Soccer Mom Ramadan
by Mohja Kahf
“Fasting is easy,” an American businessman booms at me, at a club meeting where I’d talked about Ramadan. “You can eat after sunset, right? What I’d do is,” he says, as if we Muslims wouldn’t have figured out all the tricks to fasting already, “I’d eat all I want in the evening. Easy!”
“All right, you try it,” I wanted to retort.
Maybe Lent is easy, post-Vatican II. On the other hand, “May it be an easy fast” is the Jewish greeting for a fast day. This, I’ll take, from the Jewish friend who offers it for Ramadan. She knows fasting ain’t easy: a Jewish fast is even harder, from sunset to sunset.
A Muslim fast goes like this: no food dawn to sunset, and no drink, not even water. Also no medicines, no smoking, and no sex.
“Who has sex during the day?” a WASP friend asks. “Where’s the hardship in that?” Apparently, she has never taken advantage of an early morning woody. Sadly, these forbidden fruits go to waste in Ramadan.
Welcome to coffee headaches, nicotine withdrawal, horniness, hunger, and thirst. Wait: you’re supposed to fast from peevishness and cussing, too. God help me.
I used to love fasting: the rigor! the workout! But the body gets creakier with age, and craves its comforts. There is some deeper lesson to be learned in this; I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
The Ramadan fast is for Muslims past puberty except those with health conditions or on their periods. Pregnant women are exempt, but may fast if they feel up to it. I fasted while pregnant with my first two. And don’t look at me that way; those kids aced their SATs.
Yes, all privations are lifted after sunset. You are then free to eat, drink, smoke, and make freaky, if you have energy left. Nighttime is when you’re also cramming in workouts, grading, writing, socializing, even your basic day-planning, because who can do any of these things without food or drink or, more importantly, coffee? For the pious, there’s also those marathon Ramadan prayers, which can last until midnight. The final ten evenings of Ramadan are especially blessed, and many perform all-night prayer vigils. Or all-night grading sessions, as the case may be. Anyway you cut it, your REM time is shot, your body broken down, which is why all you feel like doing during daylight is sleep. Sleep is at a premium in Ramadan; there’s never enough time for it.
I’ve only ever Ramadaned in America. I’ve heard all this is easier in Muslim countries. They tell me Ramadan there is some fun festive thing. The workday is shortened, and you can actually go home and sleep during the fasting day. Wusses.
So sometime when the moon is high, you catch a few winks. Then you wake up, not before sunrise but before dawn which, in case you’ve never been up then, folks, is a whole lot earlier. That’s when you grope groggily for something to sustain you through the fasting day. Some annoyingly chipper Muslims buzz about bright-eyed, making an actual four-square meal in the ghastly dark. At the other end, some lazy bums skip it, which I don’t allow my husband to do at our house. Somebody’s got to hydrate the teenager.
On the other hand, the man is on his own when I and my teenager are on our periods. Waking up to make pre-dawn meals for others during the one week when you get a break from fasting is beyond-the-pale Suzy Homemaker behavior, in my book. My period always comes right after I’ve finished indoctrinating the department staff about all the challenges of Ramadan, but haven’t thought to explain the exemption for menstruating women. Chad, the office manager, is shielding me bodily from the brownies, bless his heart any other day, but today I’m trying to reach around him for them. They’re walnut.
“No really, I can eat this week,” I insist.
“Sure, Mohja.” Chad raises an eyebrow. “Riiight. Listen, I won’t tell if you want to cheat.”
Why isn’t this stuff in a sitcom?
The fasting cycle lasts a lunar month, twenty-eight or twenty-nine days, depending on when the new moon sliver appears. Ramadan makes you notice the moon; I love that. You don’t have to be an astronomer to get that when it’s full, the month is halfway through, and you’re like “ohh, so that’s what the moon was for, a scheduling device, before Blackberries.”
Ramadan rotates ten or twelve days earlier each solar year. When I started fasting, exuberantly, around age eleven, Ramadan was in balmy August. It has since inched backward through the summer, spring, winter, and autumn, to September. A February Ramadan is easy, granted. A May one is hard. A July Ramadan is murder.
Your body is getting all sorts of things flushed out of it, depending on what you’ve been putting into it. Okay, okay, I really am grateful for this. I wouldn’t do it on my own, if it wasn’t a religious thing. You don’t know, until you put your particular body through a particular year’s Ramadan, what it will do to you, or for you. Even a brisk, short-day November Ramadan knocked me flat, because I’d become a heavy coffee drinker over the preceding year. Fasting sure kicked that addiction for me that year, cold turkey, but if some of you in your goyish oblivion tapped me on the shoulder during those first mornings, I wanted to punch your lights out. Which really isn’t in the spirit of the month.
The spirit of the month: Generosity. Forgiveness. Charity. Joy. Gratitude. A softening of the lower ego, and a measuring of the higher will. Tell that to the scramble of drivers trying to shove their way into a toll booth on the New Jersey Turnpike as my husband and I race to get to Clifton on time for one of Mrs. Hozein’s fabulous Ramadan spreads. You can’t be late for a fastbreaking; it’s the height of faux pas. I’ve often thought there should be a toll booth reserved for fasters.
There’s something terribly antsy about those last two hours before iftar. You can’t focus on anything. “I can’t do homework,” my daughter wails. “Or studied for my huge trig test!” So far, the learned ulema haven’t fatwa’d an exemption from fasting for students with huge exams. I think the next exemption to come up for a fatwa consideration ought to be for soccer moms.
Because if you schedule my kid’s soccer game across town during those last agonizing hours when my husband and I are trying to figure out, on half a brain between us, what the whole ravenous family is going to eat at fastbreaking, or worse, if sunset occurs right in the middle of a horribly timed band concert, well. Utterly forgetting the less fortunate and the truly hungry, I have been known to break down and cry in the car over a plastic baggie of dates I grabbed to tide us over. Or I’ve whined, “I foreswear all events scheduled so #%&*ing insensitively by goyim during Ramadan!” And then, “Damn, I cussed! There goes my fast!”
Things happen when your blood sugar drops. Ramadan is sort of like being socked in the gut (I mean, until your charity, forgiveness, generosity, joy, and gratitude kick in). I think that’s even a Tunisian saying, something about Ramadan being like this guy who kicks you in the groin, but you grin and bear it, because deep down you really love ‘im. I’m just telling you this in a friendly, precautionary way, in case you run into me around town this Ramadan.
It is a mitzvah (to borrow a term from our Jewish cousins) to feed a faster, so if you’re plugged into a Muslim social circle, your Ramadan fastbreakings are booked solid, especially weekends. You’re either invited to other fasters’ homes or they’re invited to share your fastbreaking meal. One doctor couple we know, between their on-call schedule and fasting, we have to book them a year in advance, if we want them over for fastbreaking.
But if you’re kind enough to think of inviting your Muslim friends over during Ramadan, a word to the wise: Fastbreaking at 7:38 pm means fastbreaking at 7:38 pm. Not 7:39 pm. And not, as you love your life, a quarter to eight. “Sure, no problem, you’ve got Ramadan, we’ve got it all worked out, we won’t eat till after sunset,” I’ve been told, only to find myself gnawing my knuckles as the hosts bustle about, blissfully thinking that in scheduling dinner, oh, about forty minutes “after sunset” they’ve earned a shiny gold star in multicultural protocols party planning. How many well-meaning goy friends I’ve wanted to strangle for not getting the urgency of 7:38pm!
And don’t phone us at sunset! The closer it is to sunset, the harder it is for me to remember to practice charity, joy, forgiveness, and all that other Ramadan stuff. When the phone rings at 7:37 pm at our house in Ramadan, we all look at each other. Doggone goyim. Leave a message. And it better not be “Fasting is easy.”