‘Late afternoon is the hardest part of the daily fast’
Ramadan, now upon us, brings special joys and challenges for Muslim women in Britain
Imagine that you cannot eat or drink from just before dawn until sunset, every day, for 30 days. No morning latte, no lunch, no afternoon tea, no snack. No wonder many non-Muslims imagine that hunger and a sombre atmosphere of austere religious devotion are the dominant themes of Ramadan. The reality of the month of fasting is, I’m happy to say, quite different.
For the fasting Muslim, Ramadan is a time of hope and excitement, of sacrifice and of celebration, of individual purification and community renewal, of time to focus on yourself and time to reconnect with family. And, while Ramadan is like a physical and spiritual detox programme, it also involves some very practical considerations, like when to shop, to cook, to run errands, how to be home in time for iftar — the breaking of the fast after sunset — and whether the children will manage the long tarawih prayers in the mosque.
One priority is the all-important Ramadan shop — no one wants to be caught out when iftar is less than an hour away. Typically it means trips to the supermarket for staples — cereal, rice, pasta, juice — the market for fruit and vegetables and the halal butchers for baby chickens for a quick roast, mince for shepherd’s pie and kebabs or lamb for a hearty Moroccan soup.
It is important not to forget the obligatory Algerian dates. I am sure mine is not the only Muslim family that develops a close relationship with dates during Ramadan. This is because it is the Sunnah, the way of our Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), to break the fast with dates or water. And indeed, the long day’s hunger and thirst can make a simple meal such as dates and water taste like the finest food on earth.
Planning your time in Ramadan is crucial. Work and housework go on. It is a constant challenge to fit everything, including extra time for worship, into a day. Giving the house a “Ramadan clean” beforehand cuts the household workload during the days ahead. Deadlines have to be scrutinised too. Is there anything you can get out of the way before Ramadan begins? Can anything be delayed?
Typically, Muslims like to break the fast together as a family, and that may mean some juggling. Food must also be prepared before sunset for iftar — easy enough in spring and summer months, but trickier in winter when supper time is essentially 5pm.
I have long become used to cooking on an empty stomach — and not being able to take a nibble. A taste on the tongue is allowed, to check the seasoning, but no food should pass your lips in order to keep your fast intact.
So how do we mothers keep up our energy while fasting? The trick is to eat a hearty suhoor (the pre-dawn meal). We also drink plenty of water before the fast begins.
The late afternoon is always the hardest part of the fast. This is when the rumbles of the stomach become more insistent, nerves start to fray and time slows to a crawl. I try to snatch a rest in the early afternoon. This helps me to keep up my energy, particularly when the kids are all home and need attention. That is the time for stories, for homework and distractions for the hungry fasting ones.
I like to involve the children in preparing the iftar: laying the table, cutting the fruit, getting out the dates, filling glasses with water and milk, waiting for the adhan on the radio that signals the end of the day’s fast. That moment is one of anticipation and excitement and even the little ones who have not fasted (children are not expected to fast until puberty) will break their fast with a date or two, a bunch of grapes and other treats such as samosas, doughnuts and savoury pastries.
In the evenings there are tarawih prayers in the mosque, in which the whole Koran is recited over the month. These prayers are longer than normal and draw worshippers out of their homes every night. As a student I attended tarawih almost every night with my friends. This is not so easy with small children in tow, and a babysitting rota with fathers, family or friends can be a life-saver. And of course, you can pray the tarawih prayers at home once the kids have gone to bed. This is your private time, all the more precious for being scarce in a month full of fasting, family, friends and food.
Ramadan does not always turn out to be the spiritual fix we long for. Daily life has a habit of getting in the way. We cannot abstain from the daily grind as we can from food and drink. We cannot even put it on hold somewhat, as they do in the Muslim world where they enjoy reduced working hours, shortened school hours, and national holidays for Eid at the end of Ramadan. And, of course, no one ever eats in public during daylight hours. In the UK, as in the rest of the non-Muslim world, life does not slow down: you are still expected to keep your deadlines and stay sharp in the office; the school run does not stop, babies must be fed and changed and sibling skirmishes averted.
Being a fasting Muslim on lunchbreak is like being a tree in a storm: your senses are assaulted from all sides and it is all you can do to bury your head in your miniature Koran and remember the reward promised the fasting person: to enter Paradise from the gate of Ar-Rayyan. And of course the samosas you know are waiting for you at sunset.
On a personal level I have been thinking about this year’s Ramadan. So much about my life is different from those early years of fasting. I am a mother of three boys now, expecting a fourth child, a working writer and I run my own magazine.
This Ramadan I am not so much thinking of the social aspects of the month, nor am I planning complicated dishes to treat my fasting guests. This year I would like to focus on the quieter aspects of the month of worship: concentrating on my prayers, reading the Koran with sincerity and an open heart, waking in the last part of the night to pray, fasting with awareness, increasing in the acts of worship that are quiet and secret: charity, sharing, kindness, forgiveness, reaching out, opening up, being there for others, being a better, more patient mother.
A tall order, I know, but Ramadan has a way of filling us with good intentions, with hope and confidence in our resolutions. As Muslims we believe that Ramadan is a sacred month in which we free ourselves up to concentrate on our life’s purpose, to tune in to our spirituality, to reconnect with our Creator.
It is my sincere hope that, in between children and work, friends and family, I will find my own private Ramadan, a spiritual sanctuary to call my own. And, if all goes well, I will emerge energised, rejuvenated, cleansed, ready to take on the world again.
Na’ima B. Robert is the editor of Sisters magazine for Muslim women and the author of From Somalia with Love. Read her online Ramadan diary: timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith
From Times Online
August 29, 2008