Ali is always in religious mode in those 10 days. His days begin with fasts, progress with ritual prayers and end in supplications to the Almighty. He returns home only after the Eid moon is sighted.
But this year was different. Ali had never confronted so many internal distractions as he did this year. He was unable to focus on his prayers. He was not getting the same satisfaction from the fasting as he did before. He felt that even his ‘dua’ lacked sincerity.
For 20 days, the Alif Laila Tavern, Virginia, gave him free food. “Remember us in your prayers,” the tavern’s owner Javed would say every time Ali offered to pay.
On the 20th day, Ali, a Virginia cab driver, locked his vehicle and went to the mosque, devoting the next 10 days to seeking Allah’s blessings. But every time he thought of compensating Javed, he thought of only one option; buy him a bottle of whiskey. This was the only gift that pleased Javed.
Twice he thought about it while saying his prayers. This shook him. “Only a sinner can think of alcohol inside a mosque,” he said to himself. “Surely, I am a sinner.”
This brought tears to his eyes. “All my prayers have gone waste. All I earned is sin. Forgive me, O Lord,” Ali said quietly but was not sure if he will be forgiven.
So he tried to focus on something pure and unadulterated; untouched by sinful thoughts. An act of kindness, with no ulterior motives. Love so pure that it can only be felt, not expressed. A thought as innocent as dew on a rose petal.
Ali remembered how a certain Haji Saheb fed dozens of people every evening when they came to the mosque to break their fast. It definitely was an act of pure kindness. But one day, he heard the Haji Saheb telling a companion to make sure everyone knew that his shop sold the best food in the town.
It hurt Ali. “It still is a kind act but not really selfless,” he said.
“Love your Lord, more than you love your parents or children,” said a preacher after the evening prayers. “Don’t seek compensation for loving God. No rewards. No salary. Love God for love’s sake.”
This convinced Ali. “This is love; unadulterated and unsullied. Complete in its purity. Boundless,” he said.
The next evening, he waited eagerly for the preacher but he did not come. And someone said he will not come again because he was not happy with the “honorarium” he was getting and wanted a raise.
“It is no sin to seek a better salary,” Ali thought but the news did hurt him.
Now he was looking for one innocent act that could wash away this unexplainable guilt that Ali was suffering from. He looked around and saw a group of children – between 10 and 14 – serving food to worshippers at the pre-fast meal.
“There you go,” he said. “I wasted so much time looking for kindness, love and innocence. And yet ignored these innocent angels. See, they are up at four in the morning to assist the worshippers.”
The children indeed had no vested interests. So Ali went to them and asked what motivated them to do this.
“Doo, doo, didi, dada,” said one of them.
Ali thought he did not understand English, so he repeated his question slowly.
“La-la, la-la, la,” said another child and all burst out laughing.
Now Ali realised that they were making fun of his South Asian accent. He understood that children sometimes do become impulsive and act rashly. So he was not upset.
But he was sad because so far he had failed to find one perfect act that could end his depression.
Two days later, it was Eid. And that too started badly for him. The prayer hall that he went to had four namaz. He went to the third, led by a young student from a seminary.
After a long-winded speech, the Imam started the prayer but forgot the additional ‘takbeers’ said at Eid. So the namaz had to be said again.
“I am on a useless pursuit. There’s no perfection in the world,” Ali said. The thought added to his depression.
As the prayer ended, everybody rushed out. This blocked traffic. The drivers started honking; an act looked down upon in the West. This brought the cops. They started blowing their whistles.
As the crowd tried to move out, new people came in for the next namaz, it created so much confusion that Ali gave up his search. He sat on a roadside stone, watching the crowd but not focusing on anything.
An old man in the traditional Afghan dress came and stood near Ali. He raised his right hand and a younger member of the family started kissing it. Some teenagers, obviously brought up in America, ignored him. This upset the old man who waived his hand angrily. The parents noticed this and forced their children to kiss the grandfather’s hand.
“This is just custom, not love,” said Ali.
Then came a teenage girl. She had scores of boils on her face, which had almost disfigured her. She looked very upset and it was obvious that she had been crying.
Her father tried to console her, saying that he had already spoken to her doctor and the medicines she was taking would cure her. She would soon be OK.
But the girl could not hold her tears. The father moved ahead but the mother, who was holding her, kissed the daughter on both cheeks and said: “I am here, my love, I am here. Look into my eyes, see how beautiful you are.”
The daughter held her mother tight and wept.
The mother wiped her tears and said: “Children who have mothers do not cry” and held her so warmly that it brought a beautiful smile on the girl’s face.
“Who says there’s no perfection in the world,” said Ali, and moved ahead, also smiling.