Ramadan for the rest of us
September 21, 2008 11:57 AM
When my editor told me about the Muslim Student Association’s (MSA) annual Fast-a-Thon, the soul-searching geek in me jumped at the prospect. After a course on the life of Gandhi in the spring of 2008, and rifling through many tattered Buddhist books, I’d learned about fasting, yet never attempted it myself. The event invited non-Muslims to fast from sunrise to sunset, one day out of Ramadan’s 30 day stretch. Considering Muslims fast from September 1st to the 30th, one day seemed attainable in comparison.
I spoke with Carel Bertram, a Sf State authority on Middle-East and Islamic studies who explained much of Ramadan’s practice and history. Fasting forbids in-take. That means no eating, drinking, smoking, or sexual coitus for 13 hours and 31 minutes. Ramadan falls on the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, and begins about 11 days earlier each year. Bertram said Ramadan could fall in the blistering summer or the dead of winter. This phenomenon interested me considering most Christian holidays occur the same calendar day annually; what if Christmas occurred in different seasons? Bertram is not a Muslim, but she fasts to feel a sense of unity with those who are: “For me it is a very special spiritual experience,” she said. “Some thing magical always happens to me.”
For me, it was more difficult than magical.
On Thursday, September 20, fasting began exactly at 5:42 AM, and would last till 7:13 PM, according to Agnes Chong from the Council on American-Islamic relations. My cell-phone alarm beeped my eyes open at 5:00 AM, giving me just 42 minutes to eat and drink myself sick, which I achieved in spades. I made what my roommate described as a, "Whatever's in the fridge sandwich," stuffed with foods I'd only eat on an empty-stomach kind of day: salami, egg, cheddar cheese in between an olive-oil fried bagel. I also slammed three cups of water. I felt like a bloated, beached whale as I left my apartment for work, the sun beginning to peak through the dawn and outer-sunset fog.
I work at a grocery store. As you might imagine, a grocery store is a horrible job to have while fasting. My difficulties began with the floating scent of free mandarin chicken, cooking in the back of the store for anyone but me to try. I thought lunch would prove easier, but even such basic institutions were challenged by the fast. Time previously used for eating became time to kill. All I could do was sit and think about was how thirsty I was. Then came the sharp pains, which rose and fell in my head from dehydration or caffeine withdrawals (probably a little of both).
The worst part was I couldn’t look past my immediate desires. The thirst and hunger kept my focus from the internal, and exploring the metaphysical was why I fasted in the first place. I wasn’t expecting to topple an empire with my fast like Gandhi did, or suddenly comprehend life’s meaning. I did, however, expect to look past my cravings and have some kind of eye-opening experience.
I felt defeated. After work, I went to campus and lay on the grass, watching and waiting as the sun moved across the sky.
My experience sounds bad. At the time, I thought it was.
Then I spoke with Lucia Volk, the advisor for the MSA, and my woes seemed more like trials than unfruitful irritations. She asked how the experiment went, and I admitted it was difficult. As I explained my pains, and how I really wanted to eat that free mandarin chicken, the sought-after realization came: it took feeling that uncomfortable and hungry to glimpse what impoverished people globally experience daily. While I chose to try just one day of fasting, the hunger I felt was nothing in comparison. I felt ashamed. Lucia reminded me that such insights are part of the beauty and revelation of Ramadan: to "Get yourself in a mindset that you can do with less," Lucia explained. I thanked her, and broke my fast with delicious, free food from the MSA. I gobbled vast quantities of chicken and baklava, and left the experience with more than just a full stomach.
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