It’s 3am and my alarm goes off. I don’t jolt awake, because I’ve been awake for the past 30 minutes or so. There is a special kind of silence at this time of the night. You’re very aware of how alone you are — everyone in the house is asleep; outside, your neighbours’ windows are void of lights; you strain your ears to hear the usual scrape of tires on the road, but it is rare. You are alone.
It’s almost 4am when I manage to drag myself out of bed to the bathroom. Running water always sounds too loud, too sharp, at this time. I watch it run, delaying the inevitable. When I finally stick my hands in and start my ablutions I immediately shiver. It’s cold, but I’ve been told that we shouldn’t use warm water — the cold should wake us up and freshen us.
I do not feel fresh.
My telekung and prayer mat lie waiting in their usual spots — one in the cupboard and the other folded in front of the wall. I pull out my telekung, slip it on, then unfold my prayer mat. I stand on it, wriggling my toes on its soft, velvety surface, making sure that my skirt covers the bottoms of my feet and my top covers every strand of hair. Only when I’m convinced that everything is covered do I stare down at the top of the prayer mat and recite in my heart: I am starting my optional night prayers.
I was told that these prayers are the most sacred, and that those who do them will be rewarded any and all of their wishes, which is why only the most loyal and needy of His servants will be able to find this special night: Laylatul Qadar. You can’t cheat by praying every night of Ramadan; but you can do the optional terawih prayers instead. There are clues, though, and only those who seek it will be able to find it. You never truly know if you’ve found it, because the clues are so subtle: it is on the last ten days of Ramadan, the day of Laylatul Qadar will be filled with calm weather, peace and tranquility, and the night even more so.
I’ve been seeking it every Ramadan since I was 16. I’m never sure if I’ve found it, and I’ve never asked my parents either; it just seemed like something that would be deeply personal. I was sure that my parents sought it out too, and we would make casual conversation of it afterwards, but never talked about whether we prayed and what we prayed for.
If you couldn’t wait for Ramadan to ask God for something, you could also do the same prayers any time of the year, though they wouldn’t be as potent as Laylatul Qadar. I did them sometimes, but they feel especially lonely. At least during Ramadan you could comfort yourself with the fact that so many others would also be chasing Laylatul Qadar, but outside of it lies a deeper silence and a deeper sense of isolation.
There is a special kind of desperation in these prayers. The night makes it especially lonely and silent, making the troubles I felt feel all-consuming. Sometimes I felt like I was the only person on earth kneeling before my Creator.
It would feel like I’m just following my body through the motions of prayer: raising my arms in takbiratul ihram, bending my back in rukuk, going down onto my knees for the sujud, sitting up in the iktidal before pushing myself to my feet before doing it all over again.
I would cry in sujud: a figure on her knees, clothed head to toe in loose white cloth forehead pressed to the prayer mat. Your tears don’t slide down your cheeks when you’re in sujud. If you cry enough they’ll drop like rain onto the prayer mat. Sometimes you’d feel like you can’t breathe, choking on your own desperation. I would stay so long in sujud that my head would feel light and I would feel nauseous and faint, and that would be when I’d force myself to sit up and finish my prayer with salam.
After that I’d sit on the prayer mat, doing zikir through my tears until they’d stop and all I’d be left with is the overwhelming weight of emptiness and loneliness. I’d stare at the splotches of tears I’d left on the prayer mat after that, until I could pull away and head back to bed.
I’d wake up a few hours later, tired to my bones and lonelier than ever, wondering why I didn’t just sleep through the night, because it’s been years and years since I started doing these prayers, and I am no less calm, no less heard. My problems get bigger and bigger, and I’d feel smaller and lonelier. I’d try not to actively think the one thought in my mind: where are You, God? Where were You last night, and where are You now? How many more of these prayers do I have to do before I get to feel You here with me?