Between long fasts and temperatures that hit 50 degrees Celsius here, its been an intense month. Although I haven’t been able to fast (Cavebaby is only just four months old and is fully breastfed), so many of my friends and family have been fasting that I’ve managed to share something of the fasting vibe. In any case, breastfeeding makes one pretty thirsty and absent-minded.
People who’ve never fasted wonder what the point is. A few days, fine, but a whole month? And – that ubiquitous response – ‘Not even water?!’ Is it an endurance exercise, a health jag, a way to recognise your blessings, an exercise in camaraderie or just an excuse to party every night?
The faster’s response is that it’s all of these things and then some. Realizing you’re capable of a other hour, another day, another week, refreshes your faith in your own willpower, while research into fasting shows that it switches the body to clean-up mode (‘if there’s nothing to eat we’d better be in the best shape possible!’). It’s easy to say that we consume more than we need, but there’s no better way to test that out than by consuming nothing for 17 hours and still not keeling over.
The last few years I spent most of Ramadan staying at the home of my best friend in London, and I really miss those goony suhoors giggling over strange smoothies, and then the wild, creative exuberance of the first coffee of the evening. And if you’re in a Muslim country, prepare yourselves to spend all night feasting, strolling about towns that come to life, visiting family, even getting your hair cut at 3 am (Ramadan in Saudi was a hoot).
But if there’s no extra focus on one’s inner life it can feel like nothing more than hunger and thirst by day and binge eating by night. The extra focus that fasting gives (when it’s not making you bleary) supercharges Quran recitation and dhikr. But it is a test, and the test isn’t just about not eating and drinking: for Muslims living in the West, where work schedules continue as usual and most people aren’t getting up at 5am to have breakfast, there’s a sense of alienation that mitigates the togetherness of a shared Iftar. I remember one winter Ramadan when I was at university and Iftar fell during classes, and I didn’t eat once with anyone all month. It was about the most depressing month of my life.
When Ramadan falls in summer, there is all the attendant awkwardness around not being able to share beach picnics, barbecues and cold drinks with all the non-fasters. Social and sleep schedules get turned upside-down. Kids (the only ones who don’t feel like napping) complain because they can’t get taken to friends’ houses in the daytime whenever they feel like it. By the end of Ramadan you can easily feel like you haven’t seen half your friends for a month.
It’s worse for people whose work timetable has to continue as usual. Although being active helps to pass the time, the intense heat we’ve been having this year makes all the fasters flop out at a certain point in the afternoon, especially if they’ve been at tarawih prayers with barely any sleep before breakfast, if at all.
But it’s made me reflect on how there is a time for being active and a time for being still. Post-industrial Revolution life has gradually ramped up the pressure on human beings to work harder, and even rest means rushing about doing things. Nobody just sits and stares at clouds passing with a grass stalk in their mouth any more. I have struggled with the guilt of ‘taking time off work’ to have children (as if mothers spend their days gazing at clouds passing!), but in recent years I’ve started to see just how important rest is to health. With all three babies I’ve been prone to mastitis, the classic illness for mothers who aren’t resting enough. Rest before illness forces you to!
Even harder to get our heads around is weakness, and choosing to feel it, if only temporarily. Strength is so ubiquitously seen as a benefit that you’d be forgiven for thinking it an axiom. But weakness is only the flip side of strength, just as hunger is the flip side of satiety, sleep the flip side of wakefulness. You wouldn’t keep drinking coffee to avoid sleep without expecting a serious comedown afterwards, so why do we expect ourselves always to be strong? Feeling weak is a reminder that we aren’t the ultimate power in our lives, perhaps the bitterest pill for an ego to swallow.
Women have monthly bouts of feeling tired and low, and there is wisdom in that too, as I wrote about in my blog post The Old Moon in the Arms of the New. Depending on others for help encourages mutual assistance, thankfulness and humility. It sound horribly sanctimonious but there is so much to be learned from weakness that it makes sense for everyone to have a taste of it once in a while.
Weakness isn’t just physical, either; my husband just arrived home after almost a month away working, and as soon as he got back I realized how much I had been tensing under the strain of carrying the family, the house, and watering a large piece of land on my own. I relaxed my grip on the whole outfit (a little prematurely – he gets back exhausted) and immediately felt tearful and sorry for myself for a couple of days.
But it’s as necessary to hang up the armour and be vulnerable sometimes as it is to put your weary feet up and rest. Let it build up and it won’t be a couple of days of filthy mood to deal with but a full-blown crisis. So what’s stronger, being brave enough to admit to weakness and give the tough guy/gal act a rest, or trying to keep treading water when you’ve had enough? Everyone needs a life ring sometimes.
Eid Mubarak, a blessed rest to all!