In the next few weeks I will be telling you about how spiritually uplifting Ramadan is, and about how I’ve been able to clear my body and mind in order to connect with my Creator. I will share the experience of breaking the fast communally with other Muslims over fresh dates and the most delicious glasses of water I have ever tasted.
But right now, I’m not feeling any of that. I am too distracted by the pull of my shrinking stomach.
As you might imagine, the first days of fasting take some getting used to. You start to realize what a central place food and drink has in one’s life. As soon as you wake up, your reflexes guide you straight for the refrigerator. You might even mistakenly pull your car up into your local Starbucks on the way to work. And God help you if you are a serial snacker–your hand will be continually reaching out for a phantom snack bowl.
It’s a good idea to avoid shopping for groceries during daylight hours in Ramadan. Apart from unnecessarily torturing yourself, you’ll end up spending twice your average grocery bill as you load your cart with things you wouldn’t ordinarily buy. Fasting has a way of making even the most mundane of foodstuffs look like ambrosia.
If you haven’t prepared yourself by doing a few practice fasts during the previous month, you’re in for a cold-turkey introduction to controlling of one of your most basic and powerful instincts. Even the most rigorous of fasters may slip up in the first few days, accepting a glass of water from a colleague or popping a breath mint. So long as it is done unknowingly, however, there is no penalty and the fast can continue guilt-free. (Though that doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty anyway.)
Among other things, Ramadan is an exercise in breaking patterns that we have become used to in the previous year. It is the beginning of putting us back in control of our lives, as opposed to our daily routines being in control of us. Ask anyone who has quit smoking how liberating the process was–not just with respect to the specific addiction to nicotine, but to the feeling that you have ultimate control over your body.
But all this mastery over the flesh does take its toll. I promptly collapsed into my bed in the two hours between the end of the work day and the iftar at sunset. In predominantly Muslim countries, people are given some slack towards the end of the day as their energy runs out. But in America, fasting Muslims must soldier on, catching little bits of rest in between their daily responsibilities. That’s just one of the challenges of an American Ramadan.
Did I mention how sweet that water tasted at 7:40 pm?