It's that time again. Until the 5th of July, Muslims around the world are fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, refraining from eating or drinking between sunrise and sunset.
This year is especially testing for Muslims in the UK, as summer's short nights mean they've got to fast for about 17 hours per day. But the non-Muslim population munches on, and does so right under the noses of those who fast while working in the food industry. Muslims around the country will be carrying on as usual: cooking, preparing and serving food for their ever-demanding customers.
I went around in Huddersfield to ask some of the Muslims observing Ramadan this year what it's like to work around food all day, and what tricks they use to get through it.
Name: Hamid Islam
Occupation: Restaurant manager
VICE: Hi Hamid, how's Ramadan been going so far?
Hamid Islam: It's been difficult. The body's slowing down more – I can feel it. I came over from Bradford today, driving for nearly three hours, and I had to stop for about 20 minutes, you know, just so I didn't have a bit of a blackout.
How does it working with food affect you at this time?
It's a bit like torture, to be honest. Imagine cooking and serving 40 takeaways and 80 people in the restaurant, being around starters, loads of main course dishes, without being able to eat. Plus we prepare the food every day, but we can't taste it, so it's difficult to know the flavours – whether a dish needs an extra bit of yoghurt or salt.
But my mate Richard there [points to a customer perched on the bar], he's got to eat and we've got to make money, so we just keep going. It's good for self-discipline. You're forced to fight all your desires.
And what did you think about Ramadan when you first started working in the industry?
I can actually remember refusing to go to work. I was quite young, and I didn't want to be around food while I was fasting. But my dad [the owner] bullied me into doing it. To be honest, if he hadn't forced me to work I don't think I'd be able to do it now.
Did you ever cheat?
Alright, yes, but I always tried my best. There were a few moments when it got too much for me, so I'd quickly drink a glass of water just to calm myself down. Plus, when I was younger I always thought it was ridiculous to go for so many hours without water. I used to argue with mum and dad. I said people in the desert couldn't go without water in 40-degree heat during Ramadan. For the past five years I've been trying to do it properly, but before then I said 'no chance, I'm having a bit of water'.
Name: Azeem Ali
Occupation: Cook, server and manager
VICE: What's it like preparing food while you're fasting? Doesn't exactly sound fun.
Azeem Ali: Yes. I feel dizzy. I feel very hungry after 6PM or 7PM – after so much time working in a hot kitchen with no food. It's not like dying, though, I don't think. My mind is ready. My mind is strong. I know this is a duty – because God ordered.
What do you mean by that?
You feel hungry, so hungry, but you learn patience, and now I realise how people feel who have no food.
How long have you been in the food industry?
What was it like during Ramadan when you first started?
It was difficult – but you see in Muslim countries you start [Ramadan] very young. We're given training. We start when we're 12 to 13 years old. We start to pray, to worship to God, and we start to fast.
So did that make it easier?
Yes, I think so. I still get hungry. I'm hungry now [Azeem is cooking, while we're speaking]. It's a nice smell [pauses], but I know I can't eat. God sees me, and I have to control my hunger. God knows our intents. He knows if I drink some water by accident or on purpose.
Do some dishes make you hungrier than others?
Oh yes. I can tell whether a dish I'm cooking is nice because it makes me hungrier. I can eat anything, but my favourite is lamb. It takes extra effort when I'm cooking lamb.
Why don't you fast all year?
Because God did not order that. Muslims recognise that God gave us fruit, water, everything in this world [lifts his arms up like he's re-creating the universe]. For one month we fast, and then thank God for giving us so many wonderful things.
Name: Amin Uddin
Do you remember the first year that you worked in the food industry during Ramadan?
Amin Uddin: Yes – the last few hours of the day were very tough. Our hunger was so strong, and we had to look at food all the time, waiting for when we could eat.
Busy times are much better, actually, because we're concentrating on our jobs. You don't have time to think about food. But, near the end of the day, when you're not busy and there are leftovers in the kitchen, your mind responds to the food. You can't stop it [laughs].
How does it affect you, physically?
Everyone's not the same, but I get thirsty – very thirsty. Headaches, as well, since there's no food for the brain. But it gets better in the middle of the month. Your body learns to cope.
What do keep in your mind to stop yourself from giving in?
Ramadan is a holy month; we keep in our minds that it's an order from Almighty. It's also a month for us to think about those people who don't have food. You should feel hunger during the starving period, so you can feel it for poor people as well. Ramadan is about suffering for other people.
Name: Abbas Ali
VICE: Just what is it like to work in the food industry during Ramadan?
Abbas Ali: It's very difficult; we're only human. But we have to keep strength. We do it for the sake of Allah. It's hot outside; it's hot inside. I spend hours working over a hob, and obviously that's hard. It's about self-discipline, though, and in the end it makes you stronger.
How does it compare to normal hunger?
It's a completely different thing. With normal hunger you can maybe go drink a glass of water or something. During Ramadan you have to stop eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset, with nothing at all going down your throat. The water is the worst thing; you get dehydrated after working so long in the kitchen.
I've been standing in the kitchen for five minutes and I already feel hungry – and I've just eaten.
The truthful, honest answer is that, yes, we're feeling it. Especially since it's the summer now. It's only the second time I've had to do it [Ramadan] in the summer during my life – the last was in 1990. But the fast isn't just about food or water. It's more than that. Like, if a nice-looking girl walks past the shop, you're not allowed to look at her in that way. And you've got to control your tongue when you're trying to cook loads of orders. Ramadan is about moral discipline.
How many of your customers understand you're on Ramadan?
Pretty much all of them, I think. They're always asking questions; checking whether we're doing alright. It makes us feel appreciated, to be honest – it seems as though they care about our culture.
The other day, for example, we were really busy and had customers waiting outside in the rain. One woman came in and her order was maybe half an jpir late. She came to the counter and we said sorry, but she grabbed my hand and said "thank you, I really appreciate what you're doing, good luck with Ramadan." I was chuffed. That made me so happy.
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