A taste of Ramadan: the experience of fasting as a non-Muslim

Muslims end their daily fasts during Ramadan with an iftar, an evening meal often eaten with others. (Photo by raasiel via Flickr.)
Muslims end their daily fasts during Ramadan with an iftar, an evening meal often eaten with other people. (Photo by raasiel via Flickr.)

The phone buzzed.

“Make sure you eat until 3 a.m.,” read a message on the illuminated Nokia screen.

“After that, no food or water. Dinner will be at 9:12 p.m.

Most people stay up until 3 a.m., but I’m a newcomer to this practice. That evening, I ate a whole pizza before falling into bed at midnight. Setting an alarm for 2:50 a.m., I interrupted my sleep to quickly chug four cups of water, swallow a peach and timidly rummage through my full-stocked fridge. This was my first time fasting, and I had 18 hours and 12 minutes to go.

Throughout the night, cottonmouth persistently tugged me out of my dreams. The self-imposed limitation on water did little but inspire more thirst.

No wonder Ramadan means “dryness” or “scorching heat.” How does anyone survive fasting from dawn to sundown for a whole month? Somehow, nearly a quarter of the global population does. I imagined fasting in the midst of Middle Eastern, Indian or Indonesian heat—suddenly, tolerating the Seattle heatwave seemed possible.

Working as a journalist, news stories saturated with negative portrayals of Islam began to test my patience. Yet, growing up, a sort of culturally-constructed dissonance hummed in the back of my mind—am I not supposed to be afraid of people like my longtime friend Dana? Thirteen years ago, Dana was the first true friend I made in America.

Despite years of watching Dana boycott school lunches and the lure of our high school’s urinal-shaped water fountains, I never thought to fast myself. I am not Muslim; I am not Christian; I am not Jewish; I am not anything—curiosity is my religion.

Suddenly, it became very important for me to fast, to attend a mosque, to grasp at even an essence of what she experiences.

Fasting is intended to remind practicing Muslims of the challenges faced by those less fortunate and bring them closer to Allah. Ramadan is a time to focus on charity and prayer, end bad habits, increase study of the Qur’an and practice self-restraint.

Able-bodied Muslims are expected to fast during the hours of daylight—sawm is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Though fasting isn’t expected until puberty, most children begin fasting in at least some capacity prior to adolescence.

During my own fast, I naively thought thirst would remain my greatest challenge. Then came the first pangs of hunger.

By 3 p.m., my appetite was crippling. I could feel the empty crevasses of my stomach churning acid, yearning for a little slice of sustenance. The walls of my throat still longed for a drop of water.

My standard three-hour dance practice only exhausted my efforts. Running out of distractions, my eyes began to wage war with my mind. Look at the clock, don’t look at the clock; study the bubbles forming in the water cooler, avoid them at all costs. The war continued for several hours until, finally, the tyrannizing hands of my watch became my liberators. Sunset was fast approaching.

Wearing a black, floor-length dress and a baby-pink hijab, Dana greeted me with a warm embrace and her usual glowing smile. For her, hijab is modesty in all aspects of the word. For me, she is beauty in all aspects of the word.

That night, she took me to my first community iftar, a shared evening meal during which Muslims break their daily Ramadan fast.

Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar, the Muslim Association of Puget Sound (MAPS) hosts a free, themed community dinner that is open to all. This year, Ramadan began on June 17 and will continue until July 17, the day of Eid al-Fitr.

Before driving to MAPS in Redmond, Dana helped me put on a navy-blue hijab in a “loose-style.”

“Can I pull this off?” I asked.

“You could maybe pass off as Afghan or Pakistani, but you’re still really white so it makes it hard to pinpoint where you’re from,” she said, while looking at her younger sister and laughing. Dana always thought she was born with a funny bone.

By the time we arrived at MAPS, hunger and thirst faded from the forefront of my mind, replaced instead by curiosity and awe. Upon entering the prayer room, I was plunged into a sea of color. The women wore hijabs of every print and hue—scarves with butterflies, scarves with cheetah prints, scarves with rhinestone patterns. Canary yellows, plaids, bright pinks, florals and gold embroidery infused the room with a sort of magic. I felt lackluster in comparison.

My calluses gripped at the plush red and gold carpets beneath my feet—shoes are not allowed in the prayer room. Dozens of little feet playfully ran across the carpets’ repeated motifs as I studied them. Pointing magnetic north, towards Ka’ba in Mecca, the rugs seemed strangely crooked at first sight. During prayer, they help orient Muslims towards Islam’s most important holy site.

The floor on the left side of the gymnasium, partially dedicated to youth basketball, is covered in an IKEA-blue tarp and rows of brown paper. Scattered across them are unopened water bottles and paper plates with dates, samosas and dipping sauces.

When the sun set, my stomach no longer felt empty, my throat no longer parched. I was one of the hundreds listening to the call to prayer, which was interrupted only by the gleeful squeals of young children. Eager hands reached for dates and sips of water to break the daily fast, as the Prophet Muhammad was believed to have done.

“The only dates I get are in Ramadan,” said Dana, accentuating her joke with a signature laugh. The funny bone is always at work.

Even though I had forgotten my hunger, that date was undoubtedly the sweetest I’ve ever had. The sweetness of its flesh lingered on my tongue minutes after my first bite. My first sip of water was equally glorious; though I’ve drunk bottled water thousands of times, I was convinced that particular bottle contained the freshest water of all.

After we ate our samosas, the spiciness of which flooded my stomach with warmth, Dana left me to join the other women facing the ornamental, black-and-white Mihrab to begin her evening prayer. A partial partition separated the men, who are in front, from the women, who are in the back. Because MAPS is a more liberal mosque, Dana explained, the partition only separates half the praying area; the men pray in front so they don’t see the women bend over.

As the men and women prayed and kneeled to the ground, the colors of hijabs and bright shirts floated in and out of the rows of bodies like structured choreography. The harmony of their movements reminded me of waves in the ocean, with only a few heads bopping out of unison to create choppy water. Voices, each quiet on their own, thundered in perfect synergy as they followed the cues of the leading imam.

Upon the end of prayer, a group of hungry, young boys sprinted towards the food, having strategically chosen spots closest to the buffet-style tables. Long lines formed as the air became saturated with the smell of cooked chicken flesh. I suddenly realized that I was one hungry vegetarian.

“My siblings and I would torture ourselves by watching the Food Network during the day,” mentioned Dana as we waited in one of the lines. Afterwards, we shared a dinner of watermelon, salad, rice, pasta, pita bread and veggies in curry.

Sitting on the ground with our full, steaming plates, Dana pulled out extra napkins, nectarines, yogurt and quesadillas from her Microsoft company store bag. She’s prepared for everything. It’s her job, she said.

As our tongues played with the flavors of food, a group of young kids hijacked the main microphone, generating loud feedback in their attempts to broadcast a series of silly sounds. They quickly ran away, rolled on the carpet and exploded in laughter, tears in their eyes.

“They think they’re comedy gold,” scoffed Dana, playfully. Nobody one-ups her.

During my two hours at the mosque, I felt nothing but welcomed. Despite being an outsider, I received zero estranged looks or signs of unfriendliness. After dinner, we were approached by a seemingly shy girl, who spoke to Dana and hid behind a smile before addressing me directly.

“So is this your first time here?” asked the 8-year-old Egyptian girl with a pixie voice, dressed in a black scarf and thobe—traditional clothing for Arabs. Her big, brown eyes are framed with long, matted lashes and her teeth separated by endearing gaps.

“Yes,” I replied, with a smile.

“Oh…” she said, clearly surprised. Her eyes suddenly widened. “I see.”

“Is it hard to be a journalist?” the pixie-voiced girl asked, after a few seconds of silence.

“Yes, it’s really hard.”

“Well it better be!” she exclaimed, raising her eyebrows with effortless sass.

Our laughs echoed off the walls as the pixie-voiced girl sipped on her Frappuccino and a man stood in front of a microphone seeking the owner of a lost iPhone 6.

So this is what America is afraid of.

13 Comments

  1. “So this is what America is afraid of.”

    Nice generalization. Are feminists afraid of men? Women are second class citizens under Islam.

    1. If you were looking for a piece of objective journalism, I am afraid to inform you that you not only came to the wrong place, but missed the point entirely. First of all, this article was clearly labeled as a “perspective” piece–it was neither my intention, nor my goal, to write a piece of “objective” journalism. Instead, I wanted to communicate and convey my honest impressions and reactions to this experience. I felt it was necessary to do so for others who might be afraid of making the same leap I did.

      Secondly, it’s quite telling of your own prejudice that you are quick to point out the “heavy bias” of my piece–clearly indicating a flaw or weakness–without recognizing the (dominantly Western) bias so obvious in your own statement. Who are you to say that women are second class citizens under Islam? What made you decide that they are oppressed, and to impose that idea on such a huge population without considering an alternative? Have you ever asked a Muslim woman about her “second class” rank? And most importantly, why do you consider that to be a “Truth”? Personally, I’ve asked myself all of these questions. One could just as easily make a statement that women are second class citizens under Christianity, yet you specifically singled out Islam because it does not neatly fit in with what (I assume) is your Western construction of what is appropriate.

      1. I have the bruises to prove it. Look at your instagram, I will never have that freedom, I cannot leave my house without a male insisting on escort, I cannot drive, I cannot go to the beach at sunrise alone. Forget the career you have, in my shoes you are reduced to a child rearer. The claim of western bias is correct, only that is your bias. Perhaps if you carried out your “blackface” style dress-up experiment in my country rather than a free western area you would see what it is truly like to live under this male dominated world.

        1. If that is truly the case, then I apologize for whatever hardships you’ve endured and for wrongly assuming that you were making your initial comments from a Western viewpoint. However, considering the huge global population of practicing Muslims, I believe there must be a diversity of experiences. I live in America and can only speak for what I observe in this country, and what I have written and said here runs quite counter to the dominant view in this country (my western bias, as you claim), which is that Muslims are radical extremists to be scrutinized, and that Islam is something wild, to be feared. I am not trying to pretend that I understand what it is like to be a Muslim (or non-Muslim) woman living under an oppressive regime; my goal was to attempt to understand even a marginal essence of the tradition of Ramadan and what it means for Muslims in the area, as I found it strange that I had not taken the time to do so considering my friendships. I think your last point demonstrates that it is not the religion itself, but under what regime it is practiced, that leads to disparities. As such, I’m not sure what’s “wrong” about celebrating those who practice Islam as it is meant to be practiced, without hate or oppression. This article very literally tried to address the fear and mystery surrounding mosques in America; I was hardly trying to comment on the state of Islam in every country where it is practiced–that extends beyond the scope of my experience in every sense of the word.

  2. And where does the concept of women being second class citizens in Islam stem from?
    When the world killed the infant girl, Islam did not allow it.
    When women were relegated from all wills, Islam gave them the right of inheritance and financial independence.
    One of the most revered scholars in Islam is a woman.
    I can go on..but you get the gist of things. So, please, do link human fallacies with Islam.

  3. What if I told you that I am not oppressed and that I am not a second class citizen? What if I told you that Islam gives me more rights than any man has? What is your response now? For someone who is so quick to claim this work as bias, you seem to easily turn a blind eye to your own biases. It is really quite comical that people like you tell me I am oppressed or second to men, when I have never felt anything remotely like that. No one has ever even asked me if I feel this way, they are so quick to assume that I do! Get educated, ask a Muslim women questions and find out this information from the source rather than passively assuming that everything the media tells you is true. No one likes a mindless consumer. Don’t judge Islam by extremists, we don’t judge anyone else for what crazy people do in the name of religion or culture. I am glad you posted this comment, I hope you can be motivated to be a smarter consumer and search for truth and credible facts!

  4. This is such an engaging, well-written article by someone who admirably stepped outside her comfort zone to bridge our differences and learn more about each other. HUGE KUDOS and thank you for being willing to do so, Kseniya, and for sharing your experience with us all. We need more of this in the world.

  5. This is fantastic. There are so many misconceptions about Islam throughout the world. I grew up Catholic but don’t consider myself devout to any religion. I have studied many religions to simply get a better understanding of what they really are and what they really represent. I have taken a particular fascination to Islam because, while there are negative sides of some of those who practice it, it is truly a beautiful religion. I am considering trying to fast during Ramadan this year because, while I have tried to study the history as much as I can to get a thorough grasp of what it’s about, I want to have a true understanding of the sacrifice that Muslims go through. Education is the most important thing in the world in my opinion, and fear stems from the unknown. The only way to conquer that fear, is to learn.

  6. I cannot stress enough how beautiful this article is considering its written from a different point of view. You truly sound like an educated person and the world needs more people like you. Those who are quick to judge others are sadly showing to the world the disease of hate they’re carrying in their hearts. They say ‘ignorance is darkness’ if only people sought education. It’s the best investment 😀

  7. This is a great perspective piece. I’m someone who was raised to be suspicious and uncomfortable with ‘other,’ including other religions such as Islam. But as I got older and was able to do my own investigating, I came to the logical conclusion that that part of my childhood was unhelpful, discriminatory, damaging, and plain wrong.

    Thank you for sharing your experience with this. It’s important to have many kinds of accounts of groups that are regularly demonized. I can’t understand why so many people are all right with hating and fearing entire groups, but I hope that all of us will take the time to keep looking at other perspectives and experiences and realize that all of us are human. We should all care for one another. If we all did that, I think things would be better in the world.

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