For one writer, the holy month is teaching him to speak to himself as much as to God. My father died when I was just seven months old. He left me a few things: his dictionary, his address book, his ruby-and-diamond-studded cufflinks, and both his names. I was born Frank Andrew Evans III, and for a while, that’s the only name I knew.
My mother didn’t tell me about my Muslim name — Khalid Al — until I was around 10 or 11. My father must have bestowed it upon me with the hopes that, like him, I would study and practice Islam. But my mother had other ideas. She believes in ghosts, in magic, in the supreme forces of the universe beyond our comprehension, but she would never name them God. And so she kept the name Khalid Al from me. Even then, the significance of the name, the world of ideas and practices and people that it connected me to, was unbeknownst to me.
Just as people often lose the keepsakes and mementos they are given as children, they also grow out of nicknames and friends. Most of the lost things pass without a second thought. It is just the course of nature. Some things linger, though. As my 27th birthday approached last fall, I have been reaching through the recesses of my life, searching for things at once familiar and lost to me, forgotten. At the center of this search has been my father — any connection to him or fragment of his voice. I’ve been looking for the specter of his presence.
And so I have gone looking for my father in the heavens, my heavenly father. What started as research — combing through old issues of the L.A. Sentinel hoping to find his photo, looking up the names in his address book to see who is still alive that I might speak to — has turned to spiritual practice. I am, for the first time, participating in Ramadan, something I would have certainly done many times already if my father hadn’t passed when he did.
During Ramadan, Muslims are asked to fast from dawn to dusk for 30 days, abstaining from food, water, and sex. The requisite five prayers a day are more meaningful during the holy month, because your fast will not count if you don’t pray. We are taught from the Qur’an that Muslims were given the gift of fasting “so that [we] may develop God consciousness.” Of course, observation of the holy month of Ramadan is about one’s commitment to Allah, not to one’s father. Still, praying and fasting as my father did, reciting the words he recited, it makes me feel closer to him and Allah.
I struggle to stay focused during prayer, not to rush through for the sake of eating.
I thought fasting would be easier. Hunger I know. I grew up very familiar with dry, crushed-up Top Ramen hunger. I even know “peanut butter sandwich ain’t ate in two days” hunger. But I am just beginning to know the hunger of Ramadan. The huge meals I initially ate for Iftar were ineffective at curbing the stomach pains of the next day. Now my plates have gotten smaller. I eat only what I need to and am surprised by how little I require. The hunger is routine and frustratingly bearable. It sets in at the same time each day, about three hours before I can break fast, which does not feel like a coincidence. It enters my body like a daily test that begins with Asr prayer and ends with Maghrib. I struggle to stay focused during prayer, not to rush through for the sake of eating. And, of course, there is something different about being voluntarily hungry. I think of how at one point in my life I would do anything to escape the feeling of hunger, and I’m struck at how much has changed. Not for nothing this Ramadan is the longest I have also abstained from weed and alcohol. Even fairly recently, I’d have thought the suggestion of me living without those things laughable. So much seems possible to me now.
Ramadan is truly the month of revelation, and some of what has been revealed to me is that my life has been transformed right along with me. It’s nice to be grounded in that change, as I’m reminded every day. I know that the freedom or prosperity I experience now is not simply the product of hard work and perseverance. I made the choice to fast and to pray this year largely because I feel grateful and indebted to a force far greater than myself. The distance I feel from my various hungers and traumas can exist only by the grace of God. I say, “Alhamdulillah” — “by the grace of God” — and I wonder if my father watched me from above during those nights my dinner was stolen from grocery stores and diners, saying his own ghostly prayers, begging Allah to lead me to an easier life.
As I pray, my mouth fumbles through the Arabic words of Al-Fatiha, the opening verse of the Holy Qur’an, and I feel like a child again. I’m learning language at the sound level, trying to associate the sounds with the meanings they hold so that I may learn to say what I believe and what I desire and to give thanks to those who provide for and teach me. I am learning to speak to myself as much as to God. I imagine what it would have been like to be taught all of this by my father, to have mimicked his voice and movements instead of the “Learning With Zaky” videos from YouTube I’ve been using. I wonder how long it took my father to learn, and who taught him, since, like so many Black Muslims who converted in the 1950s and ’60s, he was already an adult when he found Islam. Did he, too, feel like a child when he learned? I’ve been told by people who knew him that my pride mirrors his. Was he humbled the way I have been? Was he searching for something, too? I can only speak for myself, and to Allah, and hope that something sounds back through the ether.
I use an app on my iPhone, Qibla Compass, and orient myself to the center of Mecca. I cue up Zaky on YouTube, open another app, and press play on the Adhan. I listen to a man sing the call to prayer so beautifully that I feel certain his voice can reach the heavens and all who reside there. I press play while Zaky leads me through the appropriate number of rakats. I focus hard on pronunciation, on pacing, and when I’m done, I make dua in English. I try and try and try, and the more effort I put in, the more I know that I have no clue what I’m doing. I have to surrender to this feeling in order to continue, and I must continue.
All of it feels so counterintuitive. I’m trying to recapture something I never had. I have no pictures of my father. There was one I can vaguely remember, which must’ve been taken just months before his death. It was lost so long ago, I can’t even think of the last time my family knew where it was. Maybe this is my salute to the “ghost ship” life I might have had if my father hadn’t transitioned so soon. Maybe I have always been looking for ghosts, hoping they might reveal to me God’s master plans.
One thing I feel sure about — that I have always been looking for a way to live life “right,” looking for someone to tell me, “That’s it, Frankie. Just keep going.” And so I fast, and pray, and give thanks. Alhamdullilah. All of this, by the grace of God.