I ached to experience the nightly anticipation of breaking the fast as part of something larger. Deprivation is so much more tolerable, and joy heightened, in company…
When first I stepped into the stiff new shoes of life as a muslim, rubbing along trying not to get blisters, I thought Ramadan would be better in a muslim country. I envied the solidarity of shared hunger and odd cravings (the aroma from a fast-food package, usually anathema – suddenly captivating).
Craving connection more than food
Growing up with my nose in a book, I’d accompanied Marco Polo, Paul Theroux, Wilfred Thesinger, Richard Burton and Huck Finn into countless cobwebbed corners of civilization. The foreign and exotic was my backyard. I knew about life in muslim countries in this holiest of months – truncated working hours, avoidance of discord (men could walk away from a fight with the words ‘I’m fasting’ and suffer no loss of face), increased generosity and spirituality (shopkeepers left their shops open while they went to pray without fear of being robbed) – and the idea of this collective humanitarianism and transcendence thrilled and entranced me.
I’d also read about the festivities that followed: bustling joyful three-day Eid celebrations swathed in colour and spice, funfairs and carnivals filled with people connected by a common experience, even if only for a swift-forgotten month; where everyone wore ready smiles and new clothes and children collected money from benevolent friends and relatives.
A bit of an anticlimax…
It was all a long way away from my reality on the other side of the world. For the most part, the beginning of Ramadan got a mention on the local news, just before the weather report, prompting a jutted lower lip of bemused curiosity or an imperceptible nod of confirmed world knowledge, ‘Ahhh yes, I’ve heard about this…’ from viewers dunking Hob-Nobs in their tea and waiting for Crimewatch.
The rest of the time Ramadan was like a hallucination – all consuming, unrelenting and apparent only to myself. Somehow, despite its huge personal impact, Ramadan was always a private party, and I wished for a connection to something bigger.
A change of heart
Over a decade has passed since I was that naïve young convert with a head full of ideals. I now realise my uniquely personalized Ramadan saved me from the hypocrisy rife in many Middle Eastern countries where people sleep all day and gorge on rich food into the night, socializing and exchanging gossip. In competing displays of extravagance, restaurants hold iftar buffets that offer more food than can ever be consumed resulting in increased waste in a month when we’re supposed to recognise its value more than ever.
Ramadan is little more than an excuse to avoid exertion and responsibility, all while bathing oneself in the conceited glow of puffed-up piety. I’ve heard of people claiming to fast according to the times of sunrise/sunset in their home country, not those of the country where they’re living. In this way they claim they fulfill their obligations while they sleep! Yet another example of an Islam far removed from what it was intended to be.
How can you comprehend the bounty of your life if you make the test too easy? I’m glad my Ramadan is grounded in reality, that I have to make an effort. And truly, the difficulty isn’t in going without food as you might think.
Ramadan: what it’s really like
The reality is that hunger comes and goes in waves, then passes. The first days are tough. The temptation to distract yourself with Facebook or Columbo re-runs (*looks around* ‘What? Is that just me?’) is strong as energy levels plummet and concentration eludes you, intermittant as a blinking light bulb. But distractions obscure what Ramadan can teach us. Now is the time for all the quiet contemplation our busy lives ordinarily deny us.
Maybe you went to bed late the night before and skipped sehri, the pre-dawn meal. Adjusting to the different sleeping schedule can be hard. With the final isha prayer not due until 11pm you only get five hours sleep before you’re up again to eat, and with Ramadan currently falling in the summer here in Canada, sixteen slow hours of thirty-odd degree heat stretch between you and the next cold drink.
It takes a couple of days for the headclamp of caffeine-withdrawal to subside and your body to start producing the endorphins that keep your energy up, and this never happens if you sleep through the mornings and gorge yourself on greasy, sugary food during the non-fasting hours.
Gradually you adjust to the new rhythm, waking before the 4.30 alarm, savoring the peace of daybreak, the last bites of food and mouthful of water. You get so used to not tasting food for seasoning or licking sauce off your finger that even when it’s ok to, you still hesitate. Your concentration and senses (particularly olfactory) become sharper. You feel lighter, yet stronger. No longer pulled this way and that by fleeting whims and desires, you feel balanced, grounded, stable. It all gets very Zen.
It goes deeper than hunger
Ramadan teaches self-control and a visceral understanding of realities beyond our own. The poor and disadvantaged are often invisible, we see them only when we want to and even then our comprehension of what it’s really like to exist in their world is limited. How many of us have stared straight ahead while passing, refusing to acknowledge them when we don’t have any spare change?
The hunger of one who fasts is also invisible. Surrounded by that which we can’t have, at least our deprivation has an endpoint. It’s also a good lesson in the transience of desire – all those things you fantasized about eating throughout the day, and you’re satisfied with just a small meal come evening.
The hardest part of Ramadan is the effort it requires, getting up before dawn to eat and pray, trying not to let your hunger or fatigue manifest itself in bad temper and irritation, managing the disproportionate desire that comes of knowing you can’t have something, when in reality you only have to wait a few hours and it’s yours. It’s about sacrifice and putting the needs of others above our own. Ask any fasting parent who still has to prepare food for their family. It pushes you to find deep wells of patience and willpower previously undiscovered.
It also reveals how easily we’re excluded – how one small change can bar you from so much. I miss leisurely weekend breakfasts with my kids more than anything else – pancakes, radio in the background, the banter and bum jokes (yes, toilet-humor’s still the height of sophistication around here) – but with ten days left to go, it’s a small price to pay. Choosing to go without food several hours a day for a month doesn’t make me a better person, but it shows me ways to get there.