In a lot of households, preparation for Ramadan can start a while before the onset of Ramadan itself. In my own household, this preparation usually takes the form of my mother and aunts (and a reluctant me) getting together and preparing lots of unhealthy food. It is put away in the freezer, ready to be fried and eaten as part of the Iftar (breaking fast) meal. Such physical preparation takes the form of a dictatorship, almost. The spring rolls and samosas must be prepared. There is no choice.
Thankfully, there is some choice in how an individual can mentally prepare for Ramadan. For me, mental preparation for Ramadan will always, initially, entail complete denial of the increasingly long fasts which await me. I try my hardest to ignore the content of my mother’s pre-Ramadan telephone calls: “It’s going to be a LONG fast”, followed by prayers for fast-enabling health. Eventually, the reality of the impending fasts can no longer be avoided and I start to think about how I will cope.
The intention – every year – is that I will be super-woman and not even feel the effects of fasting. I will simply manage. What I find myself doing every year, is hoping and mentally praying that it won’t be testing.
Within the first few days I realise that my hopes, not to be tested, are in vain. If I’m completely honest, I think I was pretty stupid to have such hopes in the first place. Of course I will be tested during Ramadan! The penny drops – I am being tested on my submission to God. I am being examined on my ability to control my most basic desires to eat and drink, for God.
At the most superficial level, I can pat myself on the back for not having eaten anything before sunset. However, that’s pretty much where the back-patting-worthy behaviour ends. Once the sun sets, self-control and table manners fly out of the window. I inhale the post-fast meal.
And that’s when both guilt and gratitude kick in. It dawns on me that for many across the world, the sunset does not bring the delights of my mother’s dining table. For many, the sunset does not bring any food at all. Those who live in poverty are not secure in the knowledge that their hunger will come to an end.
I would not be as deluded as to suggest that this is the stage at which I feel the enormity of poverty. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced poverty, can claim to feel how devastating it can be. What I can say with some conviction, though, is that there is nothing quite like Ramadan to make me feel an appreciation for all that I usually take for granted. I start to count my blessings: Alongside my three meals a day I am able to consume about a billion snacks; I have access to clean water; I can appreciate and enjoy food with my loved ones, in the comfort of my own home.
It is around this point that the cringe-worthy, guilt-inducing, memories will taunt me: Every single time I threw away a perfectly good meal because I just didn’t feel like finishing it; every time I ate just for the sake of eating; every time I ordered a meal which I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish, out of pure greed.
Up until this point, my behaviour in Ramadan is simply reactive. I have realised that I am being tested. I have also realised that I am more fortunate than many. I now know that I am a greedy-guts.
For me, the true beauty of Ramadan is when each of these realisations result in proactive, worth-while, behaviour. Spurred on by the many charity appeals which feature throughout Ramadan, I find myself re-evaluating and amending how I help those in need. And I take immense pleasure in the knowledge that I am not alone. Tip for Non-Muslims: If you’re looking to raise money, get the Muslims in Ramadan. This is when they are most generous, and most empathic.
I am struck– always – by the benefits of people coming together as one. It’s cliché, maybe. But when we come together for a good cause – such as that of charity – we are so powerful. I find myself quite wistful, wishing that all people – Muslims and non-Muslims – could come together for charitable acts throughout the year, the way in which Muslims come together in Ramadan. The idea of how much we could achieve together is empowering.
But perhaps the most empowering – and necessary – reminder which Ramadan brings, is a recognition of our individual strength. I often marvel at my ability to not eat a chocolate bar which is right next to me, while I am fasting. Any other month of the year I would have eaten it, and then some. Ramadan is, thus, a stark reminder of what we could potentially achieve if God is willing and we are steadfast in our dedication to the cause at hand.
The thought of all I could possibly achieve starts to make me giddy. Perhaps I could finally learn to bake, or publish the article which has been sitting on my laptop for months. The possibilities are endless, for you and for me.
Dr Tuba Mazhari has a PhD in Epidemiology and Public Health from UCL. She is currently working as a research associate for the Amy Winehouse Foundation. Tuba is interested in research, food, and bad jokes.