Lessons from a voluntary fast
By Kate Durham
In the urban canyon that is my street, the light starts fading before the sun sets. In that false dusk I stood on my balcony Sunday evening with a tall, cold fruit juice in hand, waiting — just as the rest of my neighborhood waited, tucked unseen in their apartments — for the sunset call to prayer.
I fast on the first day of Ramadan. I don’t have to. My co-workers and neighbors don’t expect me to. And I don’t do it for the entire month. But if I’m in Egypt on the first of the Islamic Holy Month, I’ll fast — no food or drink from sun-up to sundown.
I tell myself I do this as a barometer, to get a sense of what my colleagues are going through especially as Ramadan creeps deeper into summer and the fasting period gets longer and hotter. Patience is key for dealing with a fasting office, and if I can shore that patience up with empathy, then it’s a slightly better day for all involved. So there I am, on the first of Ramadan without my customary coffee, working past the hunger pangs with everyone else.
I also fast to remind myself I can. It’s a tiny personal challenge in what is really a privileged life. The hunger, I’ve learned, is rarely the problem … the pangs go away if you ignore them. With summer, the big issue is water, and all day I was acutely aware of my body dehydrating as my mouth felt gummier and saliva became harder to generate. And I sit at a desk in an air-conditioned office.
That luxury lasted until I walked home from work, as I usually do. It was, according to my smartphone, only 37 degrees Celsius (98 Fahrenheit) instead of the 41C (106F) of the previous days. I walked the two kilometers to the grocery store, picked up eight kilograms of groceries, and trudged the remaining kilometer home. One foot in front of the other, my now-parched tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth.
This is the life of the street sweepers, the construction workers, the informal vendors who walk through the metro cars or sit on the sidewalk all day hawking their wares and so many others with physically demanding outside jobs.
The Ramadan fast is often embraced with pride, piety, a sense of spirituality… but I have yet to hear anyone describe it as a physically enjoyable experience. It’s part of the reason for ‘non-faster’s guilt,’ a common condition — especially among foreigners — where we feel awkward eating and drinking while everyone else is not. We hide in corners with our drinks, delay lunch until the workday has ended. One of my American colleagues has vowed to fast during office hours, giving up her coffee and cigarettes to avoid making our Muslim compatriots feel worse.
The irony, of course, is that my Egyptian friends and colleagues have always been gracious toward those of us who do not fast. Many feel they earn extra blessings in their own fast when someone eats or drinks in front of them. This graciousness inspires me as a non-faster to be discreet, now out of respect rather than guilt.
Not every Muslim-majority country is so tolerant. In a widely reported official statement, the Saudi Ministry of Interior is threatening to punish and/or deport foreigners who don’t “respect the fast” by eating, drinking or smoking in public. People can be arrested in many Gulf countries for not observing the fast in public places, even if they’re not Muslim. On a press trip to Dubai, I visited a multinational corporation that screens off the company cafeteria so fasters will not have to see people eat.
After seeing Egyptian graciousness toward non-fasters, I wonder why Gulf countries feel national and corporate policies like that are necessary. My limited experience with fasting has taught me that seeing someone eat or drink is tempting but not fatal to the fast; it’s how you respond to that temptation.
Ahmed Goher spent much of his formative years abroad before returning to Egypt to become a journalist. He recalls being the only Muslim in his high school in Romania, “staring in awkward silence as everyone munched away on their exceptionally cheesy-looking delicious pizza […] and dreaming of a drop of water, as others [carried] bottles swishing with deliciously cold water.”
For the 15-year-old, it was an intense temptation. But when he felt he was at the “point of imminent surrender while fasting abroad, I would urge myself to push through. I would convince myself that the strong-willed determination I evoke to continue with my fast indicates that I am stronger than those around me.”
Goher says that fasting seems easier back in Egypt. “When you are completely surrounded by others who are not fasting, it is not the sight of people around you eating or drinking that makes the experience particularly burdensome,” he explains, “rather it is the absence of the immensely supportive feeling encapsulated in the thought that ‘we’ are all in this together. In Egypt, whenever I feel weak and about to collapse, while fasting, I can always look at others around me and tell myself I am not weaker than them … they are all carrying on with their fast — be they young, old, rich or poor — and so will I.”
My First of Ramadan fast also brings that sense of solidarity, a feeling that I am part of this community that is celebrating something very special – even if it’s not my holiday. Many non-fasters, myself included, fast on days we’re invited to a formal or family iftar, so we can come to the table with the same anticipation as those who invited us. And I’ve known several people who, though not Muslim, fasted the whole month in solidarity with their temporary home.
Because it is a strange feeling to be the odd man out, to walk down the street after eating a big lunch and know that almost everyone around you has not eaten or had anything to drink since 2 a.m. That is certainly one of the reasons for the fast: to become more aware of those who hunger and thirst, and inspire empathy, compassion and charity.
In that light, the most common greeting — have a “generous Ramadan” — doesn’t seem so strange in this month of self deprivation. Ramadan Kareem, everyone.