Travel: Wine, honey and virgins await you in heaven: Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and prayer, begins next week. Tony Kelly recalls his experience of it in a small desert township in war-stricken Sudan

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The Independent Travel
THE WORST thing was the Sufi procession in the middle of the night. At two o'clock each morning they marched past our small brick house, beating drums and chanting loudly. 'If you are fasting, get up and eat,' they cried paradoxically, as they woke the neighbourhood in time for the sahur, or final snack before the 4am deadline. 'If you are not,' they continued apologetically, 'go back to sleep.'

Kate and I had been living in Babanusa, a desert town of 20,000 in western Sudan, for eight months when Ramadan began in April. We had just finished our contracts as teachers in the local secondary school and our pupils had begun their long summer holiday; from March to July it is too hot to study. We decided to share the fast - 30 days without food or water from dawn to dusk - with our friends before we left. It seemed an appropriate way of saying goodbye.

The first day was a nightmare: dehydration, caffeine withdrawal, headaches, nausea. But as Ramadan progressed, each day became easier. Fifteen hours without food or drink, when you do not have to work, is not such a hardship. And once they realised we were serious, friends and neighbours were thrilled. We were accepted in the community as never before.

'Allah is pleased that you fast, but he'd be even more pleased if you prayed, too,' one friend, Ahmed, confided in me. I told him that I did, in my own fashion. 'And you're supposed to read the Koran each day.' Well, I did that, too - in translation. That was my saving grace. Anyone, they believe, who reads the original word of God in classical Arabic, as revealed to the Prophet, will be converted.

We rose at five each morning to stand at our outdoor tap, collecting the trickle of water with a bucket and a jug. There had been no rain for six months and water was in short supply. We would spend two hours shopping, washing and sweeping the yard before it got too hot. At eight, we would settle under the electric fan in our bedroom to spend several hours on our straw mats, doing yoga, sleeping or reading the Koran.

We had it easy; others were still working in temperatures of more than 40 degrees, growing and selling food, or labouring on building sites, unable to let even a glass of water touch their lips. An exception is made for illness. Our house was opposite Babanusa's only hospital, a makeshift, single-storey structure with walls of cardboard. Each day we received visitors who took advantage of our relaxed attitude to cheat on their fast. 'Excuse me, I'm on my way to hospital,' they said. 'Can I have a glass of water?'

We were invited to breakfast most evenings. I would gather on the street before dusk with the men of the neighbourhood; Kate would stay in the women's quarters. Each family contributed what it could: a bowl of asida (a thick porridge of flour and water), a few dates, a jug of fruit drink. At half past six the muezzin would call from the mosque and the meal could begin with a single dried date, following the custom set by Mohamed. Next came the drinks, jugfuls of ice-cold water and local concoctions with names as unusual as their flavours: kakadeh made from hibiscus flowers, ardeb from locust beans, tebeldi from the fruit of the baobab tree and limoon from tiny limes.

Their thirst satisfied, the men would bend down to give thanks. I sat in the sand behind a line of gleaming white bottoms as the men in their crisp jellabas touched their foreheads to the ground in humility. The jellabas, tagias (prayer-caps) and immas (turbans), all cleaned and pressed each day, lit up an otherwise dark evening. At first the moon offered some light. Ahmed finished his prayers one night and gazed up in admiration. 'Is it true,' he asked, 'that men have been there?'

Several pints of sugared water left little room for food. But, slowly, we would get round to the meal, nibbling at plates of fried millet before attacking the asida. Like everything else, it was eaten with the fingers of the right hand. We learnt to plunge our hands into the communal bowl, grab a piece of steaming dough, roll it in our fingers and, finally, use it to soak up the okra, buttermilk or goat-meat sauce in which it swam.

Babanusa was usually quiet after nine, as people retired early in readiness for 5am prayers. But during Ramadan the souk was busy until 11. We spent our evenings outside Suleiman's cafe, drinking tiny cups of strong black Kenyan coffee or glasses of hot milk with ginger, as we sat on the crude wooden benches exchanging conversation with male friends - women never went out to socialise.

Our attempts at adopting Islamic customs led to fascinating exchanges on religion. Suleiman's neighbour, Abdullah, who ran a juice bar, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which supported sharia law with its harsh penal code. One night he explained his devotion. 'In the Koran, it says that those who pray, fast, give alms and make the pilgrimage will go to heaven. And in heaven, there are rivers of wine and honey, and virgins galore.'

Every night the women of the souk al gamra, the moon market, sold tea and melon seeds under the trees until midnight. Everyone returned home for a second meal which they ate before going to bed. There was time for two hours' sleep before the Sufis returned with their drums. And, for the truly devout, it was almost time for the first of their five daily visits to the mosque.

Into this scene came the tall, dark Dinkas, 7,000 arriving one day on a single train. They were refugees from the south, fleeing civil war, starvation and the tribal militias who saw all non-Muslims as the enemy. The black southerners were animists or Christians, and it was their tribe that made up the bulk of the rebel army; as a result, Islamic extremists labelled all non-Arabs as rebel supporters.

Their lean figures and shrivelled breasts were barely covered by rags, and they held begging bowls as they sat under the few trees waiting for something to happen. Thirty of them died on the first day. Their arrival during Ramadan seemed to render the fast frivolous; the ordinary people of Babanusa were among the poorest in the world, but still they fasted by day, knowing they could eat at night. The refugees could not have fasted. Their whole life was a compulsory fast and a desperate struggle to survive.

The Dinkas threatened the unity of purpose that Ramadan had brought about. Suddenly, Babanusa was a multiracial town and a quarter of its population were neither Arabs nor Muslims. Brought up in London, I had never even had to suppress racism; but in Sudan I could understand the phenomenon. The existence of these black beggars destroyed the peaceful atmosphere of a previously united community sharing its holiest season. If nothing else, they threatened the self- satisfied piety by introducing a reason for guilt.

I feared for their safety; militias had been active locally and 1,000 Dinkas had been massacred the previous year. But Ramadan proved their saviour. Fasting and prayer is not enough; the true Muslim must show charity as well. The Arab tradition of hospitality extended at such times even to their ancient enemies, and people who had nothing gave all that they had to those with even less. The final two days of Ramadan are the time for the zakat al fitr, or divine tax. Money poured in to relieve the suffering and refugee centres were set up.

We visited Suleiman to congratulate him on completing his fast. He was subdued and depressed. He had taken one refugee under his wing, fed him, clothed him and given him shelter - and the man had just died. We knew that for Suleiman life was a perpetual struggle; more than once we had lent him money so that he could stay in business. His love for his infidel neighbour was inspiring and summed up the spirit of Babanusa.

Excitement mounted over the final few days. The shops were crowded with families buying sweets and clothes for the children. Ahmed told us that anyone who 'dreamt of Paradise' that week was specially blessed. He went to bed each night hoping for dreams of wine and virgins, but they never came.

On the 30th evening the new moon appeared and Ramadan ended in a mood of joyous celebration. That night there were claps of thunder and the first storm of the rainy season arrived an hour after sunset. By morning the sand was dry once more. Hundreds of people gathered outside the mosque for communal thanksgiving. A row of Dinka refugees sat at the back, patiently waiting for offerings.

We spent that day visiting friends, dashing from house to house, and pausing just long enough to exchange congratulations and eat a few sweets or home-made biscuits. Women rubbed perfume in my hair and painted my little finger with varnish; Kate's feet were patterned with henna. Children toured the streets in groups, grabbing handfuls of sweets from each house before running away. Their annual party on the football pitch had been cancelled because of a meningitis epidemic, but nothing could take away the party atmosphere in the courtyards and sandy streets. After 30 days of suffering, everyone had earned the right to go a little wild.

The Id El Fitr (fast-breaking festival) ended three days later as it had begun - with a thunderstorm. After six months underground the frogs reappeared, and at night we heard croaking. For a month we had been unable to drink water when we wanted it; now it was not only in the taps but beating on to our bodies as well.

Water was essential not only as a life-giving drink, but also for the ritual washing that took place before meals or prayer. You could not even go to the lavatory without a jug of water. Most people had to haul it on their heads each day from the well, or pay for it to be delivered by donkey-cart; even we privileged foreigners had to be at the tap by dawn to catch whatever was going. Ramadan taught me just how precious water was.

The rain which fell that night, turning dry sand magically into grass, was our reward from heaven for the thirst and hunger of the previous month.

(Photographs omitted)