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Reflecting on Ramadan

What unique insights emerge when a non-Muslim observes Ramadan?

October 8, 2007

What unique insights emerge when a non-Muslim observes Ramadan?

For Muslims around the world, the month of Ramadan is a time for holiness — to abstain from food, drink and sex during the daylight hours as a way to show self-restraint and appreciation for those who are less fortunate, those who suffer. Fasting is a form of worshiping Allah and is one of the five pillars of Islam.

For me, a non-Muslim — really, I consider myself agnostic — fasting during Ramadan is a way to show solidarity with my partner, a practicing Muslim, and it is also a time for reflection, introspection and, yes, spirituality.

American non-Muslims are often incredulous that I would go through so much “pain” and “hardship” since I’m not a Muslim and I don’t “have to.” The most common refrain is, “You can’t even drink water during the day??? That’s too hard. I couldn’t do it.”

Fasting is a test of willpower and of humanity. But it’s not just about doing what’s required or about following the rules. And, if I can do it and roughly 1.3 billion Muslims all over the globe can do it — why can’t you?

Yes, it’s a challenge. That’s the point. It’s about self-sacrifice. Have we Westerners lost the sense for that?

When I feel thirsty and I think of those who live in desert climates, or in places where water scarcity is the cause of centuries of conflict, or where poor water sanitation contributes to disease and death — can I wait a few more hours for a sip of water? Of course.

Mid-afternoon, when my stomach is rumbling and I feel tired and weak, should I shove a candy bar in my mouth or rush to the nearest fast food joint — or wait? I think of the homeless man I pass every day on my way to my favorite lunch spot, begging for change for food.

And what of the children’s lives lost due to malnutrition in less fortunate places? Will I die of hunger waiting for iftar? Of course not.

Ramadan is not all about suffering. It’s also a time for celebration and thanksgiving.

That first sweet, plump, sticky date I bite into as the sun sets could quite possibly be the most delicious food I have ever eaten. Water — cool and refreshing — never tasted so good.

In the four years I have been fasting during Ramadan, I have learned that breakfast can vary greatly among cultures or countries. In some parts of the Middle East and Asia, Muslims break the fast with savory foods like meats, grains or curries.

In my house, we do it the Moroccan way. For Moroccans, breakfast food is breakfast food, no matter what time of day breakfast comes.

We eat fresh dates and nuts, hard-boiled eggs served with cumin and salt, fried bread drizzled with honey, French baguette with soft cheese, juice made of fresh fruits or avocado blended with milk, walnuts and sugar.

That’s not all. We have piles of sweet, intricate cookies in all shapes and sizes, made with ground nuts, sesame seeds or rosewater. And the highlight for many Moroccans is harrira, a tomato-bean soup, sometimes made with beef stock — and served with its own fried, honey-dipped cookie.

And no breakfast is complete without coffee or tea, and Moroccans are particular about both. Coffee is usually served nus-nus — or half-coffee and half-milk — with plenty of sugar.

Morocco is also known for its tea service, and I get to experience it ever far away from that country, in a Washington, D.C.-based Moroccan household.

Tea is made with Chinese gunpowder, green tea leaves, fresh mint — and, again, plenty of sugar, in a silver or stainless steel teapot that sits directly on the stove. Once the mixture comes to a boil, the teapot is removed to cool and steep. One glass of tea is poured, then returned to the pot.

Finally, the tea is poured into small glasses with enough gusto to produce the necessary kachkoucha or frothy bubbles at the top of the glass.

When you embrace the traditions and the food of Ramadan, fasting becomes easier. Throw out all notions that eating past midnight is unhealthy, squash any guilt that comes with eating pastries soaked in butter and sugar, and enjoy the camaraderie and spirituality that comes with Ramadan.

Ramadan becomes a time of year to look forward to rather than to dread. In all corners of the globe, there is a whole body of people fasting together, worshipping together — and breaking bread together. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of.