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From Dawn to Dusk

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I usually sleep until 7 a.m., but these days I set the alarm for one hour before sunrise so I have time to eat and drink my coffee.

Regardless of whether or not I've eaten breakfast, I try not to get into any arguments during the day. Keeping the peace ensures my fasting will count. By sunset, I'm famished. I pray. I eat. Then I prepare for the next day of fasting by eating more and retiring as early as I can.

I am an American woman, Muslim by birth. I grew up in Muslim household nestled in a Christian community. I don't cover my hair. I wear shorts when I walk my dog. I don't pray five times a day. I do not attend the Mosque. I am not a spokesperson for Islam or model example of what it means to be a Muslim.

Even though being a Muslim does not take up all of my identity, I do observe the holy month of Ramadan. Every year Muslims worldwide refrain from eating and drinking from dawn to dusk to commemorate the month in which the first verses of the Koran were revealed to Prophet Muhammad. Muslims are also encouraged to recite the Koran with more intensity, perform good deeds and just be more patient in general. This year, Ramadan began on August 11 and will last until September 9.

I take solace in the idea that fasting could strengthen my resolve to not give in to impulses. And I do feel good knowing I didn't curse at the driver who cut in front of me on highway or didn't indulge in gossip at work. I get more introspective during this time, which may have to do with being surrounded by people who aren't fasting.

At work, I don't want to talk about my fasting for Ramadan for various reasons. I think that fasting is a very private thing with God. I don't want to want to elicit questions of sympathy like, "Are you ok?" I don't want it to be used as a reason for being unproductive at work, which I think takes the essence out of fasting in the first place. And maybe another reason why I don't talk too much about it is because I know Islam isn't always seen in the most positive light.

Most of my friends, neighbors and co-workers are not Muslim. And most of the time I'm fine with that. But sometimes Ramadan feels alienating.  When I see my co-workers go into the break room to feast on bagels and cream cheese or cake for birthday celebrations, I quietly excuse myself. Or when an acquaintance asks me to meet her for coffee or go to wine-tasting event with her, I decline.

It's more than just not eating and drinking with friends, it's a feeling of spirituality I try to cultivate and affirm during this time that makes me feel separate. So sometimes I spend time with other Muslims by meeting with them at sunset for Friday evenings at a local Mosque. Even with that I still feel kind of a disconnect, since I don't regularly attend the Mosque in the first place.

A lot of the comfort I feel during Ramadan comes from memories of home. Ramadan takes me back to Egypt where my parents grew up and where I was born. While I spent long summers visiting with my relatives, I was never forced to fast. But I insisted along with my young cousins because it was the grown up thing to do.

We would spend more time with extended family because there were festive gatherings for breaking fast at sunset. I remember walking through the desert heat and stubbornly refusing to give in to the Coca Cola my mother wanted me to drink. I remember inadvertently breaking my fast because my aunt tempted me with chocolate and my grandmother laughing about it. It's those memories that actually make Ramadan give me the warm, fuzzy feeling of home. 

I've actually wondered if my fasting is driven more by a deeply ingrained habit since I started as a child, like putting up a Christmas tree. But then I see that my approach to Ramadan may have evolved like that of a child's approach to Christmas: from believing in Santa Claus and hanging up the stockings to getting closer to God.

I do not believe that observing Ramadan will be my ticket to heaven. Rather I see it as a way to cultivate discipline that would spillover into other areas of my life, such as being more grateful when my basic needs are met or feeling empathy for those struggling more than the average person. Perhaps that discipline will help me weather hardships with more equanimity. Hopefully, I won't act impulsively as I deal with life's difficulties and this may, in turn, steer me towards the path of integrity.

Whether observing Ramadan does all of  this for me, I cannot say. But these are the thoughts that run through my head as I set the alarm for one hour before dawn.

 

Shashie Ayoub lives in Cinnaminson, N.J.

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