Charity begins at home - or, in many cases, just downstairs

Rushing off to an iftar feast, a columnist notices the humble preparations of some workingmen - and changes her own agenda and is reminded of a lesson.

One of the effects of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, especially when it is particularly hot and the work hours are long, is to remind us all of the plight of those who are hungry most of the year due to poverty and famine.

Fasting is supposed to remind us of those less fortunate and, for the most part, it does. But sometimes if we are really honest, when you find yourself really hungry and thirsty, you run to the closest iftar to which you have been invited without bothering to look left or right.

I admit I become a tad grumpy and impatient when the hour nears for breaking the fast.

So it took a comment from a good friend of mine to open my eyes to something that was happening right under my nose, or more specifically at the bottom of my building.

"Yala, yala!" I almost yelled as I ran out of the building with my friend right behind me. There were less than 20 minutes until iftar. I didn't want to be stuck inside a car in traffic when the muzzein's call for Maghreb prayers arrived. But just in case, I stuffed four small bottles of water into my bag, as it is really thirst that I have found particularly hard this hot Ramadan.

Then my friend stopped me as she looked over at a group of men, including the watchman and maintenance man for my building (an uncle and his nephew), sitting in a circle in the shade. The men, all from different parts of Asia, work within my residential complex.

"What about them? Where do they get their iftar from?" my friend asked.

In the centre of the circle was my watchman's kitten, Kat, more often called Boss, waiting for iftar time along with them. I noticed that she had a new pink collar with a bell, and was making her rounds of rubs with all of those in attendance, making them all smile and laugh.

There were plastic plates, each holding a date or two, a small portion of rice, and what looked like chicken. There were bottles of water and some soda cans.

The portions looked quite minuscule compared to my iftars at hotel buffets, restaurants or friends' homes.

And so, without having to say anything, I knew what we had to do.

"Grocery store?" I said. And surprisingly, we managed to buy and deliver boxes of dates, bags of rice, soup, pasta and sauce, cookies, chocolates and easy-to-cook food, even Vimto. And we still managed to break our own fast on schedule.

We ended up just eating some dates with the group, and having a laugh at how Kat tried to take a bite out of a date from each of us. Then we ran upstairs to have our own meal, while the men ate downstairs.

We had also thrown in boxes of cat food, which my watchman really appreciated. I often see him do his chores, such as sweeping, with the cat playing about either near the broom or sitting on his shoulder. He is away from home, and for now, while he is here, Kat - and his nephew - are his only family.

So our iftar wasn't very grand that day, since by then we had decided not to go out. And yet it was quite fulfilling, since it felt more real than the other iftars I have had this Ramadan.

But there is something else that is different this Ramadan. We need to factor in the world's latest economic fears and crises into the mix. People of all classes are holding on to whatever they have, in fear of what tomorrow might bring.

I think it is quite telling on its own that there was a fatwa released this month reminding Muslims to give charity to Somalia and any other place where people are suffering and starving to death.

It is an exceptionally difficult time, and it happens to be Ramadan, which makes it even more imperative to find patience and show kindness, even when you feel stressed yourself.

No matter how hard their lives are, the men at the bottom of my building are always smiling and greeting me with "salam". Prophet Mohammed said that every good deed is charity - even a smile.

Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM


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