan (or as I always think of it, RAMZAN, however the Arabs may pronounce it). Ramzan has no special feel in Rome, unless I make it so. It is just another month here. In Bangladesh, everyone is aware of its arrival, significance and special-ness; each household is geared towards the fasting month, sensitised to the keepers of the fast. At both the social and commercial level the environment provides support, solidarity, colour and vibrancy.

Here, I am in the minority. Surrounded by non-Muslims into whose non-Ramadan affected calendars I have to fit myself into, the routines of business as usual with lunches and of programmes that overlap the Iftar time and extend into the post-Fast fatigue period makes the fasting month harder than usual. I try to continue my regular life in spite of fasting, but an environment where no one is aware of the special exigencies of my situation, it is not easy. While fasting, I have attended un-avoidable lunches, but the constant explaining to the hostess or other guests (“You mean not even a drop of water?” or from the Hindu Indians, whose concept of fasting is more permissive, the insistent “A cup of milk or some fruit?”) is tiring and boring.

At restaurants I feel like a spoilsport and have no one to share my momentary pangs with, but I still try to keep in step and not bring attention to myself, lest people become over-solicitous and uncomfortable as with someone who is ill among a group of merry makers. Once upon a time, when the sun went down at nine, I even attended operas, ballets and dinners, quietly and surreptitiously breaking my daylong fast and wishing I lived in a Ramadan-friendly environment. I have had to take non-fasting visitors around town all day long, while pretending that my fasting did not in any way come in the way. The other option is for me to guard my fasting state like a secret till it's time to break it, at which point people feel guilty. It's a no-win situation. To make matters worse, everyone tells you to stop fasting because you are looking so wretched, so you smile more broadly and try to be more energetic, exhausting yourself further. Ideally, I would love to exile myself from the world during this month and immerse myself in restful prayer and blissful un-worldliness. But that's being indulgent and impractical. No, fasting in a non-faster's world is neither easy nor pleasurable.

By pleasure, I mean enjoying the special-ness of this season and savouring the spiritual, cultural (and food-related) bonds with a community of fellow Muslims. Of course, in Rome, there are Muslims abounding, but not within my immediate social circle. There are Iranians, Arab Muslims and African Muslims whom I know, but they are culturally so distant from Bengalis, to whom things like Iftaar and Sehri mean totally different things. For example, a Tunisian acquaintance of mine wouldn't dream of having anything but soup for Iftaar, to whom our Bengali 'Pyaju' or 'chola-boot' meant nothing. My Bangladeshi and Pakistani friends are few and live far. I am the only one that fasts in my home, so breaking the fast at 5:15 pm is a lonely and ordinary business. Normally, I literally have breakfast for my 'break-fast', consisting of my favourite egg, toast and tea! On weekends, we make a special attempt and indulge in Bengali delicacies, but the atmosphere is not spontaneous, but a conscious attempt on my part to reproduce a meal that has lost its relevance, belonging to a world that has receded into the past.

When my sons were at home, I allowed the memories to be charged with the creative force of nostalgia, which prompted me to recreate for them my childhood world of Ramzan. So, even though I do not like nor take Sehri, I remembered how special and exciting it was to me as a child, being woken up for this secret feast at a mysterious hour. So, I did it a few times with my sons, on weekends. Now, by myself, there is no cultural pantomime. For me, this is an austere month, and fasting is just an obligation to be fulfilled. Ramadan has lost its frills, and its cultural aspects have faded from lack of use and of participants.

It's a bit like my dusty Scrabble board, a game that only I take out to use and which I play by myself, being in turns both team A and B! My husband joined in today, and reluctant though he was as a player and reluctant also to admit it, I think he did enjoy himself. Today Scrabble, tomorrow, who knows, he might even join me in… what is that seven-letter-word I'm thinking of…F-A-S-T-I-N-G!


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