In just a few days, millions of Muslims around the world will join together for the holy month of Ramadan. It is a time for sacrifice and introspection, for fasting and studying the Quran. But it is also, as the following accounts relate, a time to look forward to, a cause for celebration and a time for family and friends. Wherever in the world Muslims are, however far from home they may find themselves, Ramadan is a month that unites them in their faith, their fasting and their efforts to be better people. M talks to 14 Muslims from different parts of the globe to find out how they will be spending the holy month and what Ramadan means to them on a personal and cultural, as well as religious, level.
Mahmazar, like many Pashtuns, only uses one name. The 62-year-old farmer from Tarkho village in Bajaur, one of Pakistan's seven war-torn tribal agencies, escaped seven months ago to the Jalozai refugee camp, outside Peshawar, with his wife, 14 children and eight grandchildren. My most vivid memory of Ramadan is from last year. It's not the kind of memory most people might have but it is my memory and it will tell you a little, maybe, about what life has come to for people like me. The memory is still fresh on my mind - how can a person forget a thing like this? It will be with me for the rest of my life, what happened to my family on that fourth day of Ramadan last year. I live in a war zone so you can imagine how difficult life is. But last year we were hopeful that at least during the holy month, there would be peace. President Zardari had promised as much: a Ramadan ceasefire after months of relentless fighting and it seemed at first that finally he would keep his word. The first three days were quiet - three beautiful days during which my grandchildren laughed for the first time in weeks, the family gathered together to break the fast, and we felt again the peace and happiness Ramadan brings with it. Looking back now, I wish those days had never happened. After three days of remembering how Ramadan was supposed to be, the fourth was a nightmare. The fighting started again shortly after we had broken the fast. We don't know who fired first - the Pakistani army or the Taliban - but within minutes we could hear the helicopters flying overhead. That's when the bombing began. To save ourselves, we ran to the underground grotto every family has in my village, where we keep our food cool during the summer heat. But there were too many of us. My whole family had gathered at my house for the feast - cousins with their wives and children - everyone. We stuffed ourselves into the grotto as best we could but many of my family members had to run back to their homes to find shelter. In that dark, underground cave, I prayed for their safety. The fighting was fierce. Bombs exploded all around us. The ground shook beneath our feet. After some time - I don't know how long it was - we came out of the grotto. A couple of houses in the village had been destroyed but ours was untouched. My cousin, Izzatullah, was dead. We spent the rest of Ramadan mostly in that cave, hiding to save our lives.
When I was a child, Ramadan was pure magic. Life is difficult in the Tribal Areas. Suffering is common. But during Ramadan, nobody suffered. Even if our crops had failed, there was always enough food. Old enmities were put aside, people shared what they had, and peace prevailed. My favourite activity was running around the village with my cousins after the breaking of the fast, going house to house with jugs of yogurt drink that we would share with our neighbours. In return, we received sweets, and laughter - there was so much laughter.
No one laughs anymore at the refugee camp. Our joy for life is gone and along with it our love for Ramadan. We will now fast during the hottest time of the year, living in tents that multiply the heat, breaking our fast with water that is as hot as tea. My friends who were at the camp last year tell me no one shares what they have - how can you share when you have nothing? We will just sit solemnly in our tents and pray for the war to end.
As told to Adnan Khan
Karima Shehata, 22, is a marketing and advertising student. My father, Mahmoud, and his family are Egyptians, from Cairo. My mother, Ludmila, was born in Rio de Janeiro. Her mother is Russian and her father is German. My parents met in Rio 30 years ago during one of my dad's business trips, and he took her home with him to London. As a child I lived in both London and in Cairo. At the age of seven, I began to observe Ramadan because, according to my parents, it was the right age to start. My mother, who is Russian Orthodox, was the only one in the family who didn't fast. Living in Egypt it was easy to fast because most people observe Ramadan. The whole country is together. I attended the Lycée Français du Caire, and a lot of the students also observed Ramadan.
We moved to Brazil in 1997. I continued to attend French schools and experienced a great deal of ignorance, especially among my friends who, at times, thought Ramadan was a joke. Some even questioned my parents, saying it was inappropriate to leave a child the whole day without even being able to drink water. But what they did not realise was that the issue is not prohibition. My father always taught me that Ramadan is a very personal choice: you settle it between yourself and God. Those who want to practise, do. Those who don't want to, do not.
I always kept this uppermost in my mind. And I was always very proud to be part of Ramadan. Not only for the religious aspect, but also for myself. I admire the ability to break patterns, to understand that whoever says, "I'm starving" doesn't know what that means. And we, the practitioners of Ramadan, do not know what it is to starve, because that's not the point of Ramadan either. But we get a little bit closer to knowing what the people feel who really don't have anything to eat. We can understand the low point that the street girl, covered in dirt, has reached when she stretches out her hand to beg.
Moreover, it gives me a new energy and a greater corporeal self-awareness. I learnt to control my desire to eat during Ramadan and, consequently, I don't have hunger symptoms that are as sharp as those of the "average" person. In my early years of fasting, the hunger drove me crazy. But I immediately realised that was not the spirit of Ramadan. So I learnt to control my nervousness, which in the end, was harmful to me.
In my family I was always the star of Ramadan, not skipping a single day of fasting except when necessary according to the rules. And I always prided myself on getting through the 29 or 30 days without much effort. Of course, there are always times when it is more difficult, especially really hot and humid days.
And at 5.47pm, or whatever time the sun sets that day, I stop what I'm doing, no matter what it is, and break my fast. The whole world around me continues to live normally. But during that time, they're not part of my world: I'm alone with myself, especially when I'm at work, without my family.
I sit and eat, at peace with the world. And I feel satisfied for making it through that day. This year, I'm thrilled to observe my 15th Ramadan, at the age of 22.
As told to Helena Frith Powell
Rachid Nekkaz, 38, was born to Algerian immigrant parents in the Parisian suburb of Villeneuve Saint George. He is the co-founder of the Touche Pas à Ma Constitution (Hands Off My Constitution) movement set up to defend women directly affected by France's proposed new law banning women from wearing face-covering veils in public. A writer, social activist and businessman with internet and property interests, Nekkaz and his American wife, Cécile, have a nine-year-old son, Iskander, who attends the French Lycée in San Francisco, and he divides his time between Paris and his family in California.
During Ramadan in 1999, I was touring the world for my book What Future For Humanity?, interviewing G7 heads of state on their vision of mankind beyond 2000. Crossing time zones during flights made it difficult to work out at what time I should be breaking fast. Once, arriving at the White House for my meeting with President Clinton, I was offered a drink by an official. It was just 4pm; unsure of American attitudes, I felt too ashamed to say I was observing Ramadan. I accepted the glass but didn't touch a drop. After 10 minutes, he asked if there was something wrong with it and I just said: "I'm not thirsty." These days I'm more affirmative about my identity, but it took time.
I was my son's age - nine - during my first Ramadan. It was summer, very hot and, for me, an achievement to complete nine days. I was so proud. Afterwards, I ate like a starving man until I was bloated and fell soundly asleep. Ramadan is a powerful personal and spiritual test. It demonstrates the capacity of each person to surpass normal limits. It is also a communion with all the world's Muslims simultaneously making this common spiritual effort. And it helps us understand what it is to be deprived daily of food as millions of men and women in the world are, by famine.
During Ramadan, I live my spirituality for a month, become closer to my family - my parents, brothers and sisters - and work less. The evenings are times of great strength when we remember the value and importance of family. This year is a chance to experience Ramadan during the summer holidays when the whole family can be reunited, rather than in winter when people are scattered around the world.
Ramadan is harder in France because Muslims are a minority. Everyone else is at lunch, sitting out on cafe terraces, and all the shops are open. In Algeria and other Muslim countries, everything is closed, social and economic life slows down and Ramadan dictates the rhythm of life; in France, the festival is more discreet, intimate.
My wife is Christian. But sometimes she will observe Ramadan with me as a mark of solidarity. Our son, Iskander, accomplished one day of Ramadan last year and was proud to have done so a year earlier than his father. I believe Christians are a little envious, since there are no longer festivals that unite all Christians in quite the same way. Christmas, for example, is steadily losing its significance. For me, Ramadan offers the most beautiful and humanistic test of Islam. The painter Wassily Kandinsky said: "Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible." I find the social dimension of Ramadan makes Islam visible. Fasting is an excellent spiritual and practical exercise and, by depriving me of material things, helps me to finance such causes as the women who will be forbidden to wear the niqab in France. I do not worship material wealth and believe Ramadan stops me from being blinded by money. Eid is a manifestation of joy, relief and absolute communion between oneself and one's family, the feeling of having passed this test of abstaining from food and active spirituality. We dress as if for a wedding day, the whole family assembled. We are happy, and it is a happiness that is renewed each year. It is why I shall continue to observe Ramadan for as long as I live, to experience these moments and feel these indescribable emotions.
As told to Colin Randall
Malik Sakhawat Hussain is the imam of the Al Mahdi Center in Brooklyn. He was born in Pakistan, educated in Iran, and ministers to congregants across eastern North America. I just converted a couple in Albany this morning and as I was driving back south to Brooklyn I could not stop thinking about how different America is from our home countries. Here we have the freedom to practise our faith, more than we have back where we come from, we have the freedom to live as we wish, and even to proselytise.
After September 11, we all expected things to get worse for Muslims, but America has taught us otherwise. I came here two decades ago with preconceptions and a narrow world view: I feared that America would be a difficult place to live, and during my first years, I did not really understand this place. My English was not fluent and I did not know the history, culture and traditions of multiculturalism of this country. It actually took me two years to finally understand that really there are no hardships. There are the little things: I wear my robes in the street, and apart from a few catcalls - mostly children - I have not had any problems.
But, as I was saying, after September 11, there was a concerted effort to reach out to Muslims in the country, and recently I was at a Ramadan dinner hosted by Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York. I was there with more than 20 imams from different sects and ethnicities; it summed up New York, really, and it was an honour to be hosted by the mayor of arguably the financial capital of the world.
Of course, there were a lot of police officers at the event, more than a hundred of them, and the mayor instructed them that for Ramadan, when Muslims have to wake up early and congregate for the inception and end of the fast, they were to make elaborate security and traffic arrangements for the dawn and night prayers. Later, when several Muslim police officers read from the Quran, it really made my day.
But on a practical level, Ramadan is when the community really comes together. As a ratio of the Muslim population of the city, our mosques are not that full, but for those that come here, the brotherhood is greater. When you miss something, you are eager to compensate for it.
So every night during Ramadan a different family hosts dinner. Many people rearrange their workdays to start earlier during the holy month, and I feel that in spirit we are more. It is also very interesting, but the distance between the young and the old that exists back "home" does not exist here. Our children are American now, they talk bluntly here, and consequently, there is more friendship and understanding between fathers and sons than there would be back wherever we come from. Ramadan is one way of accentuating that bonding.
As told to Abid Shah
Hind Mezaina, 38, is a Dubai-based digital marketer, photographer and blogger at theculturist.com. As clichéd as it may sound, Ramadan to me is a time to spend with family. It's the only month in the year where my parents, siblings and I eat together (we have different work schedules during the rest of the year which makes it difficult to share meals). So during Ramadan I cherish these moments and I have been feeling more strongly about this the older I get.
It's also a time of giving and a time of reflection, which is something I prefer to practice in private and not really talk about. But sometimes I also find it hard to find the spiritual side of Ramadan because to me, the downside of the holy month is the extent to which it has become commercialised over the past few years. The "celebration" of Ramadan feels like it's all about consumption - the commercials, for instance, are so in your face during this month, whether it's in the papers or on TV. It's all about so called "Ramadan offers" which vary from supermarket deals to furniture stores, and which can be very off-putting.
I miss the days when there was a sense of Ramadan in the city, where you could feel it. But now it feels very much like it's business as usual. If it weren't for the closed restaurants during the day, you wouldn't really feel Ramadan at all. Now, shops are open all day and late into the night and the Ramadan tents across the city all focus on spending more money on food, drinks and shisha.
Dubai has grown so much and I love its diversity and multiculturalism - but with that I find there's a missing sense of community across the city. Luckily you can still find it in certain neighbourhoods where, during Ramadan, you still see neighbours and families exchanging food. I know that I am always looking forward to the harees (a traditional dish consisting of wheat and meat or chicken, crushed together to make it soft and paste-like) that we get from my grandmother's house every day, one of my favourite meals during Ramadan.
I know a lot of people who associate Ramadan with not eating and doing as little as possible all day and then stuffing your face all night. But that's not how Ramadan is supposed to be - to each their own, I guess. I just wish there was a little less commercialisation and a little more time to think about the meaning of the month.
As told to Helena Frith Powell
Kristiane Backer, 43, is a German TV presenter / journalist based in London, and a global ambassador for the Exploring Islam Foundation, which aims to challenge misconceptions about Islam and highlight the contribution of British Muslims to society. Her book, From MTV To Mecca, will be published in Arabic in the autumn.
My first Ramadan, when I was 30 and a fairly new Muslim, was a bit of a disaster. I had been an award-winning television presenter for MTV Europe and on a youth show in Germany. But my conversion had sparked a negative press campaign in the German media, which led to me losing my job almost overnight. My many inward changes had led to my outer world cracking up and falling apart. In retrospect, being stripped of everything I had identified with was a blessing in disguise. Now I could concentrate on what really mattered, my connection with God, learning about the faith, and beginning to reorient my life and most importantly, myself.
The evening before my first Ramadan I made the mistake of going out with friends and drinking a glass or two of champagne. The next day I lay in bed with a pounding headache and dehydration. Finally, at 3pm, I gave up, saying to myself: "Ramadan is not for me. May God forgive me." The following year I had landed a new job, hosting a daily cultural programme on NBC Europe. Ramadan fell at the same time as the Christmas holidays. In order to have a break we needed to produce twice the number of programmes a day, which meant recording links and voiceovers from morning to night. I thought I would never manage because in between takes I would always drink water. But, subhan'Allah, God made my mouth water by itself and I was flying through the fasts. Of course it helped that by then I had given up alcohol. Many colleagues complimented me on how radiant and pure I looked. Since then I have fasted every single Ramadan for the past 13 years.
Of course work doesn't stop during Ramadan in London so it can be a bit tough when dealing with non-fasting people but that is part of the challenge. I spend time reading the Quran or religious books, praying and invoking God. I try my best to also fast from anger, impatience, gossip or any other negativity. What I really enjoy is breaking fast at the house of my Arabic girlfriend who often invites ladies round for iftar. This gives me a taste of love and warmth, the celebratory community spirit of Ramadan, and the sense of sharing which we otherwise miss in the West, especially when you are single and without a Muslim family.
My dream is to experience Ramadan with my own Muslim family and in a Muslim country - of course one day also in Mecca. I believe this annual spiritual discipline is a key to transforming and bettering myself as a human being - of course there is still a way to go. I take stock of my life, think about what I want to improve, actively work on forgiving people who may have hurt me, and dissolving any resentment in my heart and praying to God to forgive me. Through fasting in Ramadan I feel closer to God, clearer and more aware, more sensitive. Even my sense of taste is heightened. It is as if I am in a different, higher state. I always want this sensation to last as long as possible but somehow everyday life sets in again after Ramadan is over.
As told to Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi
French-Moroccan Mariame Tighanimine, 23, is co-founder of a webzine for French women of Muslim culture called Hijab And The City. She and her sister Khadija wanted to create a forum for Muslim women in the West, where they could read about and express themselves on subjects ranging from fashion to spirituality or social issues.
I am the youngest in my family and when I was in primary school during Ramadan I tried to imitate the others but I was never able to last until sundown. I remember my very first Ramadan, my mother had prepared everything I like to eat; my parents and brother and sisters gave me little presents. They wanted me to understand that it wasn't a month of constraints, but of efforts that could be rewarded. When I began to fast, it wasn't something to be endured but something I did with conviction, I enjoyed it and still do.
Most of the Ramadans during my adolescence took place during winter. I would come home from school and we would sit down and eat. Everyone would pitch in, even my brother. The kitchen was effervescent; everyone had his or her favourite dish. My Moroccan-born mother is an excellent cook. She would make all sorts of dishes from the traditional harira, chicken or seafood pastillas to western dishes such as gratins or lasagne. However, she would explain to us that Ramadan wasn't synonymous with a banquet and that it was above all a month during which values such as sharing, solidarity towards those who have less, compassion and kindness were to be observed.
I celebrated Ramadan in Morocco two years ago. I had thought that it would be better in a Muslim country but I'd rather be at home near my loved ones. It's true that for the evening prayer it's an experience to go to a big, beautiful mosque, and for the Night of Destiny there are crowds in the streets and very complete spiritual programmes in the mosques. But Ramadan for me is really being with my family. We organise spiritual moments during which we read the Quran, learn Hadiths and about the lives of the prophets. It's a good time to read the entire Quran. It's a period during which God is particularly present for us.
On our webzine, Hijab And The City, we have lots of readers who express themselves during Ramadan, both Muslims and non-Muslims. We prepare articles and videos, for example, a special sports programme with the help of a professional coach, or articles about fashion with suggestions for clothing to wear to the mosque in the evening. There are also humorous articles about getting through Ramadan at work or at university, as well as spiritual and practical pieces.
Of course it's a time to make resolutions, but it's not always easy, human beings aren't perfect and I'm the first to admit it.
Ramadan also means Eid, which we adore. It's our Christmas; it's not the end of a period of suffering but rather a celebration of this sacred month. We are always a little nostalgic when it's over. I always look forward to this month with much impatience and joy.
As told to Olivia Snaije
The Tunisian-born French Imam, Hassen Chalghoumi, 36, is the chairman of the Conference of French Imams. He is one of three imams at the Drancy mosque, the largest in this northern Paris suburb. Chalghoumi supports interfaith dialogue and the French parliament's ban of the burqa. He has received death threats from extremist Muslim groups and has two police bodyguards. His book, Imam And Republican, will be out this autumn.
Ramadan is not just about fasting. It's a moment for sharing; it's an opportunity to build bridges between all peoples, to make a step towards the other. I tell the faithful that everyone should give a plate of tagine or couscous to his or her neighbour, whether they are Muslim or not. Each family should invite someone who is alone in a hostel for workers to their home. I also like to give talks about how there shouldn't be so much responsibility placed on the woman during Ramadan. She shops for half the day and then cooks for the other half. How can she benefit during Ramadan and find a moment for spirituality? On top of that she is fasting. Husbands and sons should all help out. We are very unjust towards women.
I'm from a humble background and we all helped my mother cook during Ramadan. We would gather around a table, there would always be a friend, a student or someone who was poorer than we were that we could share our meal with. It was a warm and family-oriented time. When Ramadan ended we were always sad that this spiritual time was over. I experienced Ramadan in different countries during my religious studies in Syria, Pakistan and India. In Damascus, it was magnificent, with lights and signs saying Marhaba Ramadan. As a student I was always welcomed and given food. In Pakistan and India there was the same human and spiritual side although the customs were often stricter as far as women were concerned.
In Drancy, we welcome 3,000 to 4,000 faithful each night during Ramadan. There can be up to 10,000 people on the Night of Destiny. We have a special tent for the children so that parents can pray in peace. We encourage people to give to charities. We would like people to have empathy for a person at the other end of the world who doesn't even have a glass of water or milk to drink. We have guest scholars who come to lecture from various countries and this year they will come from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Egypt. We provide 150 meals a day for Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, we invite the mayor of Drancy and other political figures. We want others to get to know us; it is our duty to extend a hand to Europeans.
As told to Olivia Snaije
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, 35, is the author of Love In A Headscarf, and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk. She has been named by The Times newspaper as one of the UK's 100 most influential Muslim women. She is married and lives in London. My first memories of Ramadan are as a child during the long days of late summer in England. The fasts stretched from just after 2am, when the first light of dawn began to peep through the night sky, till 9pm when it finally set. This Ramadan will be the same. I was too young to fast then but old enough to know that something magical was happening in these 30 days. 'Normal life' came to a stop, and everyone was swept up in the excitement and focused on praying, reading the Quran and of course, food. Barely five years old, I'd be packed off to bed at eight in the evening so I'd be fresh for school the next day, and as a result I missed out on participating in the family ritual of iftar when it got dark. Then the family would break their fasts with dates. There was a prayer that they always recited as they bit into their first morsel: "Oh my Lord, it is for You that I fasted, and it is with your sustenance that I break my fast." It was a reminder that whether eating or not eating, everything was from God and for God. The weekends were a different matter. We went to the mosque to break our fast with other families. Plates of dates and kettles of tea and coffee were served and then the congregation would rise together for the ritual evening prayer, Maghreb, before sharing a meal. It is this community spirit that is one of the great highlights of Ramadan. People fast together, pray together and eat together. By the time I was old enough to fast, Ramadan fell earlier in the summer, since the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year which is 10 or 11 days shorter than the solar year. By now it was June, the longest and probably hottest days of the UK calendar. But I thought nothing of it. I went to school and took part in athletics classes in the midday sun, running in the heat without water. The rules for fasting in Ramadan are laid out in the Quran. I often reflect that, with today's body-obsessed society, spending 30 days focusing on the inner rather than the outer doesn't seem such a bad idea. It's my morning coffee I miss most but if Ramadan proves anything it's that addictions can be broken. I find the first few days difficult as the body adjusts. I start to realise how many hours of the day are dedicated to preparing, consuming and tidying up after meals. I also realise how much of my day is filled with frivolities. I feel liberated, as life becomes unexpectedly more productive, resulting in more time for contemplation, spiritual reflection, and even the odd nap. In fact, each breath of the person who fasts is considered worship, awake or asleep. One of the great cultural traditions of Ramadan is the big evening feast, with special foods. But I feel it is better to stick closely to the usual meal patterns, with just the odd treat here or there. After all, one of the philosophies of Ramadan includes empathising with those who have less than us. That's just not possible if you are eating more than usual, with special treats. Strangely, some people put on weight during Ramadan. The hardest part of fasting, is "fasting of the tongue". No more harsh words, anger, gossip. It's easier said than done, especially when you haven't eaten all day. I write the words "Be Nice" on my hand to remind me. The first day after Ramadan is the festival of Eid. Even though I am filled with excitement and achievement there is a tinge of sadness as the month of Ramadan is over. As told to Helena Frith Powell
Siavash is an American-born Iranian. He is 19 and lives in Los Angeles where he is a pre-medical student and also works in an Arabic cafe.
As the American-born son of an Iranian dissident, observing Ramadan in the conservative Los Angeles suburb where I live is an annual exercise in political and cultural diplomacy.
Against a background of political sensitivities at home - my father refuses to fast because of the persecution he suffered under Iran's Islamic regime in the early 1980s - I struggle during Ramadan to balance my Persian-Muslim roots and more current American surroundings.
My father fled Iran in the months following the country's Islamic revolution in 1979 - when a popular uprising led by conservative ayatollahs ousted the Western-backed and increasingly repressive Shah - and has lived in the United States ever since. In continued opposition to the Islamic regime in Iran, my father, who does not want to be named, refuses to fast as part of his political protest.
I avoid my father during Ramadan, because I don't want to remind him of what he went through.
But as someone whose mannerisms are thoroughly American, I try to keep the Ramadan tradition in a unique way, fasting quietly with other Muslim friends and dodging political discussions with conservative American neighbours.
Because of US government sabre rattling over Iran's nascent nuclear energy programme, Ramadan can be a tense time for both Iranians and Muslims in the US.
My American friends always ask me questions about why I am not eating, or if I believe in jihad. They think it's strange but I tell them it's more of a personal thing, something spiritual. And it makes me feel connected to what would have been my culture, if my father had not left Iran.
The US is undoubtedly my home, but I also admittedly cling to the only Middle Eastern neighbourhood in what is an extremely gentrified area of California. In a local quarter dubbed Little Arabia, I serve shisha to Iranians, Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians at a Middle Eastern cafe.
I stick to this area during Ramadan and go there with my Muslim friends to break our fast with people who understand the culture. I'm not afraid, but I don't want to push anyone's buttons, and that includes my father's.
As told to Erin Cunningham
Mohamed Azhar Ayub is a 21-year-old finance and accounting student. As the winds of Ramadan hit the shores of Mombasa, they bring with them rains of change from the ocean of God's mercy. These rains penetrate the hardest of hearts and bring forth many fruits; the poor are fed and the orphans clothed, worshippers flood the mosques and the whole town blossoms with goodness. Ramadan in my home town is an extraordinary affair. Family bonds are strengthened as homes resound to the recitation of the Quran. The whole family wakes up in the early hours of the morning to have a light 'daku' (suhoor) and, at iftar, dishes are varied and abundant. Families, neighbours and relatives exchange special dishes cooked for that day's iftar to spread mutual love as the Prophet commands. The greatest change can be seen in the mosques. After afternoon prayer on any ordinary day people rush to fill their bellies. But in Ramadan they sit back to nurture their souls from the durus (wise counsel) given by the Mashaikh (religious teachers). Iftar is particularly special for me. As part of a community effort we are involved in volunteering to provide iftar for 400 to 500 people in the Konzi mosque in the centre of town. For some people who come to break their fasts here, it is their only meal of the day. This daily experience connects us to the less privileged and reminds us of the great bounties of our Lord, which we very often take for granted. For tarawih (prayers) there is a variety of mosques to choose from. The streets of the town are bustling with people. A market opens a couple of hours before sunset every day, with hawkers clogging the pavements and small stalls, selling traditional Swahili delicacies. Most of the dishes contain coconut, which grows so prolifically here, and Swahili cuisine shows the influence of the Arabs and Asians who have settled and traded here for centuries. As the sun goes down, the air resonates with the sound of the muezzins announcing the breaking of the fast. Elderly Swahili men, with a walking stick in hand wearing the kikoi and a Swahili kofia (cap), drink qahwa (black coffee) and eat dates. At night, the atmosphere becomes festive. The shops stay open till late, women and children come out on to the streets to enjoy the cool of the night and munch sunflower seeds, or buy ice-lollies from the many ice-cream vendors who roam through the town on their tricycles. Some young men jog through the streets in an attempt to keep fit, while others spend their time chatting and playing carrom on the pavements of the old town. Night becomes day. Ramadan, I feel, proves to us that if we sincerely wish it, we can bring the change to our lives that we as Muslims desire - the ability to balance worship with work, carrying on with our everyday activities but altering them in a way to fulfil our spiritual duties in a deeper manner. Despite the difficulties it poses, we long for the month of Ramadan to return and bless our lives. As told to Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi
Fakhri Abu Diab, 48, is an accountant from Silwan, East Jerusalem. He is the head of the committee against house demolitions in his neighbourhood and has been building his house there for the past 20 years. I started to fast when I was six or seven years old. When I saw my father and mother fasting, I wanted to do the same. My mother said if I really wanted to, I could just do half a day, but I fasted every day for the whole month. We are close to the Al-Aqsa mosque, so it is very special for us here. You really feel Ramadan in the air, in the Old City - and you know it has been like this for a long time, that your history is all here around you. I go to Al-Aqsa every day and spend a lot of time there during Ramadan. I get up in the morning at about three or four and go to prayers at Al-Aqsa. Then I come back and read books for a few hours. I go back to the mosque for lunchtime prayers and then stroll around the Old City - I know it so well and like to spend time there. I go back for Asr prayers and then go shopping for the evening meal - I buy hummus and special bread, I only shop in the Old City. I go home and help my wife prepare the meal. I like making soup and salad. Then we all sit and eat together with the children and grandchildren and we talk. I ask them what they learnt from the day and how they feel about the fast. I really like it that we all eat together. Some days, I take food to others who don't have much. And then after the meal we walk up to al Al-Aqsa for prayers. Most of all, I like the sense of togetherness during Ramadan, not only among our family but also in the wider community. People are kinder and more forgiving and prepared to let go of ill-will. You can feel people's happiness and unity. But at the same time we feel the pain of the occupation as something that is trying to change our culture and our past. Sometimes, I am worried when I go to the Old City that I might lose things that are so connected to my roots, my religion and history. And sometimes when I go to the mosque and see the police outside and I have to stand and wait, I feel as though I am entering a place that is not mine. Now, because of our situation, Ramadan is even more important because when we fast we learn patience. God willing it won't happen, but let's say the Israelis come and demolish my home [one of 22 slated for house demolition in Silwan], I know my children and I can be strong and manage if we have no kitchen, or manage with one meal a day. When we fast and then eat in the evening the family is together and we don't have to think about the reality outside. But I am an optimist - after Ramadan there is a feast and maybe after Ramadan this year, they will not demolish our homes. As told to Rachel Shabi
Radia Daoussi, 39, is a Tunisian/French public health professional. Born in Tunisia and raised in Paris, she lives with her husband and two daughters in the USA. She is currently in Tonga in the South Pacific until the end of August working for the United Nations.
My most memorable Ramadan was certainly during the year 1998/1999, when my husband and I embarked on a year-long overland journey from Paris to India, stopping in Jerusalem, Medina and Mecca on the way. The trip was done on behalf of our small, non-profit organisation, the Vineeta Foundation, which is dedicated to public health and human rights.
That year, Ramadan fell in the month of December. I particularly remember our crossing the border from Turkey into Syria: it was Christmas Day, and we were stranded at the nondescript border all day with merchants feverishly trying to get their goods across. Hunger pangs do become more prominent when there is nothing else to concentrate on. But eventually, towards the end of the day, Syrian customs officers took care of us, our car, and our papers. They invited us to break fast with them, which not only filled our stomachs but our souls as well, as the display of hospitality and kindness brought Ramadan into its real light.
There is nothing like breaking fast in the desert and watching a gorgeous sunset to marvel at the world's beauty, and being alive to witness it. The overland journey and Ramadan propelled our creativity.
We met Bedouins who insisted on sharing whatever they had with us, which greatly humbled us. Throughout our travels, we realised that people who had the least gave the most, in hospitality, food, and companionship among other things.
But the highlight of Ramadan that year was fasting and breaking fast with the Yahya family in Amman, Jordan. My husband had befriended them in Boston. They were Palestinian refugees from the 1948 exodus. I did enjoy fasting in a culture that embraced Ramadan, which certainly made it easier. The Yahya family made Ramadan almost painless, sharing their love of life and happiness, despite what they had endured as refugees. It was such a bonding experience.
Of course, Ramandan is hard. But that experience in Amman brought an exceptional sense of peace. I was proud of my heritage.
It was perhaps maktoub - meant to be - that after Eid that year, we set out to visit Israel and Palestine. Intending to bring pictures to the Yahya family of their ancestral home, we were going to spend only a few hours in Tantoura, but ended up investigating and writing about the 1948 massacre.
As told to Helena Frith Powell
Wael Zubi, 36, is a British-born Muslim. He works as a translator and has lived in Abu Dhabi for four years. My first experience of fasting was as a 10-year-old boy growing up in the city of Hull in Yorkshire, in north-eastern England. At the time, both my parents were doing their doctorates at university, and my father was very involved with the university's student union Islamic society. We were fortunate enough to have a very tight-knit community made up of both the permanent local Muslim community and those who lived in the city during their student years. I was involved with helping my father on the days he volunteered to prepare iftar at the local mosque. Members of the different ethnic communities all did the same and took turns making Iftar, so by the time Ramadan finished one had eaten Asian, south-east Asian, Middle Eastern and North African food. It was also my first experience of tarawih (prayers) and the memory of that first Ramadan and those that followed during my childhood years in Hull still bring warmth to my heart. I have such wonderful memories of the atmosphere of the whole month, the individuals I encountered and learnt from, and the first experience it gave me of the trans-national nature of Muslim culture and how each culture brings something unique, like different colours that create a beautiful painting when put together on the canvas of Islam. One of my recent reflections was on the verse of the Quran that states that the goal of the fast is to become God-conscious. The Arabic word used is taqwa, the root of the word being waqya, meaning to protect oneself. One scholar was talking about the meaning of taqwa when a mouse ran into the room and then ran out. The scholar said: "This is taqwa," meaning to run away or protect oneself from a bad end. So it is to do with running away from what causes us harm, by running towards things that expose us to God's mercy. Ramadan is about attaining the discipline that allows us to do this. Man is dual-faceted, both outer and inner. Fasting is outwardly to constrict oneself and inwardly to expand. It instills the discipline necessary for the ascendancy of the spirit. The spirit is heavenly and its ascendancy allows us to live in the kingdom of God on earth, this is one of the gifts of the way of the Prophet Mohammed. It gives birth to a person who lives in the presence of God in his daily life. One Prophet said: "My spirit is heaven, my body is dust," and another said: "Fast in this world and let your breakfast be death." This statement is not to be taken as morbid, but rather as an indication that one should maintain the discipline of the fast throughout one's life in order to be released from that in the final moment when the spirit throws off the garment of the body and returns to the expanse of its native world. As told to Bushra Alkaff al Hashemi