From 5 a.m. to midafternoon he works in a fast food restaurant. The air is hot and thick with the smell of grease, but Akbar Madany denies himself even a sip of soothing water.
Like Moslems the world over, he is fasting during the daylight hours, and coupling that with prayer and special acts of charity in observance of this Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
At sunset, after nearly 17 hours without food or water, Madany eagerly breaks his fast with the traditional water and a date, prays and joins two of his sisters in a lavish family meal. But halfway through, in spite of his growling stomach, he leaps from the table to watch the television news.
Madany, 17 and a recent refugee from Afghanistan, is hoping it will bring him good news about his war-torn country, where insurgents have battled 85,000 Soviet Union troops since their invasion 18 months ago. "I'm just waiting for Russia to get out of Afghanistan so I can go home," he says."It's nice here but I miss my mom and I miss my friends, even though many of them are dead."
Ramadan, generally a time of introspection and hieghtened awareness of God, is also a family-oriented celebration, so Madany and his sisters, who live in Northern Virginia, find it hard to keep their thoughts from their homeland and their other loved ones 7,400 miles away.
Again the television news is not good, and a somber Madany returns to the traditional lavish Afghan Ramadan meal of lamb, spicy bean and noodle soup, rice, homemade bread and a triangular crust filled with vegetables called bullany.
His siter, Nasima, 30, apologizes for the food, which they say is meager compared to what their mother used to make at Ramadan. "My father spent a whole month's salary on food at Ramadan," says Nasima, 30. "My mother began a month ahead of time making food," says Nasima, who like her sister Diana Shekba, 23, is wearing an elegant deep blue cotton over-blouse and matching ballooned pants.
As required by Islamic custom, they both drape their heads and hair with a long white scarf while they pray.
They trade tales of happier Ramadans when one got sick from fasting at 7 years old, when they broke their fasts with typical feasts of kabob, lamb and luscious sweets. Some poorer people save up for months in order to break Ramadan fasts in style.
They chuckle remembering their father's love of eduction. "He would never let us just sit. We had to have a book in our face until he went to bed at night," says Nasima, now a permanent resident here. "Then we could throw the book down." At Ramadan in Afghanistan, however, even education became secondary, recalls Nasima. "Everyone has only a half day of school."
Celebrating such a traditional custom as Ramadan has brought a special poignancy and nostalgia this year.
"Life is so simple there. It's not hard to find a place to live, and you don't have to worry for the bills," says a suddenly grim-looking Nasima, who runs the library at the Islamic Center and works weekends and nights as a waitress. She was a lawyer with the ministry of justice in Kabul before coming here almost four years ago and finding, to her dismay, that she cannot practice law without two more years of law school.
"But I don't worry about that at Ramadan," she says. "I think that maybe God Doesn't want me to have more education. It helps me accept what I have and be pleased with what I have."
Nasima plans to attend law school eventually but now is tied down supporting much of her family. She shares her sparsely furnished Alexandria condominium with Akbar and a sister and is making room there for another sister and her three children who will arrive from Germany in a week.
They would like nothing more than to see the entire family -- six sisters in all, plus Abkar -- reuntied with their parents, but they say their mother and father are under "house arrest" in Kabul.
To Nasima, this month's fasting and introspection is a comfort. "I feel close to God. I'm thinking of another world when I die and how I need to do more good things and be nicer to people."
The Madany family's observance of Ramadan, which began two weeks ago, is one of the five tenents of Islam. Fasting from dawn to sundown -- approximately 3:45 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. here -- during the ninth month of the Islamic calender is required of all healthy Moslems past the age of puberty. But many children begin fasting earlier, as Nasima did.
Moslems observe Ramadan as the holy month in which God revealed the first books of the Koran to the prophet Mohammad in 611 A.D. Moslems have been observing it since 624 A.D., according to Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, imam and director of the Islamic Center here.
Because the moment of sundown varies, the Madanys, like some Moslems, consult a printed schedule telling them exactly when to pray and break their fasts. Many of the approximately 50,000 Moslems locally call the Islamic Center each day to confirm when to break their fasts. "We get a call a minute during Ramadan asking when to stop fasting," said Siddiqi.
Besides fasting, Moslems must refrain from smoking and sexual acts except during these hours "when a black thread cannot be distinguished from a white thread" in natural light, according to the Koran.
In predominantly Moslem countries Ramadan becomes a month-long holiday. Colored lights bedeck some homes and many restaurants are closed during the day and open throughout the night. Those that serve food during the day to non-Moslems place screens between passersby and the restaurant, out of respect, said Siddiqi. Nonobservant Moslems and non-Moslems are expected not to eat in public and in stricter Islamic nations, public infringers sometimes are arrested, he adds.
"Everyone works only part of the day so you have time to go get ready to pray," says Nasima. As demanded by Islamic law "you have to wash yourself three times before praying," she says.
Many devout Moslems stay up praying and reading the Koran throughout the night and sleep during hot and trying afternoons.
The Madany family does not pray all night but, as is customary, they get up before dawn to eat a light meal before beginning their fast each day. "Then I go back to sleep," says Nasima.
During Ramadan, Moslems are also expected refrain from even the slightest unkindness or injustice, according to Siddiqi.
As a result, Ramadan becomes a very pleasant time, says Siddiqi. "It leaves a general feeling of kindness generosity and sympathy. According to the prophet, the doors of heaven are open on Ramadan and the devils are in chains. There's not much evil."
Moslems rarely complain about the rigors of the fast. Many view it as a test of their self-discipline. "Sometimes I get too thristy," says Diana. "But I know God gave me strength to fast 16 hours a day. It gets easier after the first few days."
But the younger Akbar describes his trials in detail. "When I have my half-hour break I just look at the food. Mostly I want to drink something -- anything," he says. "It's the worst after two weeks." Akbar is only in his first week of fasting because he broke down and drank some water while he was working on the first few days of Ramadan. Even a sip of water, however, negates a day's fast and Akbar must make up those days.
Moslems are also expected to give a charitable offering called sadaqadul fitr during Ramadan, says Siddiqi. The gift, made directly to a poor family or to an Islamic agency, enables the poor to celebrate Id al Fitr in a festive way, says Siddiqi. The head of each Washington area Moslem family is asked to give $3 per family member to the fund.
Id al Fitr, which means feast of breaking the fast, is usually surrounded by great merrymaking gift-giving, sending of greeting cards and family gatherings. Many families buy new outfits and special foods, especially sweets, on Id al Fitr.
This year, the holiday will be especially joyous because it falls on Saturday, Aug. 1, when more Moslems will be off work and can participate in the festivities, Siddiqi says.
For the Madany family, it will be especially nice because the sister coming in from Germany will have arrived with her children, Nasima says. "The more people and the more relatives, the more happier it is."
But that happiness will be tempered by their continued fears for the safety of the rest of their family and the future of their homeland.
As Akbar says, "I want to say that I'll be going home soon, but I know I can't."