Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Night of Power

As I laid in my hot, stuffy room with all the windows open, listening to the sounds of my neighbors, I started to drift off to sleep. About 45 minutes later I was suddenly awaken by the sounds of… a man moaning? It sounded like he was in pain—physical pain. Or maybe it’s the sound a man makes when he loses a child? Soon, others joined in, from a distance, but as the wailing steadily grew, I wondered if I was indeed awake or caught somewhere between waking and sleeping. The sounds of humans moaning so incessantly and intensely filled my ears and took up the space inside me. I shuddered. It was like a horror movie. Zombies coming to get me. The moaning went on for hours, all through the night. I cried myself to sleep. Not because I was scared, but because it was such a wretchedly, miserable sound—one that I’ve never heard before.

The next morning, my running buddy and I hit the streets at 6am. [Listen: I’m not exactly a morning person, but it’s the only time I can run outside. I pride myself in turning off all the street lights and welcoming the morning sun to our city.] Over our little 2-mile jaunt, we usually see about 6 people—4 of them being guards of buildings washing tenants’ cars on the street and 2 of them being this sweeeeet little, old couple out walking their white fuzzy dog [unheard of—most people here are scared of dogs or think they’re dirty]. But this morning we were stared down, called out to and imitated.

“WHY ARE ALL THESE MEN AWAKE???!!” I wondered aloud.

I don’t know,” she replied, wondering to herself. “These shebab [youth males] are supposed to be sleeping right now, not taunting and staring at us… Jerks.”

We run past the cafe where close to 30 guys are sitting outside drinking coffee and smoking hookas and cigarettes, just staring us, calling out pick-up lines and insults, while one got up to run alongside us. [Sometimes I just want to throw down on one of these dudes. Definitely the one who can’t even keep up with us for a block’s length before he succumbs to his coughing attack. Come on! You’re 21!! RUN!] As we turn the corner, I stop running and with the weight of my realization, I grab her arm and stop her: “Last night must have been the Night of Power.”

My running buddy, having grown up here agreed with my assumption. Ya see, during Rama, you’re supposed to become more religious and seek God. But there’s one night that is supposed to be filled with the opportunity for supernatural encounters with God. It’s said that God either listens directly to you on this night or through his angel, Gabriel. This night is the celebration of the Q, their holy book, coming to them through Gabriel and the Prophet M. Many say this night should be filled with the recitation and studying of their holy book; others believe God’s presence will come in dreams and visions, but most all agree that it is best to stay awake the entire night, presenting your requests to God and asking for forgiveness. According to a translation of a teaching of the Prophet M, he declared that “whoever prays during the Night of Power with faith and hoping for its reward will have all his previous sins forgiven.” So you can see why many people stay up the whole night, praying for God to hear them, and why that cafe was bustling with people at 6:10 am.

The Night of Power is proclaimed to be the holiest day of the year. It’s the day where God opens up his heavens and his ears, granting blessings, foresight and forgiveness. Angels are sent down to grant requests and blessings, and some are said to just come down to worship among the other followers. On a bus one time, I met a guy who told me that he only prayed on this night because it was the only night that mattered. And since it was so holy, it made up for all the other days out of the year where he didn’t perform his prayers or other religious duties. [I think he got this from a verse in their book that says that the Night of Power is “better than a thousand months.” Interesting, huh?]

On this night and in the next 5 weeks to come, the time in between the holy days and celebrations, ‘Eids, as they’re called, people are more open to dreams and visions from God. I believe that God is faithful and will meet with and reveal Himself to those who are genuinely and earnestly seeking Him. Please pray for our friends to do so, and that there will be someone in their lives who can help guide them in the Way they should go, once they have had a true encounter with our Living God.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sleepless in Rama

Being in a country where Rama is supposed to be celebrated by everyone, whether or not you’re celebrating, or observing, it doesn’t matter. We all follow the schedule. My ex-pat friends and I have to plan ahead for meals, pack snacks and hide our water. We can’t just walk into a store and buy a Coke or sit at a cafe to read. Granted, there are some cafes and restaurants open, but people stand around outside and guilt and shame you for walking in—for many reasons.

1. You’re not observing Rama properly.
2. You’re not respecting the community.
3. You’re supporting local businesses that are going against the law that must not be that strict if the businesses are not getting in trouble.
4. They’re jealous.

The food stuff isn’t the hardest part for me—it’s the whole sleep deprivation thing. Everyone is really LOUD at night, specifically between the hours of 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM. With it being so hot, it’s hard for me to get to bed at night, and when I do finally fall asleep I have about an hour or two before my neighborhood comes alive. Men sit around outside smoking hooka and talking loudly, children are playing games, running and screaming around their patios, and women are yelling at their kids, talking and preparing meals and washing dishes. It’s annoying. They all become alive a few hours before the sunrise Call to Prayer, because it’s their last chance to eat and drink anything for the day. By then, I have to wake up in an hour anyways. I get mad. I don’t do well with sleep deprivation.

So…I might have found a video montage I made last year of my sleepless Rama nights. My computer program compiled over 25 minutes of footage into a 2 minute clip. It’s of me spying on my neighbors, complaining, being tired, complaining and watching the Packer game on espn.com. Also: just know I get a little sassy when I’m sleepy and will not accept responsibility for anything I say between the hours of 1:00 AM and 6:00 AM [This video was made between 2 & 3am].

Play VIDEO--Go to Bed: The Trailer [click on link or view in the sidebar]

This video is ridiculous, I know. But please keep lifting up my friends and those around the world observing this month. It’s hard and draining—everyone’s tired—physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. And we have one more week.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


There’s this weird trend that goes on with ex-pat women here. [Yeah, I’m about to rat you guys out.]

We all get necklaces with our names in Arabic. And wear them. As if we’ll forget…

Well, I resisted. Mostly because all I have to do is say that name is “Saaahhh-rrrrrrrraaaah” [how it’s pronounced in Arabic] and they get it, as large smiles cover their faces, declaring that I am Arab because my name is Arabic. I gain a lot of favor in this and have my parents to thank. [Thanks, Mom. Tell Dad I say “thank you” too.] And although I’ve received not just one, but TWO necklaces with my name in Arabic as gifts, and I treasure them and the friends who gave them to me, I chose differently for myself. I went to a jeweler and had him custom make me a necklace. Here it is:

It says, Al-Rahb Noori.
“The Lord is my light.”

I struggled to find what I wanted for “my Arabic necklace.” I wanted it to be significant to my time here, I wanted it to be something I could legitimately read, and I wanted it to be something I could really stand behind. Something I tell my friends a lot is “God is strong.” When they try to convert me, when they tell me their bad dreams, when they share with me their woes and worries, when they throw food at me or “inshallah” the life out of me for a husband and kids and living here forever. I always respond with, “God is strong.” But in English. The Arabic translation doesn’t satisfy my meaning.

So, with Psalm 27 starting with, “The LORD is my light and my salvxation [no typo, just an adjustment for word searches]; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold [or refuge] of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” and with the fact that this is my twenty-seventh year, I feel like this is my Psalm this year. Al-Rahb Noori.

In a culture so gripped by fear, one that I feel is dull to darkness, I walk and proclaim His light as my own. Al-Rahb Noori. He lights my way. He has lead me here, guides me and reassures me—all with His light. And in a dark place, the Light is more vibrant. The Light is shunned. The Light is run to. Chased after. Pursued. Ignored. Feared. Not allowed.

The friends are seeking Light. In this month where nearly everyone is being religious, even if they aren’t normally, they’re seeking the face and the forgiveness of Allah [God]. Al-Rahb Noori . And one of my favorite things about this month is that there are Rama lights. Everywhere. [It kind of feels like Christmas in Southern California or something. Lights everywhere; snow nowhere.] The lights are for celebrating, for reminding, for advertising: Rama is here! They bring hope, happiness and an air of festivities. I love them.

And as I walk the eerily, empty streets of dinner time, time when everyone is ravenously breaking their fast with family and friends, all I can hear is the clanging of dishes and the absence of their loud voices as they consume their first meal of the day in the sunset. I see the lights. They’re beautiful and yet, make me giggle on the inside and smile on the outside. The crescent moons of Is. and stars blinking on balconies of apartment buildings… Little children awe over them and I’m taken back to my winters growing up in Wisconsin, where my dad would light the insides of big bushes so that when the snow would fall heavy on them, they would look like larger-than-life-lit-up cupcakes in our front yard. “Christmas lights in the desert. In August.” [Some people even keep them up all year long… sounds like some Americans you may or may not know, right?!] I laugh to myself.

But my self-invoked laughter is fleeting and suddenly replaced by the aches of emptiness and sadness, and a stark realization that sometimes I let go of my own hope for them. That while these lights shine and sparkle on the outside, things are dull and dark on the inside… I’m walking these dark streets with all the Rama lights shining, and all I need to know is Al-Rahb Noori.

“You have said, ‘Seek My face.’
My heart says to You, ‘Your face, L
ORD, do I seek.’

Wait for the LORD; be strong,
and let your heart take courage;
wait for the LORD!”

Psalm 27.8 & 14

I want them to say:
Al-Rahb Noori.

Give a Listen! The Yellow Dress Playlist Pick of the Week: Peace, Jennifer Knapp

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Being Hungry

Listen. I’m all about fasting and being disciplined before our Father. Get it, friends. But I’ll be the first to admit that I hate being hungry. When I’m hungry I get moody, start throwing fits, pick on strangers and small children, and say things I really don’t mean. My friends are right when they offer me food during these times. I’m like a two-year old. I can’t take care of myself. Within two bites of nearly anything, I start changing back from my werewolf status into the human that I’m supposed to be. [Did that reference hit home with any of my States audience? I hear these things are a big deal these days…] And so, as you can imagine, if I’m just one cranky girl when I’m hungry, can you see entire NATIONS being hungry, all together, in intense heat all day long? For a WHOLE MONTH!??!?

[If you just said, “But it’s dry heat…” we’re not friends anymore. It’s not dry. It’s miserable. If I had air conditioning or any kind of air circulation in my HEATBOX, I mean, apartment, maybe I’d consider that comment. Or if I wasn’t wearing long sleeves and pants and SWEATING. In the SHOWER. Do you know what I do at night? I take a water bottle, spray down my sheets to a gross level of dampness, turn the fan directly on me, and jump under the sheets in a tank top and shorts. I soon freeze out and sleep for about…. an hour. Repeat again. All. Night. Long. While my neighbors are up partying and talking in loud voices and watching Rama TV. Did I mention it was loud? Anyways, I digress….]

Oh yes, everyone’s SUPER hungry, but not only that, there’s no consumption of beverages, not even water, [the ultra-religious claim that they don’t even swallow their own saliva, but rather spit it out all day] and, my personal favorite: no smoking. [Cue Hallelujah Chorus here.] Only this sing-songy attitude of mine only lasts a few seconds as I realize that if my taxi drivers were somewhat creepy and jerky before, when they had their coffee and cigs and shawarma… and they’re now without… all day… it’s not a pleasant experience for any of us. Tempers flare and, in a place where every mole hill is already made into being a mountain, the drama is actually disturbing. Even I get a little nervous sometimes.

The world is swirling around me. Everyone is grumpy, upset, aggressive, mean, growing weak, and so I turn to my friends to clue me in. Rama is a much anticipated month. It’s the month where God’s revelations to humankind are supposed to be increased exponentially. It’s a month where they all up their prayers and closeness to God. It’s a month where they strive and hope for… security. But they’ll find none. Because Is. doesn’t technically offer any. I get different stories and opinions on everything from different friends. Some say that this is the month where, if they try their hardest, pray the most fervently, follow the Fast, observe the proper breaking of the Fast, give alms [charity/donations] and are just the overall best Mus. they can be, that God will have favor on them. Maybe.

My heart breaks. But the ache and sadness I experience with their determination and desperation is also one of the strongest reminders I have of why I’m here. Some of my American friends here choose to observe the Fast with their Mus. friends for a variety of different reasons—to be in prayer for them, to be alongside them and know what it’s like to fast from sunrise to sunset every day for a month in the desert heat, or to show compassion for their friends with their desire and openness about Is. For me, I’ve decided not to observe. I take the opportunity to talk about why I fast and when—how I don’t follow a prescribed formula or requirements, but do it on a personal level, sometimes with a small community of friends, because of my relationship with my Father. They’re fascinated. Or disappointed. Again, it depends on the friend. Ha.

Sometimes they think it’s so amazing that a J-follower actually fasts and wants to hear God. Other times they think I’m being rude or just “so American” by not participating, and therefore, not respecting the country’s and culture’s guidelines. You never can win. Ha. So I hide my lunch and glass of water behind a picture of my family should anyone come into my office and be offended or turn me into the authorities.

As my sweet friends claim that their hunger, weakness and intense thirst brings them closer to God, I’m hoping that it’s true. That they’re seeking Him with their whole hearts, and that He will be faithful to meet them. To be the only One Who can satisfy. Maybe in a dream? No one can take that personal encounter away from them.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Where to Start?!

**Please take care to be sensitive to my online status and that of many of my friends in the region. Note the special words and abbreviations I use and please follow suit. This helps my friends in the region and I participate in projects like this blog, giving us the security, confidence and comfort to read and comment. Thank you!

I’ve spent a majority of my college years studying and learning about the majority religion, Is. as I’ll call it, and one of the most interesting things I’ve learned while being here is that many people don’t know what they believe or why they believe it. And to take it even a step further and get all academic on you, it’s amazing to consider that the choice of beliefs and lifestyles is not actually a choice for my friends. The idea of a choice is not really thought of, and if it is, it is usually not acceptably attained. And so, when a religion and belief system is strictly adhered to and straying or even asking questions holds severe consequences, I turn out to be a curious friend to have around.

Ya see, the thing about me is that I love asking questions—especially of women who have much to say, but no audience. Rama, as I’ll call this ninth month of the Is. lunar calendar, is an excellent time to be a foreigner in my city. I love playing dumb so that’s exactly what I do, but let’s be honest: all my questions are leading the witness. I go to my friends and say, “So, what’s Rama? Can you tell me about it? What do you do? Why? Am I supposed to, too?” And so begin hour-long conversations where these beautiful, intelligent women get to be the expert. It makes my heart sing to just give them attention and respect, to challenge them to know what they believe and be able to articulate it in English [God bless them] to a foreigner who believes differently.

Truth be told, only a small number of my friends are actually sure of their religion and traditions. They will quietly admit to me that they don’t know what things mean or represent or why they do them, they just do because that’s what their families do and everyone else in the neighborhood, and it’s what their religious leaders expect, as well as their Holy Book. So I often back down and turn it personal.

I’m so glad you asked how I do this.

Well, the first time I meet a new friend, I’m sure to ask her about dreams. Nothing in particular, just dreams that she has. Dreams are intensely vibrant in this culture as they are respected as a way that God communicates and shows Himself. I love this. And what I love even more is that they don’t think I’m weird. No. They gladly welcome this question and tell me about the dreams that they have. And there you have it. Now every time after that, I throw it in there. “Hi! How are you? How’s your health? How’s your family? You mom? Your dad? Your siblings? Your kids? Have any dreams lately? How’s school? Work? Your favorite soccer team?” See? You didn’t even catch it.

In my first weeks here, I was sharing with a veteran worker how I loved hearing about how Mus. have been changed because the Son approaches them in a dream. And she shared this with me:

“Sarah, always ask them, very casually, about the dreams they have. Sooner than you think, they will have a dream about you. You’ll be standing in a green field, wearing white, glowing. They’ll come and talk to you about it. In fact, every time they have a substantial dream, they’ll think to come talk to you since you’ve expressed an interest.” I was like—Pssshh!!!!! No way, lady. Ok, yeah, in like 5 years. Cool.

But no. Just three weeks later, I was with a family, and the daughters, all in their teens and early twenties, were with Roommate [see previous post] and me, dancing in their living room, and one of the girls turned to me and gasped, “Oh! Ya Sarah!! I almost forgot! I had a dream about you!!!”

“Whhhhaaaa?! Really?” I replied all stunned. “Well… did I look pretty?” I joked with her.

She rushed to me, very excitedly, and explained, “You weren’t smiling. Your face was calm, but you weren’t mad. But you were walking, in a green field, all by yourself toward something. The sun must have been very bright because you were really shiny and you were wearing a white dress, like a wedding dress. And you just kept walking.”

I think at this point I peed my pants. We kept talking, me asking questions, her having short responses while continuing to dance and laugh and smile. She asks me what I think it means. Well, green is a holy color of Is. So I was in a place of holiness, and wearing a wedding gown, Roommate and I took the opportunity to talk about how the Son has come to take all our shame from us, allowing us to be washed white… you get the idea.

Dreams are significant. They’re paid attention to. And they’re personal. No one can tell you that your dream is wrong, in my opinion and practice. Why do I share this to introduce you to Rama? Well, here’s the basics you should know:

Rama: A month where Mus. draw closer to God through fasting, prayer, giving to the poor, reading their Holy Book a lot and just being overall more religious. They don’t eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. At the Call to Prayer at sunset, they break their fast with a few dates and a lentil soup. And a huge meal. They continue to eat all night with their friends and family, watch a lot of TV, pray and read their Book. Again they wake early, before sunrise and eat more before that Call, before they can’t consume anything for the rest of the day. It’s a brutal change of schedule on the body, mind and soul. In general, everyone sleeps more, especially during the day, gains weight and is cranky. Shops keep different hours and the whole country is pretty quiet during the day. Only children, the elderly, pregnant women and menstruating women are exempt from the Fast. The women have to make up the days of menstruation or pregnancy. As a foreigner, I have to publicly fast. It is completely unacceptable and perhaps illegal for me to eat or drink in public. [There are rumors among the foreigners that say it’s illegal for us to, but out of respect and maybe fear that some grumpy locals would jump me, I refrain.]

Please be thinking of our region for the next month. It’s an incredibly important and hot month, one that I approach with caution and hope. God is strong. And He wants to be known. I’m praying for lots and lots of dreams for my friends, and my friends’ friends. Won’t you join me?

My favorite little “mini-market” that I go to almost everyday.
CLOSED. You can’t eat or drink, so you might as well not even be able to buy.
They’re makin' me be a good neighbor.
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