Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad.
It's hot, it's humid and it's Ramadan. When I moved from Australia to Pakistan two years ago, I had limited knowledge of Ramadan and it certainly didn't affect my everyday life. Now, even as a non-Muslim, it is hard not to be engulfed by Ramadan.
The holy month of Ramadan (Ramazan in Urdu) is one of the five pillars of Islam, the exact timing of which is determined by sightings of the crescent moon. From sunrise until sunset, for an entire month, Muslims abstain from drinking, eating, smoking, sexual relations and sinful behavior in general.
This year, the days of Ramadan are long: the sun rises at about 5.20am and sets at about 7pm. That's almost 14 hours without food and water every day for an entire month. To me, this sounds like a superhuman feat. Add to the equation 35 degree heat and claustrophobic humidity and I am in awe.
I am in awe because the vast majority of Pakistanis are fasting and enduring the heat without electricity. Despite promises from the government that Pakistan's 'load shedding' problems would be solved during Ramadan, power outages continue to plague the country. In my suburb, during the third day of Ramadan we had electricity every second hour between 7am and 6pm. It is much, much worse for people living in other parts of the country.
In Lahore, Peshawar and Mardan mass protests have erupted against the long power outages. In Mardan, the media has reported that people are without power for 22 hours a day. On average, people are without electricity for 10-12 hours in urban areas and 16-18 hours in rural areas. I cannot begin to imagine how difficult it is to prepare a meal for a large family in the hours before dawn, offer prayers and eat in darkness.
In Pakistan, no restaurants open during the day during Ramadan (except in the five-star hotels), and eating and drinking in public are, to all intents and purposes, illegal. At the weekend, the Islamabad police beat up two men in the middle of the afternoon at a popular picnic spot because they were drinking soft drinks in their car. The police reportedly told the men that drinking during fasting was 'a violation of the Ramadan Act and a serious crime'. The Ramadan Act was introduced in 1981 by President Zia-ul-Haq who declared eating, drinking and smoking during fasting hours were unlawful for Muslims.
Non-Muslims have no choice but to fast during the day: office canteens are closed for the month and eating and drinking in front of people who are fasting is considered rude.
In the hour before sunset as people race to get home for Iftar, the traffic becomes maddening and one wonders whether anyone has a legal driver's license given the standard of driving on display: running red lights, driving in the middle of the road, packing 10 people in a car the size of a Hyundai Excel.
The many security guards employed in Islamabad gather around small tables covered with metal tumblers full of water and tiffin boxes full of rice, meat and roti waiting for the call to prayer, which signals the end of the fasting day.
As sunset approaches, many Pakistanis head to their favourite restaurant; every restaurant in town has an impressive Iftar buffet with tables heaving with food. Even the fast food restaurants have Iftar deals: from Pizza Hut, where one can eat for Rps699 (about $7.40) and McDonalds to the upscale hotels like the Marriott (Rps1850 or $19.50), every budget and palate is catered to.
Iftar in Islamabad is my favorite time of day. It is cooler and a quiet permeates the city. Everyone visibly relaxes and starts to smile. Checkpoints throughout the city are 'policed' from the makeshift tables on the side of the road where policemen, enjoying their hard-earned Iftar meal, wave cars through the checkpoint as they eat.