This is my weekly newspaper column at The National, in anticipation of Eid this week.
Eid celebrations will be taking place around the Muslim world this week. It’s a time, rightly or wrongly, of indulgence and pleasure: fine clothes, good food, high-fat, high-carbohydrate sweets. It’s a day when the spiritual focus of the previous 30 days is mostly forgotten, even though Eid is supposed to be a celebration of spiritual renewal, a cleansing of sins and of a fresh start.
I confess that although I aim to uphold this sacred meaning of Eid, I’m not immune to engaging once more in the pursuit of pleasure in the daytime. The first exciting thing about the day of Eid for me is my morning cup of coffee. Its consumption is a celebratory ritual. My husband and I will usually go to our favourite cafe and breathlessly order a cappuccino, excited at its return to us after 30 days of daytime exile.
The cappuccino – above other kinds of coffee – offers us the opportunity for a beautifully decorated reintroduction to the flavourful morning shot of caffeine. The froth is elegantly smoothed over, like the icing on a birthday cake, and freshly ground cocoa is sprinkled on it in the shape of a pretty heart or coffee bean.
We normally stare at the coffee, then at each other, then back at the coffee. After a month of absence, our hearts have grown fonder, and we are enraptured by the return of the beloved. Lifting the coffee cup to my lips after a month of daytime separation, I experience the reunion of lost lovers.
Even now as I write this in anticipation of Eid morning, I feel mixed emotions about my longing for that first sip of coffee. The shiver of delight as the first warm drops slide down my throat. The disappointment in myself that, having given up coffee for a month, I should so easily return to my (mild) addiction. The sadness at the loss of Ramadan’s intense spirituality.
What my cappuccino also reminds me of is the distinction that each human being faces between the pursuit of contentment and the pursuit of pleasure. These are clearly different things, although at times we may confuse them. Pleasures need not be shameful or sinful. My coffee is neither, and gives me intense pleasure, and pleasure is rightly a part of the human experience. But as the coffee warms my mouth, I can’t help but recall the preceding month of Ramadan where it was the pursuit of contentment that was paramount.
Contentment is a funny beast. Talking of its pursuit is perverse – you cannot chase it, rather it must come to you. Sometimes you don’t know you were contented till the moment has passed. That is the essence of Ramadan. The emptiness of the belly, the lightheadedness of the body, when first experienced, feel like physical torture. But slowly – and often in hindsight – we learn to identify that the absence of pleasure has created a space and a stillness that allows contentment to settle, despite its elusiveness.
Rumi says: “There is an unseen sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness. We are lutes. When the soundbox is filled, no music can come forth. When the brain and the belly burn from fasting, every moment a new song rises out of the fire.”
Eid is a day of transition where we learn to reintroduce the pursuit of pleasure into our daylight hours. Will I still be able to hold on to the slippery creature that is contentment? I’ll let you know after I’ve enjoyed my first cup of coffee.