“Fasting the month of patience and three days of each month remove rancor of the heart.” Ahmad, Bazzar
The word Ramadan is derived from an Arabic word for intense heat, scorched ground and shortness of food and drink. It is considered to be the most holy and blessed month.**
Ramadan follows a lunar calendar and falls earlier than it did in 2011, starting this week. Last Ramadan I was working from home, and did not really need to go outside during the hours from when fast starts, about 3.30am, until the breaking of fast, about 6.30pm (these times vary slightly each day). Sometimes I would walk to Cleopatra Spring despite it being 35-40 degrees in the shade, because I really needed a swim to break the heat and routine. Mostly I stayed home, where I could work in my underwear and only put the required neck to ankle clothing on if someone came to the house. I had a large overhead fan in the bedroom and reception (lounge or main room) and while the indoor temperature remained about 30 degrees, I could at least break from work to splash myself with water and lie down if I felt too lightheaded. Ideally all of Ramadan you are supposed to work less and use the time to read holy texts and reflect. I did some of this, but like most people now I am in no position to be a hermit and I must work. While the hours for some businesses here are shorter during Ramadan, many people still work long days while fasting.
This year circumstances are different. I work 9.30am to 6pm with no break, in an office with a fan that helps keep the temperature about 30-35. My boss has air-conditioning in his room, but that is too expensive to allow staff. I must be fully covered, and so I am a sweaty, thirsty, shirt-sticking-to-me mess within the first hour, and losing my voice from throat dryness by the end of the day. I keep a wet facewasher on the desk to wipe down face and neck, and once or twice a day pour water over my feet to stop them from swelling. This is far more difficult than working at home.
In Siwa I was surrounded by Muslims keeping fast, in Nuweiba the staff are all Christian and not fasting of course. Earlier this year I kept their vegan foods only fast of one month with them, because I did not want the cook to have to make meals especially for me or to eat animal protein in front of the others when they could not (our usual lunch includes cheese and / or omelette, and dinner includes fish or a little meat most days). However, they do not fast when I do. I am given lunch (which is more like dinner as it happens between 5 and 6pm usually) to take home with me, and eat that in two sittings after breaking fast, usually about 8pm and then at 3pm so my body has some food stored for the long day ahead without.
The house stays hot all night, though I open the doors and windows to let the slightly cooler outside air in, and there is no fan, and I am thinking that I will move my bed into the garden to get some sleep. Needing to eat, drink and say prayers means I do not sleep until after 3.30 and then usually only for 3 hours, as I can’t manage yet to sleep once the sun rises. To compensate, I try to have a few hours snoozing, though it is not solid sleep, between 8 and 12pm. That is not easy as everyone in the surrounding houses and streets is active, eating and meeting, or watching tv, and this continues until after the morning prayers.
15 hours with no water is most difficult, going without food is not so hard as you make up the meals in the evening. The food from work is not nutritionally rounded, mostly carbohydrate with some protein. Last year I was making my own meals so I could include plenty of salad and fruit, but this is not provided by work, so I buy a little to make sure I don’t end up with malnutrition. Your body tells you to drink lots of water once you break fast, but I still need to make myself drink more because I know how much I will sweat out.
I remember now that last year after a sleep deprived and lightheaded Ramadan where I struggled to keep working, I had decided I would, as many people do, make the month or at least part of it my annual holiday. Writers don’t usually take holidays, but I figured if I earned enough over other months, I could do this. It would make the rigors of fasting easier and also allow me to do some spiritual reflection and Arabic language learning. Life became even tougher, and so this year it is impossible for me to not work. There are millions of others here in the same position. I have a few of my day-a-week-off saved from weeks when I worked 7 days straight, and during Ramadan I will take 3 of these as well as my day off each week to make life a bit easier. My days off I am also currently using to look for work, so really they will just be work days, but in the house so I can rest a little, have some time not completely covered, and recoup some strength for the office days.
That’s the physical side. In balance, and in some ways outweighing the physical demands, comes the spiritual side. Ramadan is not just about restricting your physical urges, the desire for water, food, sex, all not allowed during fast hours. It is about charity (there is always someone worse off, even given my basic way of living), forgiveness and being kind to others – all important year round of course, but our minds are drawn back to these essentials especially this month. Offensive acts during fasting include backbiting, slander, to lie or deceive, to use abusive language; in other words, no being nasty to anyone.
This is helping me to focus on huge emotional changes and to try to move towards healing. The timing is opportune, and I am trying not to push the feelings aside, but to let them come and be rational about what lies ahead. I have to make some changes and this month while I am struggling to find physical energy to pursue them, I must use the time to find emotional and mental strength to face those changes, and look at what I can do next to move life forward.
It is difficult in Nuweiba not having a community around me. Here I am not allowed to have visitors, as my employer owns the place I live in. In Egypt all hospitality, even if it is just a glass of tea, must be reciprocated; as I can’t invite people to join me, I cannot accept the same offers from them. Ironically my employer is invited to join people here every night of Ramadan, and will, although he is Christian. Perhaps harder than fasting is my isolation – community is an essential of Islam, once of its greatest strengths, and in Siwa I shared Ramadan with many others. Here much of the sense of joy is lost, because I am alone. My online community of friends are a balm, but a few minutes a day on Facebook / Twitter / email can in no way replace human contact. Last year T was away from Siwa working in Sharm all of Ramadan, so it in that way it is not different being without him, having the house just to myself and Habibi cat. But this year I do not know when or if we will see each other again, and that is completely different feeling, and the emotions are difficult to keep in check some days when I am tired and feeling weak. I must take the waves as they come, keep contact minimal, and hope that after Ramadan we will find peace and resolution, whichever way that goes.
While I am feeling down and not sure if the changes I need to make are possible, I can only keep trying to see a way, and make it happen. I hope that Ramadan will help clear my mind and heart to make the decisions I need to, so that by next Ramadan my life will be on a different path, with more potential and closeness to those most special to me.
**Ramadan is the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, and it is important for several reasons: The Qur’an was first revealed during this month, the gates of Heaven are open, and the gates of Hell are closed. This not only means that it is easier to do good deeds during this months, but also that there will be a greater reward for them. Thus, Ramadan is a month of fasting, spiritual reflection, self-control, sacrifice and empathy. The fast is broken every evening at Iftar, the first meal consumed after sunrise, which is often a social occasion involving the whole family, friends or community.
AFTER WRITING THIS POST, I read this on Twitter:
“remember how blessed you are…
A leading Mufti (Islamic scholar) in Saudi Arabia was bought to tears on Live TV when he received a question from Somalia: “Is my Fast accepted if we have no Sehri or Iftaar?” (the two meals of the night)
This just puts all our petty conveniences into perspective! May Allah make it easy for them and all our brothers and sisters around the world who endure such worldly calamities and may Allah reward them with the highest abode in Jannah (Paradise). Ameen.”
That certainly makes me feel my problems are nothing, compared to what others experience daily.