“Khadija, wake up! It’s time for Suhoor!” my mom screamed, her shrill voice piercing through the serenity of the night. I looked at my clock: 3:17 a.m. I pulled off my covers and stumbled down the steps with my eyes still closed. The dining table was filled with mouthwatering food, sawayyan, samosas, and fruit salad.
“Come on, eat something,” my grandmother said, pushing the plate of samosas in front of me.
“No, thanks.” It was 3 a.m. I did not have an appetite.
“Khadija, you need to eat and drink something. You have school today, you can’t fast on an empty stomach,” my mom said, picking up a samosa and waving it in front of my face.
I groaned and put my head down. It was early and I wasn’t in the mood to eat. Still, I didn’t want to worry my parents so I picked up a paratha and forced myself to eat it.
Nine hours later, I had a splitting headache as I walked down to the cafeteria. I sat down and watched enviously as my friends ate.
Man, I wish I had eaten more during suhoor, I thought.
“Hey Khadija, why aren’t you eating?” my friend Annie asked.
“I’m fasting for Ramadan, remember. I told you yesterday,” I replied.
“Oh yeah, I forgot. Fasting is kinda dumb though, it’s unhealthy to not eat or drink any water. There’s no point in starving yourself all day, just eat something,” she said.
“Shut up, I can’t just break my fast like that.” I rolled my eyes and laughed. Internally, there was nothing funny about her words to me. I know she didn’t mean to be hurtful, but I was tired of feeling judged and stupid for my practices. This wasn’t my first time hearing something like this, nor was it my last. At moments like these, I wish I had the courage to stand up for myself and explain what Ramadan truly is.
Every year almost two billion Muslims partake in the act of fasting during Ramadan, also known as Siyam in Arabic. It is one of the five pillars of Islam. While fasting, Muslims abstain from food and water in order to gain a closer relationship with God. Many think that food and water are all they abstain from. They see fasting as only a physical struggle, the mechanical process of getting through the day with nothing to eat or drink for 17 odd hours. The truth is, fasting is a mental and emotional struggle much more than it is physical. After a few days of fasting, your body gets used to not eating or drinking. But you must be careful of the crankiness that starts settling in at 5 p.m. That’s the real test. You feel like screaming and shouting and cursing at anyone who breathes a certain way, talks a certain way, laughs a certain way. If you fall into that trap, your fast is broken. Fasting is not just about physical control but about fostering a Spartan mindset.
Ramadan is also a period that teaches you empathy. By forgoing food, you get a little taste of what it feels like to be one of the millions of people in the world who are hungry. Within Muslim culture, empathizing with those who are less fortunate, and especially feeding the hungry is considered an obligation. This is why many Muslims do not eat alone when they break their fast, the time of iftar, but instead, share their food with friends and neighbors. Some of my happiest memories are the riotous daily iftar potlucks during Ramadan when we would gather with friends at the community center and sample food from Bosnia to Somalia. However, this holds true even outside the middle-class American neighborhoods characterized by plenty. One of the best demonstrations I saw of the spirit of Ramadan was in a documentary on Syria, where disastrous devaluation and war have made life unlivable for many previously middle-class families. In fact, families there who barely had enough to eat themselves would send half their food to share with their neighbors so that no one went hungry during iftar.
Ramadan has taught me valuable lessons in my life, such as self-discipline and empathy. I would go so far as to say that Ramadan has been the best training I have received in being a better person, far more than any lectures around gratitude or books that I have read. There is something visceral about hunger and thirst that cannot be understood without experiencing it, and that experience is not readily available in this era of always-available food, except during a time like Ramadan. Every day when I see the abundance of food in front of me on the dinner table, I marvel at how privileged we are to have enough to eat and take a moment to be thankful for it. I reflect upon how millions of other people in the world are feeling right now, hungry, like I was during Ramadan. And it spurs me to action every day, whether it be participating in food assistance for local neighborhood kids or supporting farming sustainability initiatives that ensure food is available when and where it is most needed.