For my entire life, Ramadan has begun in more or less the same manner. Tons of excitement, more time spent at the masjid, family and friends anxiously awaiting the moon sighting, and mental preparation for mentally and physically taxing days. I’ve always looked forward to this time of year, not just as a spiritual cleanse, but as a holistic re-evaluation of my life.
This year was a bit different. I’d just returned from a conference in Washington D.C., and after a mere 12 hours home, packed up once again and drove with my family on one of our annual road trips. This trip coincided with a conference my father had to attend for work, in Las Vegas of all places. I burst out laughing when I found out that we would be spending the first day of Ramadan in Sin City, as travelers. No fasting, no moon sightings (plenty of mooning sightings though!), in the antithesis of Ramadan spirit.
I couldn’t have been more excited.
After a day of trying to sight see in 114 degree weather, I’d had enough of outdoors activities. We dodged strippers, kept our eyes fixated directly in front of us, sweated buckets, and headed back to our hotel room. Most of us are somewhat acquainted with the Vegas atmosphere, and how the larger hotels operate. One cannot walk directly from the parking garage to their hotel room. Rather, they have to walk the entire expanse of the hotel’s casino, past all of the clubs and bars, all of the restaurants, though billowing clouds of cigarette smoke and endless throngs of dolled up people, just to reach the elevators that take them to the residential wing. A shower and three inhaler puffs later I still reeked of tobacco and alcohol, having consumed neither. I had a pounding headache from the noise around me. One has to really, really want to be in Vegas to enjoy the disastrous shambles that Sin City truly is. I’m not one of those people.
The path from garage to hotel room was an amalgamation of every single misogynistic, capitalist, dehumanization imaginable, wrapped up in a sparkling package neatly prepared for instantaneous, mass consumption. I appreciated how immersed I was in these surroundings, juxtaposed against my simultaneous welcoming of Ramadan. The contrast could not have been more stark, and actually seemed to heighten my sense of self, and overall awareness. I already felt a bit self-conscious, amid all of the proudly displayed, immaculately developed bodies and perfectly dressed couples. I’d just emerged from fighting cab drivers for a way in to the self-pay garage, my hair matted to my forehead and my clothing wrinkled and reeking of the mess outside. It wasn’t cute. My family of five, dressed in various degrees of Bengali clothing, clearly did not belong in this hotel, as we rapidly marched past the slot machines and side eyed every open container polluting our breathing air. But we were determined to enjoy our time, for whatever it was worth.
We ordered five extra towels, lined them up on the floor between our beds, and created a jamaat. My father led our salat and we prayed Maghrib and Isha together in the way that travelers do, followed by eight rakaat salatul taraweeh and three rakaat salatul witr. Our room was three doors down from a suite in which there was a huge party. Hoards of screaming, drunk people having their own great time thundered through the halls. Faint hints of pot smoke wafted in to our room, which was illuminated by the huge Caesar’s Palace sign next door. But in those moments, none of those distractions mattered, because as we sat in prostration facing Makkah, along with more than a billion Muslims across the world, there could not have been any tangible distraction to interrupt us from welcoming this year’s Ramadan in to our lives.
It was such a passionate experience, praying for three days in that hotel room. Last year, I’d had an extremely difficult Ramadan and struggled with improving my spiritual enlightenment process. This year, I think the shocking immersion of Las Vegas may have done permanent damage to my respiratory system but has also had a great impact on strengthening my faith. At any point in time I could have sneaked away from my room and gone downstairs for a drink, ventured into a club, gone to any show of my choice. It’s not hard to get on a list, avoid covers and spend a few hours getting turnt up before returning back to the hotel room and slipping into bed next to my siblings, who sleep like comatose sloths may Allah guide them toward a more animated existence.
But, I didn’t want to. I was having fun reinventing my faith in Islam and Allah, understanding my spirituality in an environment that fundamentally rejects and denies everything I believe in, and of course continuously improving my relationship with my family. We still enjoyed Vegas – we ate at zabihah restaurants which are less accessible in my hometown, walked through endless high end clothing shops, saw a ton of great shows, and went on long drives to see the barren landscapes in Nevada and Arizona. It was such a passionate and vivacious experience, and I honestly could not have asked Allah for a greater way begin Ramadan for me this year.
Through my experiences in Las Vegas, one verse from the Quran kept coming to mind time and time again. In Surah Luqman Allah says, “O my son, establish prayer, enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong, and be patient over what befalls you. Indeed, [all] that is of the matters [requiring] determination (31:17).”
There was so much temptation to explore new lifestyles, to venture away from my personal relationship with Islam. And I am relieved to say that out of my own conviction, I stayed away from all of that which fits perfectly in with some people, but not myself. I’m blessed to have a family that was so willing to establish prayer in our hotel room, to encourage each other to give thanks for our faith and our strength as Muslims and as a family, and to renew our love for each other and for Allah. I’ve not felt this happy about my spirituality and relationship with Islam for quite some time, and truly believe Allah sent me this experience as a gift and as encouragement for the future. I’m now halfway through Ramadan and feeling healthy, spiritually satiated, and confident that the rest of this month will insha Allah continue even better than before.
*Sami Safiullah is a writing genius and academic. He resides in the mountains of Utah with his parents and siblings and cooks Bengali food while discussing Southeast Asian politics in his spare time.