A non-Muslim’s Ramadan diary
Eid Mubarak and Iyi Bayramlar! Ramadan is over for another year. Even though I wasn’t ever a real participant – I managed a meagre three days’ fasting this year – I’m still feeling celebratory on everyone else’s behalf. Although much delayed after our 10-day road trip down Turkey’s west coast, here finally is my diary from day one of Ramadan.
3.05am Wrenched from sleep by my alarm, which seems more offensively cheery than usual at this hour. Stumble out of bed, feeling grotty, bewildered and viscerally angry with myself for deciding to do this. M, in contrast, is in fine spirits.
3.07am Take out a 1.5 litre bottle of water and try to down it, after reading that you should try to drink 2 litres of water at sahour. My still-confused body reacts badly to this deluge, leaving me feeling like I need to be sick, but uncomfortably aware that I have to keep chugging or face a long thirsty day ahead.
3.09am M and I make breakfast. Feels oddly like a regular morning except that it’s completely dark outside. The lights glowing from apartments opposite ours offer some comfort, but at this hour I can’t summon the energy to care about any ‘sense of community’.
3.25am Eat. Drink. Eat some more.
3.32am Hilarious moment in which we think we’ve got the hour for sahour wrong, and therefore have loads more time than we’d thought. We debate going back to bed for a while.
3.37am Call to prayer starts. We realise we in fact had the hour right, and have wasted 5 precious minutes of eating and drinking time. Proceed to stuff our faces some more, as you’re allowed to keep eating until the last word of the azan. It’s funny how everything seems so hilarious at half past three in the morning. NOT.
3.42am Back to bed. Suddenly feel full of energy, thanks to all the calories I just consumed. I chatter away to M, thinking he must be equally wide awake, only to find out from a heavy in-breath that he’s fast asleep.
3.51am It’s really bloody hot. That anger at myself for thinking this was a great idea comes back. Surely I don’t need to put myself through this just for solidarity? Surely I can just make sympathetic noises and enjoy iftar without this performance?
3.57am A sudden flicker of lighting, followed by a distant rumble of thunder keep me awake hoping for rain.
4.11am None comes. Drift into a sticky, restless sleep.
9.10am Stupid alarm goes off again. Feeling strangely well-rested and not even slightly hungry, but without the thought of breakfast and a cup of tea with the morning papers, I can’t seem to force myself out of bed.
9.32am Wake up again, this time baking hot. The sun is now full on our bedroom. I’m drenched in sweat, my mouth is dry, and all I want is a glass of cold water.
9.37am Settle for a cold shower instead, then sit in front of my little fan until I feel human enough to start work for the day.
12.46pm Despite a productive morning, without food and drink breaks to give it some structure, my working day is a grey blur extending to a horizon that offers nothing by way of hope. Don’t actually feel hungry or thirsty, just a bit shaky. Otherwise, I’m fine.
1.25pm Okay, okay, I take all that back now. I’m fantasising about water. Cold water, with ice. And maybe an orange ice-lolly. And some lemon sorbet, cold and sweet and refreshing.
1.27pm Trying to draft some email copy, but all I can see is an orange lolly. Can’t seem to think in a straight line anymore. I decide to take a no-lunch lunch break, and lie down with Game of Thrones for a while.
2.34pm Feeling strangely light and empty. – probably because I am, relatively speaking. Also notice a heightened sense of awareness of my own body.. Having a few hunger pangs, a growing throb in the back of my skull, but nothing I can’t handle so far.
4.06pm M returns from work, still chipper. It’s only then I notice how much my breath smells (not eating makes you stinky). We both brush our teeth sheepishly, making sure not to swallow anything in the process (the punishment for breaking your fast before iftar is an additional sixty days’ fasting. While I’m pretty sure that Allah is a reasonable kind of god and would understand involuntary ingestion of toothpaste, M is taking no chances).
5.13pm Okay. I’m giving up on work. Have been able to do a surprising amount – more than I thought I’d get done – but my concentration is gone. Still don’t feel particularly hungry, but my headache is beginning to grow.
5.24pm I’m starting to clock watch now. How can it only have been 11 minutes since I stopped working? What is there to fill the three hours between now and iftar without food? I can’t read anymore because my head hurts, and the TV is showing unwatchable rubbish. What to do?
5.39pm I decide to clean the house. That requires no brain power. I fly around, scrubbing furiously, seized by a sudden manic energy.
6.32pm With the kitchen floor shining and the house smelling of polish and cream cleaner, finally collapse in a heap. Very hot, but not sweating as I usually do – surely a sign of dehydration, right?
6.46pm Argh, time has slowed to a crawl now. Still two bloody hours until iftar. I’m hot, tired, my head aches, and Game of Thrones can only distract me so much. I’m starting to rage against myself.
7.27pm Drive over to M’s brother’s house. It takes us exactly 23 minutes to get there. I know this because for the last hour, I haven’t been able to tear my eyes from the clock.
8.12pm Time has slowed even further. There’s an irritating programme on the TV showing people who live further east than us merrily breaking their fast. I hate them. There are still 34 minutes to go until iftar in Istanbul.
8.43pm We gather around the table – M, his brother and sister-in-law, his niece and nephew and me – and suddenly the whole day becomes worth it. This feeling, sharing this experience with M and his family – and millions of others around the world – it’s like nothing else. I’m not a religious person usually, but in moments like this I can start to see the draw of it.
We sit grinning vacantly at each other, not speaking, just surveying the spread before us as we wait for the azan. Dates, traditionally used to break the fast. Lentil soup. Yoghurt. Pilaf. Salad. Fried chicken. Moussaka. Pillowy Ramadan pide (the special spongy flat bread available only during Ramadan). Ayran. Delicious, delicious water.
8.46pm And finally, there it is – the first strains of the azan drift in on the evening air. Around the table, everyone shares a relieved smile before we fall on the food. I gulp down glass after glass of that cool, sweet water, and it is better than I could have imagined. I can feel its weight moving through my body.
I’m surprised I’m not full out of control, shoving handfuls of different things into my mouth. I’m not actually very hungry by this point, although the food is so good I keep eating regardless.
There really is something in fasting. The sense of lightness and awareness of your own body that it gives you is amazing, even after just one day. It’s so easy to lose touch with whether you’re actually hungry or not when you eat according to the time of day rather than how you feel. Not having eating times also gives you much more time in the day to reflect and think about things other than food – I hadn’t really noticed before how much of my day I spend thinking about what I want to eat, what I’m going to cook for dinner, what new recipe to try next. But for me, the real draw lies in that sense of community you get from doing something pretty difficult at the same time as millions of others around the world. There’s really nothing like it.
If you want to read some more…
- Here’s a great post with loads more about the purpose of Ramadan: Reflections of 29 Days of Fasting (saadishtiaq.wordpress.com)
- Sobering reading on Ramadan for Syrians who’ve been forced to flee their homeland: What was Ramadan like for Syrian refugees? – CNN (edition.cnn.com)
- An interesting piece on what Ramadan’s like in Iran: Tehran during Ramadan: ‘nobody is really in the spirit’ (guardian.co.uk)
- A really nice account from another non-Muslim’s experience of fasting during Ramadan: One Step and One Million Lessons – My First Ramadan (bookofness.com)
- Week 1 – Ramadan (owadallysreturn.wordpress.com)