Life in the Fast Lane: An American Catholic’s Experience of Ramadan

Photo by Nathan Hartle

Ramadan, while quite familiar to well over one billion Muslims, represents a religious practice more universal and extreme than most Americans have ever experienced. The rules of the month-long fast are intimidating; during daylight hours, participants are not allowed to eat, drink any kind of liquid, smoke or have sex.

For Muslims, the month of fasting represents a chance for self-reflection and to practice self-discipline. For a non-Muslim in a Muslim country, the experience of Ramadan is eye-opening. I was a visitor in Morocco during the month of Ramadan in 2011. I had never been to a place so religiously monochromatic—about 99% of the population of Morocco is Muslim—with so many undertaking the same practices at the same time. Nor had I ever before witnessed a practice that demanded its participants to undertake such hardship. But as the days of Ramadan passed, the devotion of the Moroccan people to the fast fascinated me, and ultimately led me try a fast of my own.

The closest a Catholic upbringing like mine offers to hardship is the season of Lent, the forty-day stretch leading up to Easter during which we are asked to sacrifice one, and only one, activity that we enjoy. The guidelines dictating one’s choice of sacrifice leave room for interpretation, and whatever accountability exists is of a non-corporeal variety. It is easy to pick something you secretly dislike, like broccoli or flossing, or to let the practice slide completely. The only places one is likely to be under the observation of fellow Catholics are at home and at church. Even in those places, the few individuals who know what you have chosen to sacrifice are unlikely to observe you closely or, in reality, to care.

Photo by Nathan Hartle

The intensity of Ramadan in a place like Morocco is of an entirely different order of magnitude. The rules of the fast are specific, and known by everyone. While exceptions to the fast are made for those who are unwell, traveling, or pregnant, it is rare to see anyone breaking the fast in public. Even tourists are sometimes chastised for failing to comply—I was once called out for eating a piece of bread while walking down the street. Ramadan is a collective experience, and everyone shares the rewards and the hardships.

The hardships are not to be trifled with. Ramadan in 2011 began at the start of August, and lasted the entire month. In the eleven-month Islamic calendar, the length of which causes the holidays fall at a slightly different time of the season each year, Ramadan had for the past few years been migrating into the summer. Each year, the hours of daylight—the hours in which the fast is in effect—were getting longer. In Fez, the massive and ancient city in northern Morocco where I spent most of that August, temperatures in celsius could reach into the 40’s during the day, and rainfall was brief and intermittent.

The effect on the temperment of the populace was dramatic. Being deprived of food and water during the heat of summer had about the effect on people’s moods that one might expect, and flaring tempers and shouting matches were common. I saw a few fights in streets and marketplaces.

I decided to try the fast for myself, for a number of reasons. I was living and working in a hostel at the time, and the Moroccan members of the staff encouraged me to try it as a way to better understand their religion. Also the idea of practicing self-discipline struck a chord with me. I wanted to see how difficult such a restrictive regimen would be, and if I could gain a greater understanding of what the rewards of the practice are and why it has endured for so long. In short, I hoped that fasting would help me to understand why people fast.

My ability to gain such understanding would be inherently limited. As I am not a Muslim, I would be missing the single most integral part of the experience—that of faith. Since the fast was nearing its end around the time that I was making my plans, my fast would also by necessity be a miniature version of the full experience. With such limitations, I did not know if I would gain much of benefit from the experience. But with the encouragement of my coworkers, I decided it was worth a try.

My plan was to start one week before the expected end of Ramadan—the official end of the fast is determined by astronomical observations and its exact date is not known until it arrives—and continue until the fast was declared to be over.

I was taught a fasting routine by the staff, a few of whom spent most of their nights sleeping on cots in the courtyard. The fast would begin around 4 am each day, but typically we would wake up even earlier to give us time to eat before daylight. We use this period to binge, eating and drinking as much we felt was necessary to get us through the daylight hours. Since my work at the hostel was mostly limited to the evenings, I then had the privilege of going back to sleep, in the process putting as many daylight hours as possible behind me. Then I would go about my business for the day, staying indoors as much as possible and trying not to exert myself. I figured that the less sweat I produced, and the less I moved around, the more water I would conserve.

Photo by Nathan Hartle

The downside of this strategy became obvious quickly—it led to a lot of slow, boring days. Though Morocco’s latitude was nearly equal to that of my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, the sun always seemed to be a little closer to the earth and a few watts more powerful, and most days it was in no hurry to go down. Even after sleeping in for as long as I could each morning, there remained a lot of daylight left to burn until sunset.

The most challenging of part of my very-abbreviated fast was the passing of time. At no point was I deprived of food and liquids for long enough to cause severe discomfort, but I did feel a nagging, shapeless discomfort that caused the days to drag on interminably—during times like these II felt drained of all energy, unmotivated to leave my bed or to accomplish anything. I always seemed to be on the verge of headaches and nausea that never quite materialized.

Even those with a lifetime of Ramadan experience didn’t seem immune to these effects. Everywhere I went I saw people splashing themselves with water to keep cool, or napping away the daylight hours. Shopkeepers would sleep on the floors of their stalls in between customers. As sunset approached, groups of men would gather in restaurants, waiting around tables until the call to prayer, broadcast over loudspeakers, signaled the end of the fast. Even the people getting in fights never seemed to do much more than shove each other, as if they didn’t have the energy to throw a punch.

The week dragged on, and I began to hope that the fast would end earlier than expected, no longer caring so much whether I achieved the full week that was my initial goal. Each day ended the same—the staff ate a meal together at sundown, sharing a large tray of meat and rice or coucous. Then, feeling reenergized, we would serve dinner to the guests.

Iftar


Ultimately, I was six days into my fast when Ramadan was declared to over. I never reached the full week that had been my original goal, but I can’t say that the difference mattered much to me at that point. I had learned nothing that would have been changed by one more day of exhaustion and headaches.

What did I take from the experience? As I rediscovered the joy of unrestricted dining in the days following the end of Ramadan, I reflected on the irony of what I had done. There was little about the experience that I could not have predicted from the beginning and perhaps spared myself the trouble. Depriving yourself of food and liquid for days on end feels about how one might think it would feel: it sucks, and any thoughts I had of gaining spiritual insights as a result of this minor ordeal seem silly in retrospect.

What I failed to gain in knowledge, however, I gained in perspective. Knowing that a week-long fast is going to be unpleasant is certainly not the same as experiencing it for oneself, and having done so has given me a deeper respect for the power of belief. The choice to fast for an entire month, made by countless millions of people over centuries, is a stubborn and collective show of will that my brief part in has made me appreciate all the more. Some have gone along with the practice out of social pressure, some have been made to comply by force, but enough have participated of their own accord to make it something worth remembering. And taking part in.

Nathan Hartle is a freelance writer from Davidson, NC, who has spent much of the last year traveling in Portugal, Spain, Morocco, and the United Kingdom.