Fast-er Pussycat! Starve! Starve!
I was Muslim for a day, but I don’t think I was very good at it. Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan to learn self-discipline and gratitude, and to grow closer to God. I had these ideals in mind when I accepted the invitation offered by the Sacramento Area League of Associated Muslims to non-Muslims last Saturday: observe Ramadan for one day by abstaining from food, water, sex, cursing and gossip, and then join local Muslims at the SALAM Center at sundown to break the fast.
As fasting day approached, however, my spiritual hopes took a backseat to petty physical concerns. I worried I’d become dehydrated and spend the day with a headache, or that I’d be too hungry to concentrate on anything. I reconsidered my plans to spend the day in extended meditation. Instead, I made mental lists of potential distractions: movies, naps, novels.
A Ramadan fast begins with the suhur, a meal eaten before dawn to sustain the body until the sun goes down. Finding it hard to imagine eating anything that early, I decided to skip breakfast and sleep as late as possible.
My stomach had other ideas. I woke without an alarm clock at 5:20 a.m. The sky was still black, but I knew if I didn’t eat in the next 15 minutes, I wouldn’t have another chance until the sun set at 7:20 p.m.
I stumbled to the kitchen and boiled some Quaker Oats. I sat in the dark, groggily spooning oatmeal into my mouth, and followed up with three pints of water. I climbed back into bed sloshing like a camel. I wondered when the feelings of gratitude would kick in.
I woke a few hours later with an overly full bladder and a thirst that wouldn’t quit. As I began my morning chores, I tried not to think about the 10 hours between me and my next drink. I envied my plants when I watered them, my dishes as I washed them, my laundry in its rinse cycle.
“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” If not God, at least Ramadan brought me closer to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”
Then it occurred to me, possibly for the first time in my pampered existence, that there’s never been a day in my life when I haven’t had all the water I wanted to drink. Or plenty of food. I’m so used to having these needs met that choosing to go without them caused panic. I thought about all the people in the world who fast because they have to, because their environment or their government cannot provide better.
And there it was: gratitude. I have been fed every day of my life. Thank God.
I wish I could say I spent the rest of my fast as an enlightened woman contemplating life’s blessings, but, frankly, I was too hungry. By late afternoon, all I could think about was food. It didn’t help when an atheist friend invited me to a late lunch. “There’s no God,” he said when I told him about my fast, “so you might as well eat a burrito.”
Foolishly, I decided to accompany him to La Fiesta and not eat. I kept my word, but I must have stared pitifully at his basket of chips because he suddenly leapt from the table and bought me a gumball from a nearby machine. That sugary orb of Dubble Bubble was the most delicious thing I could remember tasting. I chewed it with careful relish. Gratitude again.
And again, when I stood among several hundred Muslims—and spiritual tourists like myself—inside the SALAM Center, minutes before sundown. Trays of dates were passed through the crowd until everyone held one of the shriveled fruits. I couldn’t believe I’d made it through the whole day and, while I knew I’d be eating and drinking again tomorrow, I felt tremendous respect for the Muslims continuing the fast through the month, and annually during their lives.
The crowd recited an Islamic prayer of gratitude and then we all bit into the sweet fruits of our effort.