Fasting in Ramadan: an altered state.

I pause to steady myself as blood rushes to my head.  My muscles are cramping, my head feels like a hot air balloon floating among the clouds, my stomach has shrunk from the size of my fist to the size of a walnut, and my mouth has forgotten what water tastes like.  No, I’m not crossing the Sahara on the back of a camel, I’m fasting Ramadan in the comfort of my own home.

“How are you?” my husband asks.

“Not great” I croak.

I’m not complaining though, I know that in a few hours, I will give my body a little of what it needs, a date or two, and several glasses of ice cold water, downed in a gulp.  Then, as the sugar hits my blood stream, I’ll go into a bit of shock, but things will even out, and pretty soon I’ll be in a completely different state than my current pitiful one.

Why am I having such a hard time with the physical challenges of fasting?  Every Muslim man, woman and child over the age of 12 is fasting with me here in Marrakesh, and all over the world.  I walk by construction sites and marvel at the workers fasting in the 100+ degree heat.  An old beggar woman walks by, she is small enough already, her back hunched over as she trudges by, and I know she too is fasting (although her normal diet is probably close to a fast anyway).  I see teenagers loitering in front of their apartment buildings in the late afternoon, wiling the hours away, and I know that they too are fasting.  My own 8 year old daughter surprised me by fasting 8 days of this month.   Why then am I so challenged today?

I look out over the city at sunset, and it’s turned into a ghost town, save a few speeding mopeds and cars zipping through red lights made irrelevant by the lack of traffic.  When I hear the call to prayer at sunset, I begin to weep.  I weep because it’s been a particularly hard day, and I feel weakened and humbled.  I weep because I now have a choice that thousands do not have, and that is to fill my belly.  I weep because I am feeling the joy described by the Prophet Muhamad, peace and blessings be upon him, when he said “the fasting person experiences two joys, one when he breaks his fast, and the other when he meets his Lord”.  And if this first joy is so intense, what about the next one?

Nothing in this world tastes as good as the first bite taken after fasting.  Never have I been so excited about water!  During the day, I pass through hunger to the next phase, where my appetite, puzzled by my not responding to it, decides to take a break.  I am no longer attracted to food, I see a plate of delicious fruit with the same amount of desire as I have for a plate of rocks.  For me, a usual snacker and a bit of a “gourmande”, this is such a relief.  I am excused from my mindless snacking, tasting of this and that, grabbing food “on the go”, refrigerator gazing and grazing, and all other forms of unhealthy consumption. Instead my meals for the day are carefully selected and prepared, eaten slowly and peacefully in the company of my family.

Not all days are as hard as today.  Most days I skip along with buoyant energy, keeping up with even my three year old.  I chalk it up to three days of international travel, a seven hour time difference (going east, the harder way) and our new clingy companion, the heat.  Tomorrow will, God willing, be easier, but in a way, I don’t want to forget today.  It’s these hardest moments that are the teaching moments, the moments of complete breaking and surrender.  I am reminded how weak I am, as a human, despite my illusion of control.  Take away food and water for 14 hours and I remember that I’m only a few breaths, a few bites, a few sips away from being, well, nothing.

“All of a humans actions are his, except for fasting, it is mine, and I reward it”.  These words are reported by the prophet Muhamad as God’s teaching about fasting.  Pondering them makes my fasting like climbing into a Zen Koan.  Why fasting, I wonder, why a whole month dedicated to this practice?  What are we to learn, and to experience?  The answers come in fragments.  Islam relies on pattern interruption to discipline the desires and re-orient the soul towards God.  On a daily basis, the five prayers call me away from the world, from my favorite distractions, from endless conversations, from my beloveds, from sleep, precious sleep!  Come to success! call the muedhins from the minarets, God is greater!  And I come, whether reluctant, elated, sleepy, distracted, reflective, no matter my state I do come and hold a few minutes of praise, of thanks, of remembrance of God’s blessings, and invariably, I leave feeling cleansed, subdued, centered.

So too is fasting a yearly type of pattern interruption.  Relinquish food for a while, relinquish even sleep, for this is a month in which you will enter an altered state.  Delve into the vast sea of the Quran, let the verses guide you, open secret chambers in your heart, remind you of things you knew once and have forgotten, turning faith into quiet certainty.  I see everyone around me in this altered state.  No matter their starting point, everyone is boosted up a notch in faith and practice.  I saw two men walk away from what could have been a heated argument.  “It’s Ramadan” they said, and went on their ways.  I see people giving up their addictions, the very disease that controls them, whether alchohol or addictions “of the flesh”, for a whole month.  I see whole families pouring out onto the streets, prayer mats in hand, headed for the mosques for Ramadan night prayers, Tarawih.  I know a man who sets an extra table for evening break fast, but never knows who is going to fill it until he goes to mosque, and invites a handful of poor people to come home with him.  I know friends who have given up, well, social networking for heaven’s sakes, because deep down, we don’t want to waste a single minute of this precious month on Facebook.  I know people who do not pray all year, but bank on going to the mosque Laylat al Qadr, a special and powerful night towards the end of Ramadan that is “better than a thousand months” of worship.

And while this may seem hypocritical, it is nontheless faith that pushes us all to try harder for God’s mercy and forgiveness this month.  Maybe some of it will rub off, and we won’t “lose it all” later on.  Maybe that is just our human state, that our faith and practice mark a certain fluctuation.  After all, a Saint, a friend of God, is one who is always in that spiritual high, and that is what distinguishes her from the rest of us aspirants.

With that said, my dearest readers, those of you who got through another long winded post, I will retire, for in a few hours, it’ll be time for 4 a.m. s’hour. If you are fasting as you read this, may your fast be amazing.  Ramadan Kareem!