Last week, I shared my decision to participate in the month-long fast of Ramadan as a means of more fully immersing in my environment abroad. But what does it mean for a non-Muslim to participate in Ramadan? What’s the point? Is it difficult? When (and what) do you eat to stay healthy? But before we get into that, here’s a quick summary of what my typical day during Ramadan looks like:
I wake up around 2:30 AM to share a light breakfast with my fellow fasting volunteers. We snack until around 3:30, when the call to prayer rings out, indicating the sunrise. Some people choose to sleep through the night instead of waking up, but regardless of what one chooses, from sunrise to sunset, we fast. So no food or water from about 3:30 AM until about 7:40 PM. Because the whole country is participating, schedules change universally to allow for extra sleep in the mornings. My class now begins at 10:30 AM and ends at 12:30 PM. I get back to the house around 1:00 PM, and around 1:30 PM I have either Arabic lessons, a lecture, or cooking lessons. (As you can probably imagine, the cooking lessons are admittedly rough!) For me, this is the hardest part of the day. The only scheduled activity is to prepare my lessons for the next day, which usually only takes me 30 minutes to an hour since I like to do the majority of my lesson planning over the weekend. Many volunteers opt for a nap around this time to pass the day a little faster. Naps make me feel lazy, so I usually try not to. (Though I’ve certainly conceded once or twice!) I usually read for the last few hours, up until around 5:30 PM when the others start to wake up from their naps. We hang out and chat until around 7:00 PM, when we start to prepare the food for iftar, the breaking of the fast. A lot of the traditional Ramadan dishes are extremely sweet, (and delicious!) such as chebakia and sohor. This is to up your blood sugar after 15 hours of fasting! After enjoying a delicious and highly anticipated meal that lasts at least an hour or two, we start to get ready for bed around 10:00 PM. And then the cycle begins again!
Though it may sound intimidating, I haven’t found adjusting to the fast too difficult at all. It’s important to know your body and its limitations, so taking it easy is crucial, especially at first. (No running marathons on day one!) But you’d be amazed at how quickly the body adjusts to a different feeding schedule. To make sure that I’m staying healthy, I try to stay active by regularly going on walks around the neighborhood or to the medina. I also make sure to drink a lot of water throughout the break of the fast to stay hydrated. It’s also important not to eat too much too fast once iftar hits, because you don’t want to overwhelm your body with too much all at once. But these are all pretty straightforward guidelines, so perhaps you’re starting to see why the fast itself isn’t all that intimidating after all!
In my (very limited) experience, the hard part is the commitment. Right now, all of my fellow volunteers are participating in the fast. But next weekend, eight more volunteers will come who likely will not participate, meaning they will be eating at a normal schedule while living with us. This will be like a next level test of willpower for those of us here now, but I imagine this is just another day in the life for any Muslim not living/celebrating in a Muslim country... And for that, I salute them!
As a non-Muslim, Ramadan holds a different significance for me than my students. But the unending support and sense of respect I have earned in their eyes for participating in Ramadan as a foreigner has already made it so worth it. By doing this, I make myself a lot less of a foreigner and much more a part of the community. One of my students who describes himself as not particularly religious wrote a wonderful essay on the importance of the principle of Ramadan for class, and it’s all too appropriate to share an excerpt of his interpretation as part of my own justification for participating in Ramadan:
Because I am hungry and thirsty, I remember my brothers in humanity in Somalia, Djibouti, and everywhere else in the world. I invoke the suffering of these people with my fast. Ramadan is not just a principle of the Islamic religion. Ramadan is like a school to teach the great values of humanity: patience, tolerance, empathy, solidarity, kinship, respect, and forgiveness for our false assumptions about the lives of others.
No pun intended, but how’s that for some food for thought?