I’m ashamed to say that I have always had a slightly negative view of Ramadan (big apologies to all my Muslim friends!) Every year, I have dreaded it coming along. “Are you fasting?” is the first question everyone asks you whether you are at the local corner shop or in a taxi, and when I answer, “No, I am a Christian but blessed Ramadan to you,” I can feel a barrier going up. I never feel so different here in Morocco as I do during the Ramadan month.
This year, I decided to stop rowing my boat up river but float downstream instead and join the community in their fast, even though I am not a Muslim. I live in a small compound in the Atlas mountain village of Imlil in very close proximity with my lovely neighbours. I knew I would find it physically and mentally hard, but I also knew that I would find that barrier going up between me and the people I am living amongst even more difficult.
How does it work?
For the lunar month of Ramadan, you go nil-by-mouth from sunrise to sunset. That means that you don’t eat or drink anything from around 3.30 am to 7.30 pm every day. Also, no cigarettes and no sex in those hours. The signal that it is time to either start or end the fast is the muezzin singing the call to prayer. In the evening, when you hear, “Allahu Akbar” you can break the fast and in the morning, when you hear those words, it’s time to put down your glass of water. Everyone works it slightly differently but there are basically three meals: Ftour/Iftar at 7.30 which is like a light breakfast, Asha either directly after or around 11pm which is dinner and Suhur at 3.00 am which is a last chance to eat or drink and is necessarily light because it is the middle of the night.
How hard is it?
It’s really hard. Each day and each week had its own rhythm but I found some things were constantly difficult. I would wake up each morning with a dry mouth and the knowledge that I had around twelve hours to go before I could drink. The mornings apart from that were pretty good. I had enough energy to do some work on my computer and tasks around the house. By about noon, though, my energy had flagged and in the first week I had a bad headache that would kick in around then. As I can dictate my own work patterns, I would siesta from around 2pm – 4pm. I found I needed it as my sleep was disturbed by going to bed later than I normally would and also because I would wake up and eat and drink for half an hour at 3 am. From 4pm, I would have a bit more energy with the knowledge that it was only 3 ½ hours to go and I would either prepare some food, get some extra work done or get outside for a walk.
Exercise was one of those things I wasn’t sure how to tackle because I knew I couldn’t drink and of course when you’re pushing it, you sweat. I had great plans to work out with weights an hour a day between 5pm and 6pm which came to nothing and I did find myself going a bit stir crazy by staying in the house because I was afraid to go out and do something and then be insanely thirsty and dehydrated.
In the third week, I was lucky enough to be invited by Jean-Pierre of Désert et Montagne to join him and my crew from the Draa Valley expeditionon the annual nomad migration from their winter lodgings to their summer pastures. We would be walking with Addi and his family and I jumped at the chance to be with my team again and sharing in such a special experience.
I was nervous about walking for 5-6 hours a day in the mountains without water and food but I found that the sense of community and the fact we were all in it together kept me going and it was actually easier to be out and walking than mooching around the house.
The benefits of Ramadan
So much for the difficulties but were there any benefits to doing it? Absolutely, yes. The biggest one for me was that rather than having a barrier between me and my neighbours, I grew closer to them. Every night, I shared breakfast with a family or with friends and that was really precious.
There is also the feeling of plenty after deprivation. The taste of that first date, the feel of that first gulp of sweet water going down your throat, and the flood of energy as the food hit were all fantastic. I appreciated food and water as you only can when you are truly hungry and thirsty.
Health-wise, there is a huge debate around fasting in general and Ramadan in particular. Personally, I am not sure if I felt any great health benefits but nor did I feel any lasting negatives. By the end of the month, my body had really adapted and I was much more comfortable. I also found that I ate much less than I normally would. My Muslim friends all swear that it is a great way to detoxify and give your body a rest (and certainly intermittent fasting is having a diet fashion moment generally), my non-Muslim friends worry about the lack of water. I am going to pass on this as I think it needs some more scientific analysis. For me, I’d say it was neutral.
Ramadan is not just about the food, though, it is also a time when you can take the time to think about the more spiritual aspects of life. What a great idea! I tried to regulate my thoughts a bit – focussing on the positive and letting go of resentments. This worked to an extent but was severely challenged when I was driving.. road rage is the last to go it seems. I also learnt a little bit more about Islam from Brahim Ahalfi as we walked on the migration and got to listen to him singing verses from the Quran which is always a privilege. Did you know that in Ramadan, the devil is tied up so he can’t wreak trouble on us humans and the gates of hell are closed? A fabulous thought.
One thing that many of my friends talked about and that really resonated as I went through the month, is that Ramadan makes you experience what it is like to be hungry and thirsty and to feel for those people in the world who don’t have enough to eat and drink. I found that to be very true.
Change of heart
Today is Eid, the holiday, and I am about to go downstairs and have a celebratory breakfast – at breakfast time – with my friends Hayat and Abdullah. Cake is on the menu! I am glad that the month is over because it has been tough but it has also been rich and wonderful. I have loved sharing the experience with my friends and neighbours – both the highs and lows – and truly appreciating the most fundamental things we have in life. I feel I now understand a little more about why many people look forward to Ramadan, in spite of the hardship, and celebrate it. My negative view has done a 360.
Happy Eid everyone – and lead me to the coffee!
If you liked this story, check out my latest book, Walking with Nomads