Alternatively: Why I Fast
I glance up at the clock for what must be the hundredth time that day. Just past eleven. At my cafeteria lunch table, the regular hubbub persists: my friends chatter animatedly as they unpack their lunches, trading cheeses for chicken marsala or sautéed tofu and noodles for roast beef. Less than six hours left, I think, salivating slightly. Newly tempting smells of fresh vegetables, breads, and meats waft cruelly in my direction, and a friend offers a piece of her lunch. I pause. Then, not about to be conquered by the likes of calamari, I inhale deeply, then smile and immerse myself in the conversation instead.
This past November marked my seventh year of keeping the month-long fast of Ramadan, during which Muslims go without food and drink from dawn to dusk, as commanded by the Quran. While I don’t consider myself particularly religious, I always cherish this time of year, despite the apparent torment. The “half-fasts” and surreptitiously stolen snacks of my youth are long gone; I now fast for myself. Self-restraint instills various good qualities, including discipline and empathy, but most importantly, it restores wonder in a cynical teenager.
My generation is characterized by the distractions of perpetual entertainment, and I am by no means an exception. Each day I wake to the blaring of NPR, gulp down my organic milk and fortified cereals, and rush to class with the Velvet Underground reverberating in my ears, heading off to face a day of a similarly hasty, restless nature. I am inundated with images of Elijah Wood and Saddam Hussein, flooded with cell phone calls and instant messages, bombarded with the sights and sounds and smells of Japanese, Mexican, Indian, or Thai foods, and am utterly overwhelmed by the quantity and sheer variety of sensory stimulation.
While I can appreciate each aspect of this culture individually, together they can seem redundant, intoxicating, and ultimately numbing—so overpowering that they breed a weariness with the world. I become infected with indifference, disoriented, discontented, and yet drowsily succumbing to a seductively senseless environment. Each year, fasting halts this commotion, silencing the noise of my surroundings, producing an oasis of stillness and tranquility. From this sanctuary, I can withstand the hypnotic kaleidoscope that is modern culture, and savor the haunting melodies of Morrissey or the ephemeral presence of the stars. Ramadan grants a respite, ensuring an unusual clarity in my life. I emerge no longer a jaded young woman; I view the world afresh, my childlike optimism and awe restored.
As the sun slips over the horizon, the last rays of sunset diffuse into the rose and crimson hues of the atmosphere, revealing the slender crescent moon that marks the final day of Ramadan. I sit down, prepared to end the fast, and hesitate, suddenly astounded by the usual array of foods upon the table. The scent of saffron lingers in the air, hovering above the succulent grapes and mangoes, savory lentils and lamb curry, and carefully rolled flatbreads. In the quiet, I allow myself to take in the environment, calm and alert, pleasantly startled by the beauty of my surroundings.
Slowly, I close my eyes, and the first drops of water flow down my grateful throat, precious once again: rejuvenating, refreshing, and surprising.