5am – This morning I have risen even earlier than usual in order to eat breakfast before sunrise. I have been invited to attend iftar at our local mosque this evening and, in order to create a more authentic experience, I plan to fast for the daylight hours.
I was all set to wake up for breakfast (or pre-fast stock up) before the sun was officially “up”, then last night a final check of the official timings on the local mosque website reminded me that, actually, Muslims begin their fasting even earlier than this – before the process of the sun rising begins, rather than as it ends, at the time of the dawn prayer, or fajr. However, this would have meant eating before 2.58am, rather than completing breakfast before 4.40am. So I have probably failed at the first hurdle. However, I am excusing myself by noting that, if I was a practising Muslim, I would in fact be exempt from the obligation to fast because I have a “chronic condition”. I therefore am working on the basis that anything is better than nothing, and that I can still attempt to replicate the sense of sawm (fasting) by abstaining from food for the remainder of the day. (Not drink, you will note – I imagine that MS and dehydration do not mix well.)
So following breakfast, I began the day not in prayer but in meditation. The fajr prayer is one of repentance and seeking forgiveness, so I tried to embody this tone. Meditations rarely encapsulate a theme of cleansing or atonement, so this felt unusual for me, and encouraged me to follow a train of thought that I have rarely charted in meditation. The process of this very slight shift in thought patterns raised my awareness of just how much I am stuck in my habits, even habits of thinking. The hardest habit so far, however, is not one of thought but of deed – the relinquishing of my morning cup of tea. This is so ingrained a routine for me, both in the morning (when I choose cleansing cup of green or herbal tea) and throughout the day, when a cup of “builders’ tea” is at least an hourly source of comfort, purely in its ritualistic familiarity.
However, I have always gone to great lengths to point out to my students that Ramadan is in fact not about the food and drink. These are simply a means to an end; anchors, triggers to remind those following Ramadan about the real meaning of this practice – to become a better Muslim, a better person. I have carried out some very brief internet research/ fact-checking over the last day or so in preparation (I may be an RE teacher but I am an RE teacher with cognitive impairment and a memory like a sieve, so it is always good to check!). Every website from which I have sourced information, timings, spellings and key facts has contained adverts for charitable organisations such as Muslim Aid and Islamic Relief – one advert is particularly poignant, with the strap-line, “When we stop fasting, they don’t” and a call to donate to the poor. Ramadan advice includes constant reminders to feed the hungry, and to commit oneself to self-improvement. Ramadan is not a process of not eating, it is a process of introspection and review of our own personal values. The grumbles of hunger are a reminder to pause and check whether these values are being embodied throughout the day, and to make adjustments as required if this turns out not to be the case. I am both daunted and inspired by the prospect of spending my day doing just that.
8am – I attend the morning staff briefing, which is always accompanied by the serving of tea and coffee. I would normally take a cup of tea out of habit and I take a moment to question whether this is in fact a healthy habit – would I still choose this if I stopped to think about it? I fill my cup with hot water, which, for a “proper” fast during Ramadan, would be forbidden. I take a moment to appreciate the importance of what I miss out on today – the brief chat over the urn as the water is being decanted, the sharing of a teaspoon, the taking turns over the milk jug… I save myself a minute or two, but I miss the mindless chatter with colleagues from other departments that I may not get any other opportunity to interact with during the course of the week. As I sit down, hugging my mug of steaming water, I consider what I could do instead with this saved time, as minor as it is. I decide to go and sit with a different colleague -a friend – who is sitting alone, and although the chat is brief, it is enjoyable. I would have missed this if I had used the time to make the tea instead.
9am – A colleague I share a free period with begins to eat breakfast. I leave the room. I don’t feel hungry particularly, I just don’t want to put temptation in my way at this early stage. A member of our department announces that she has made shortbread and brought in accompanying strawberries and cream. Food is such a significant part of our social sphere; a currency of caring. The preparation of food, the sharing of it, the offer of a cup of tea are tokens of affection, and turning them down feels like I am rebuffing these kindnesses. Yet I had never really noticed them before, or certainly not stopped to appreciate them. In abstaining, I am raising my awareness of the emotion of gratitude. This can be no bad thing.
11am – I have a headache. I am assuming this to be psychosomatic – I wouldn’t usually have eaten by now and, although I had breakfast a couple of hours early, that still only equates to the equivalent of a 1pm lunch; not out of the ordinary at all. I Google “Can I take paracetamol during Ramadan?”. I decide to use an aromatherapy roller-ball on my throbbing temples.
1.30pm – I watch my friend eat lunch – a modest lunch of fruit, nuts and yoghurt. He discards the foil from atop the yoghurt pot and I watch wistfully as he tosses it into the waste bin. (How quick we are to waste food! How little we appreciate the luxury of plenitude.) He scoops cashew nuts from the pack and I exercise great restraint in not accosting him to lick his fingers. I mean, that would be weird, right?
2pm – I go to the car to get painkillers. Despite the regular glasses of cold water and mugs of hot water, the headache persists and I surrender to the temptation to break my own self-inflicted ruling, taking two tablets with (yet more) water. I begin to wonder whether it would be entirely ridiculous to just eat in secret. I wander to the staff room and open the lid of the box containing the homemade shortbread. I peek inside, briefly, then walk away.
3pm – While waiting for some staff training to start, I explain to a work friend that I am fasting. He is curious and asks lots of questions, seeming genuinely interested. I explain as best I can and we spend about ten minutes discussing the concept of abstinence as a religious ritual. He informs me, as we part, that he feels like he has learned something, and seems genuinely pleased to have done so. (I wonder if low sugar has clouded my judgement and whether I have, in fact, just bored the pants of him for ten minutes!)
4pm – I attend a staff meeting where there is tea, coffee, biscuits and, seemingly just to taunt me, some leftover pizza! It is as though the world is conspiring to add to my now significant hunger.
5pm – I admonish a colleague who is trying to make conversation but seems to be incessantly referring to food. I am assured this is entirely unintentional. I take a deep breath and provide a considered, if somewhat stilted, apology. I remind myself of the Ramadan instruction to “guard your tongue” and “be kind”.
6pm – I take a bath. After mentally constructing a list of all the things I could do to fill some time, or to treat myself kindly, food and drink features surprisingly highly. At this point I would usually boil the kettle for a cup of tea, make a snack, begin chopping vegetables for dinner… I am seriously considering my relationship with food – it is so much more than fuel. I remind myself that this is supposed to be a trigger for spiritual focus and renewal. I decide to add bath salts for good measure.
7.30pm – I drive to the mosque. The teenager has informed me we “need” sugar and I also need cash so I foolishly stop off at the local convenience store on the way. I am taunted by the… actually, by everything. Every item of food and drink seems to scream down from the shelves at me – “Buy me, eat me”. I feel sick and dizzy and a little like I am hallucinating. I buy a chocolate bar as insurance in case I feel really unwell on the 20 minute drive. It sits beside me for the whole journey – after ten minutes driving I cover it with my handbag so I don’t have to look at it. I try to focus on reflecting whether the day has made me think harder about being a better person.
9.30pm – Following a talk from the Imam (more on this another time), we hear the adzan (call to prayer) ring through the halls of the mosque. From this moment, we can eat. A few minutes later I take my first mouthful – the date that is traditional in the breaking of the fast during Ramadan. This is followed with lamb, chicken, rice…
I have survived one day of fasting – one long day, one of the longest that would be expected, due to it being the height of summer. I have been amazed at my own levels of restraint. I’ve never considered myself massively disciplined – if I want something, I don’t often abstain from it. I have found myself proud to discover that, actually, I can do better than I thought, I can choose not to do something, even when that choice is in opposition to my own natural desires. This opens up a whole realm of new possibilities, of things I could now do if I decided to; of things I could now choose to relinquish. My habit of chocolate mid-afternoon (that has begun to take its toll on the fit of my clothes of late); my religiously regular glass of red wine after dinner; my thoughtless tendency to complain about little things when I have far more to be grateful for… All of these I had considered immovable, fixed, yet I begin to realise that I can exercise power over my choices. This is a liberating revelation to me, and one that I honestly believe was worth the sacrifice of a day of food in order to gain it.