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Desert Companion

Open Topic: Heaven or Las Vegas

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Summer Thomad
Photography by Lucky Wenzel

A young Muslim woman ponders the joys and complications of celebrating Ramadan in this less-than-holy city

Around 5 a.m., two hours after taking a final sip of water and setting the intention to fast, I lie awake watching the sunlight stream through my bedroom window and try not to notice my sandpapery throat and mouth. I lift myself out of bed and shuffle into the hallway to peer through the windows. Dawn is descending upon the desert outside my house. I’m not a morning person. This is the only time of year I watch the sunrise. A bright orange slowly fills the hazy gray sky. Ignoring my discomfort, I pray, because it’s all I can think to do.

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar. The month-long holiday is observed by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Fasting during Ramadan is one of the Five Pillars of Islam — the others are shahada (faith), salah (prayer), zakāt (charity), and Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca), all of which are considered mandatory acts that serve as the foundation to Muslim life. From sunrise until sunset, those fasting must refrain from food and water (yes, even water; we’re fine, relax), sex, violence, and generally sinful speech and behavior; the practice is one of self-control, accountability, and empathy. Throughout the month, Muslims are encouraged to forgive anyone who has wronged them, and to seek forgiveness from those they have wronged.

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Ramadan lasts 29 or 30 days, depending on the visual sighting of the crescent new moon. The Islamic calendar is lunar, which means the month of Ramadan shifts forward about 10 days every year. In my 21 years, I’ve fasted during winter, fall, and summer. The beginning of May this year will be my first time fasting during the spring, though the 90-degree weather of May in Las Vegas hardly feels like springtime.

To other Muslims, Las Vegas can be seen as a depraved hellscape, diametrically opposed to the Islamic vision of holiness, with all the sins we are meant to abstain from (sex, booze, overindulgence, dishonesty) on bright, glaring display. Still, Las Vegas is not the sinful, wild place of myth. As those of us who were raised here know, there are two versions of this city: the Strip, where one can indulge in excess without consequence and everything exists in a vacuum, and the dark, quiet suburbs.

Here, the selling of sin is ubiquitous and becomes so ordinary that it often goes unnoticed. Driving alongside a taxi or truck or van emblazoned with a mobile billboard reading “GIRLS DIRECT TO YOU” is typical and unvexing. My parents might let out a disapproving “astaghfirullah” (an expression of shame or exhortation to seek forgiveness from God), but there would be no further discussion. The culture of this city has never felt antithetical to my family’s faith. I love the audacious nature of my hometown, and I also love the values of my faith; I don’t believe the two are mutually exclusive.

Of course, as a child, I lived in something of a Muslim bubble. The city didn’t endanger our values because it barely impinged on our daily lives. My parents spoke Arabic. Most of my parents’ friends were Muslim. We ate halal food. And from kindergarten to seventh grade, I attended a private Islamic school in Henderson, where I was immersed in a small, almost exclusively Muslim community, save for a few non-Muslim teachers and administrators.

During Ramadan, iftar, or the meal eaten after breaking fast at sunset, was held every Friday night in my school’s gymnasium, which, at the time, was also a makeshift mosque and multipurpose space. While our parents sat inside socializing over food, my friends and I would run around the school reveling in our unsupervised freedom. The older kids would play basketball or Truth or Dare. My best friend, Zaina, and I would sit on the slides, playing make-believe, talking, and kicking up sawdust.

One night, a boy around our age (about 8 years old) whom we didn’t know ran up, kicked Zaina, and punched me in the stomach. We got revenge by pushing him down, stealing his shoes, and throwing them into the street outside of the playground. The forgiveness and mercy of Ramadan weren’t exactly a priority for us.

 

***

This time last year, I spent the first 10 days of Ramadan in my father’s hometown of Baghdad, Iraq. It was the first time I had been to Iraq since I was 3, and also the first Ramadan I spent outside of Las Vegas.

Every night for iftar, I broke my fast surrounded by family, with leben, a sour, fermented milk drink, and soft dates rolled in sesame. We’d sit outside at a long dining table and dig into a huge meal that my aunts spent the day preparing, then stay up all night, sharing another meal (suhoor) before sunrise. Each morning, a group of young men marched in a drum line through the neighborhood to wake up the sleeping neighbors and remind them to eat suhoor.

Storefronts were decorated for Ramadan with paper stars and lanterns and crescent moons. In a Dubai mall, I saw a Juicy Couture window display with mannequins wearing hijabs and traditional garments. For the first time, I experienced Ramadan as a true holiday season.

There was an effortlessness and freedom to fasting in Iraq that I had never experienced in Vegas — there were no lunch invitations to decline or explanations to be given or excessive apologies from non-Muslim friends after every sip of water in my presence. All the local businesses kept “Ramadan hours,” staying open later at night to accommodate the post-iftar crowds, and I spent a good chunk of the daylight hours sleeping and lazing around my aunt’s house feeling moderately guilt-free.

Still, celebrating Ramadan in Iraq posed its own set of challenges and was not always easy. I felt a sense of belonging that came from being in a Muslim country during the holy month, but also a sense of isolation — I was in a foreign place where I barely spoke the language. For once, my hijab allowed me to get lost in a crowd, and yet my otherness would reveal itself in my broken, American-accented Arabic. Baghdad’s desert climate reminded me of home, but in reality, I couldn’t have been farther from it.

 

***

As I’ve gotten older, the challenge of fasting has become less about physical hunger and more about a hunger for purpose and belonging in a faith that I grew up immersed in, but which now feels complicated for me in ways I still do not fully understand.

As an adult, maintaining one’s faith becomes a conscious decision — a choice that requires labor and patience and a reevaluation of self. Gone are the days of wreaking havoc with my Muslim peers outside of the mosque. At 21, the “haram,” or forbidden aspects of this city, encroach on my life more than ever, especially during Ramadan. Standing at parties not being able to partake in any of the snacks and wine gets old quickly. It gets harder to make plans with friends, since most social outings involve a meal, and it feels burdensome making people adjust to my post-sunset dinner time. I might skip an outing or event on the Strip or Downtown because it just feels too in proximity to so-called sin, and I can hear my parents tsk-tsking in my head. Ramadan is meant to be a time for community, but apart from the rare occasions when I break my fast with Muslim friends, it can begin to feel isolating.

Throughout the year, I am confronted with the ways I fall short in my faith: in my wavering of trust and certainty, and in the way my religious beliefs or practices sometimes feel at odds with my thoughts and actions and how I carry myself in the world. But at no time am I confronted with the challenges of choosing faith in a world that is often at odds with it as I am during Ramadan.

Faith is always tested by the world; fasting while my life in the secular world continues on as usual will always be difficult — as it’s meant to be. Whether it’s harder to observe Ramadan in Las Vegas than anywhere else is mainly subjective. Certainly, having a world of sin available within arm’s reach can be an added difficulty.

Still, Ramadan offers the opportunity to reflect on myself in an honest light and rediscover that sense of religious purpose, whether it’s in solitude or within the community of Las Vegas Muslims that raised me. Amid the chaos and shortcomings that life offers throughout the rest of the year, Ramadan brings with it the air of peace, acceptance, gratitude, and communal wellness.

I didn’t know if the golden light that filled my house that morning came from heaven or Las Vegas, but I decided it was holy either way. My dry throat aside, I am grateful for the tranquility and renewed focus Ramadan brings to my life, even if just for a moment while watching the sun rise.

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