For something that happens annually, it is amazing how no Ramadan is ever the same. Despite the structural order it imposes on our daily lives, from the time we break our fast to attending the nightly Taraweeh prayers, each Ramadan has its own flavours and experiences.
It is something I have learnt to appreciate as I grow older. Previously, I looked forward to the holy month because of the family atmosphere it engenders, focusing more on the social and festive aspects. But I now view it more as a much-needed spiritual detox from the hustle and bustle of the year, providing me with an opportunity to slow down and take stock of the past 12 months.
This means that not only should I be careful of what I consume physically, but emotionally as well. It means making a concerted effort to remove myself from idle chatter or a situation that can escalate into argument. This change of focus was inspired three years ago by the imam of my former local mosque in Khalidiya. While speaking to members of congregation after the prayer, he drove home the importance of reaping the spiritual rewards the holy month can bring.
But like most things in life, these only come through hard work. "Do you know what is a big tragedy?" I remember my imam saying. "The person who leaves Ramadan the same way he entered it."
He explained that we needed to seek out the improvements we want to make during the holy month. We were to ask ourselves the hard questions and define what aspects of our character needed to be fine-tuned, from learning to be more patient with others and being more forgiving, to finally breaking bad habits, such as smoking.
Ideally, this is best done as part of a collective. With that in mind, this weekend is a good chance to create your Ramadan Squad, a group of people who will keep each other in line and remind you of your goals. One piece of advice: if those people don't come to mind immediately, then they shouldn't be included in your group.
I met my group earlier this week for breakfast in Reem Island – something we never usually do, but it's amazing how we appreciate certain things more when they are about to be taken away from us. Because I was the one who initiated the meeting, I said that, as well as daily prayers, I plan to use the month to seek out relatives and friends I have yet to respond to, due to my aversion to difficult conversations.
With Ramadan also being a time of good cheer, it is an apt opportunity to break the ice and seek forgiveness from anyone who has been aggrieved by my actions. I have already drawn up a list of people whom I plan to contact (and maintain ties with) during the holy month and beyond, and the squad expects a report on my efforts during our regular suhoor sessions.
One of the other members, Ahmed, an Egyptian who works in IT, says his goal is to make Ramadan memorable for his son, who is about to embark on his first full fast. "The boy needs to know that it is not a burden," he says. "I will take him with me to the prayers, the religious classes and the family events. I want him to know that Ramadan is a special time and not something that he should dread."
Abdullah, a Sudanese office clerk, says his goal is to focus his voracious reading appetite to the Quran and other spiritual texts. "My brother did it last year," he explains. "With the Quran being about 600 pages long, that is about 20 pages a day. And if you split it among the five daily prayers, that's five pages after each prayer. That is doable."
He also pledges to report on his progress during our Ramadan sessions.
It is my sincere hope that the holy month allows you the opportunity to ask yourself the hard questions, and may you celebrate it well with your families and your own squads.