Imagine the Coca-Cola Christmas truck minus Santa. Take away the demonically cheery music, the lights, the glistening snowfall, and the excitement and there you have it: My vision of the Ramadhan train. If the holiest month of the Muslim calendar manifested itself into an unwelcome locomotive, that is.
I don't want to get on this train and yet, I know I will. I know I will steel myself for those 30 days of fasting and prayer where I'm supposed to tell no lies, be kind to all and deal out positive vibes to strangers and friends. As a Muslim, telling myself I won't fast for Ramadhan is like saying Kim Kardashian isn't going to post another selfie tomorrow. Shit ain't happening.
Every year Muslims around the world fast from dawn 'til dusk for spiritual enlightenment during the month of Ramadhan, the 30-day period when God revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. We can't eat or drink anything during sunlight hours, which means getting up in the dark to eat breakfast and waiting until sunset for dinner. Ramadhan moves through the seasons—thanks to a confusing lunar calendar—and this year falls slap bang in the middle of summer. That means keeping exceedingly long fasts during the hot weather without any kind of barbecued delights, or, you know, water.
I'm trying to bargain my way out of it this year but I sadly don't fall under any of the exempt groups, which include pregnant or breastfeeding women, young children, the elderly and infirm, people on long-term medication or those who have to take unavoidable journeys away from home. However, I do get a week off when I'm on my period, which I'm supposed to make up at a later date (I don't). Making a payment—known as fidya— to feed someone else on your behalf is advised if you can't fast.
During fasting, when you've been hungry all day, even the smallest morsel is ambrosial. One bite of something simple feels like it's fit for a king, and that's the whole point.
As you can imagine, there are plenty of unpleasant side effects to fasting. Aside from thunderous stomach rumbles during meetings (the kind that make people shuffle away from you in case you explode) to the headaches and tiredness, halitosis is a prevailing concern. This might explain why many of your Muslim colleagues keep a distance from you during water cooler moments, or choose to speak to you through a megaphone instead. I keep one in my handbag, just in case.
Cravings are never of the healthy variety, either. When you're fasting, you lust for things that would give you an immediate energy spike, which is usually refined carbohydrates and highly fatty stuff. During moments of abject weakness, my mind takes itself into Joey Tribbiani's "fried stuff with cheese" diet-based fantasies. Make no mistake: during Ramadhan, you are hungry all day. It doesn't let up. You will the sun to fall so you can stuff your face with mozzarella balls wrapped in croissants dipped in chocolate and rolled in crisps.
When the time comes, you open your fast with the customary date or sip of water and are happy as Larry again—if Larry won the lottery, the Pulitzer and the Nobel on the same summer night. The tendency at this moment is, naturally, to overeat, stuffing your mouth faster than your stomach has time to register it's actually getting a fill. Of course, then comes the remorse. There is no other emotion one can feel when you've just ingested an ACME anvil-sized meal with a can of Fanta.
I started off fledgling fasting when I was very young, eating breakfast before dawn and staying hungry until lunch. I accidentally broke my first full fast when I was a teenager. I found a bowlful of strawberry Angel Delight in the kitchen, dipped my finger in and went wild before I remembered that I was nil-by-mouth. I was a fat kid. The trauma of being hungry for at least ten hours at a time literally turned me into a sniper with the single-minded goal to appropriate any foodstuff within a ten-foot parameter. I scanned the room like a chubby Robocop shrouded in a shalwar kameez.
The second time I inadvertently broke my fast was when I took a sip of water to try and stop myself from crying after watching a tear-jerking Bollywood movie about kids who treat their parents horribly. I think I saw my future and buckled under the vision of dying alone under a blanket scented with cat pee and tobacco. Hunger can do funny things to your emotions and can be so strong it almost becomes transcendental. The third time was when I dropped a dish that I'd baked the lasagne in for dinner and cut myself on it. Excessive bleeding breaks a fast and, through my tears, I saw the faces of my family—sad, spiritless, poised with redundant cutlery and stricken with grief over the lasagnecide.
My brother had it harder than me growing up, though. Judgement was rife between Muslims at his school so missing a fast wasn't an option. However, he remembers that the fasting boys would sell their free dinner tokens to students who weren't fasting for 50 pence each. Enterprising, sure, but not particularly at one with the message of Ramadhan.
During fasting, when you've been hungry all day, even the smallest morsel is ambrosial. One bite of something simple feels like it's fit for a king, and that's the whole point. Ramadhan exercises the philosophy of being content with, and thankful for having, 'just enough.' Despite dreading it and finding fasting extremely difficult, I still participate. There's no better way to understand the hunger, poverty, loneliness and isolation that many people around the world are faced with every day.
Ramadhan helps you to focus on the basics, the essentials. It brings clarity to the principles of humanity with no bullshit extras.