Downtown was deserted last night. At 8pm, the streets were empty, there was no hooting, and there was absolutely no one shopping in the Beirut Souks. All the usual choc-a-bloc places were humming with the sound of the now-audible air conditioners. Crossing a street in two seconds - one that usually takes a couple of minutes before there's a bumper-to-bonnet gap - I turned to Dad, worried: 'Did something happen today that we don't know about?', my mind on the southern border.
A bored-out-of-her-mind shop assistant made sense of the silence: 'It's Ramadan.' People were feasting at home after their first day of fasting, and would only hit the shops after their post-sunset meal. Hence the stores opening till 12am during the Ramadan period (as opposed to the usual 10pm shutdown).
Back out in the streets, the mosques were dripping with fairy lights, the lampposts were donning additional decorative glimmer, and even the big clock in Place d'Etoile was shining brightly for this special period in the Muslim calendar.
To mark my presence in the Arab region during this time, I paid my first visit to the enormous Mohammad Al-Amin mosque in Downtown today. In fact, it was my first-ever visit to any mosque. Of course, my short, chiffon dress was a little too flimsy for this place of worship, so I was given an abaya that covered my entire body and made me sweat profusely (even in the air-conditioned mosque). I really admire Muslim women who pull that off on a daily basis.
The mosque is absolutely gorgeous on the inside. Filled with extravagant chandeliers and exquisite Arabic calligraphy and golden motifs, it makes sense that this blue-domed masterpiece took five years to build (it was completed in 2007).
What I found most fascinating was that some men use it as a meeting place to gather with friends - there was a group of four sitting on the ground having a normal conversation while others prayed around them. There were also a few men catching a nap on the decorated carpet; a few were reading - maybe it was the Qur'an (but I seem to think that's a big book, and what they were reading was rather thin) - while two answered their phones and had full-on conversations.
However, amid the few distractions, it really is a great place for meditation. The incredibly high ceiling and gigantic space allows you to have a section of mosque all to yourself to just sit and pray or think or simply escape the busy world outside. I'm surprised by how much I was surprised by the way in which I felt very welcome inside. Once again, I as reminded of the presence of the same God which we call by different names.
For those who don't know what Ramadan is all about (like me up until three years ago when I became friends with two Muslim colleagues and had to be subjected to their fasting ordeal. Remember Nuri and Wardah always asking us what we were eating when they knew it would only drive them further into hunger, or the way they couldn't wait to get their period in order to return to the smokers' corner?), here's a little Wiki help:
During this month of fasting, Muslims are not meant to eat, drink or have sex from dawn until sunset. It is a month in which they are supposed to focus on patience, humility and spirituality, while praying more than usual. During this time, they also ask forgiveness from past sins, pray for guidance in refraining from everyday evils and try to purify themselves through self-restraint and good deeds. Ramadan is believed to be the month in which the first verses of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and the period starts with the arrival of the new moon.
The blue-domed Mohammad Al-Amin mosque in Downtown Beirut.
The Ramadanian me inside the mosque. (Even if I say so myself, I think I make quite a hot Ramadanian!)
One of the gigantic chandeliers.