In the summer of 2017, I had the unique opportunity to take part in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in Malta with my Algerian flatmate. It was an interesting experience and a month filled with a lot of new food, thought-provoking temptations, and a surprising amount of annoying and rash assumptions among other new experiences.
My friend who led me through the entire experience comes from Algeria which is a Muslim-dominated country. Throughout the month, he guided me through the traditions and learning curves during which he never pushed the religion on me and only taught me when I wanted to be taught. I owe him for the absolute perfect guidance.
Religious Fasting for the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan
By far, my biggest and most positive takeaway from Ramadan was the experience of religious fasting. I’ve never been one that has been overly religious, or even religious at all for that matter. I was curious about the traditions of the religion, but that’s as much as I can say about it. However, the fasting is what drew my interest in joining in on Ramadan traditions.
Facts about religious fasting
What I learned is that fasting is actually beneficial for your health and mind. It’s not supposed to be torturous or taken as a sacrifice to your health. It actually leads to a healthier, more comforting lifestyle.
For those not knowledgeable about what common religious fasting during Ramadan entails, here is a breakdown:
(Note: Not all Muslims fast the same way; the Muslim religion is huge, and as a result, has many different sub-cultures that fast differently in minor ways – but, for the most part, this is a general fasting breakdown)
- No food or drink (including water) from sunrise until sundown.
- Tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs such as medicines for the entire month are disallowed.
- No intimate encounters with the opposite sex (ie. Kissing, sexual encounters, etc.)
There are exceptions for those that are young and elderly, sick, pregnant, traveling, poor or those that are otherwise physically unable to fast.
A lot of the fasting traditions were made based on life thousands of years ago and seem a bit dramatic or unrealistic in today’s world. For example, one rule during Ramadan is that you get three days of breaking your fast after traveling.
Now, hundreds of years ago when traveling fifty miles took days of traveling in the heat, three days of regenerating without fasting was necessary. In today’s world, when you can travel hundreds of miles within a matter of an hour, three days of breaking fast is not as necessary. However, the exception still exists through tradition.
Holy Month of Ramadan: Introduced to a New Cuisine
I ate many new foods but by far my favorite and most commonly eaten foods were bourek, racheta, and of course, the Algerian specialty – couscous. Each dish can be served with a mouth-watering sauce known as chorba. During the month, these were common dishes and I enjoyed each differently and thoroughly.
I found myself constantly tempted while fasting. Whether it was simply by the temptation of grabbing an orange to eat in the morning or a midday thirst-quenching sip of water, there was constantly fasting temptations. It seemed that I was always thirstier than I was hungry, yet, I was always craving food more-so than water.
Even three weeks into Ramadan, I still caught myself checking the refrigerator for something to eat regularly only to remember that I couldn’t eat anything until sundown.
I can’t imagine the temptation of being addicted to nicotine and fasting through the day with the craving for a cigarette. Even the thought of drinking alcohol became tempting on some weekend nights. It seemed as if each night out was the most opportune time to be drinking alcohol. But I couldn’t.
Adapting as Needed for the Muslim Holy Month
In the beginning, as I suspected, I was normally bothered by a headache by the time evening rolled around. This always happens to me after going too long without either food or water – much less both. Thankfully, my body adjusted accordingly after a few days and I didn’t experience the head throbs after a few days of fasting.
My favorite part of the fasting was not the huge meals at the end of the day or the appetizing food itself, it was the feeling of everyone coming together as one to share the moment of community around the dinner table at the end of each day.
It was a different feeling passing the food around the table knowing how hungry everyone was, yet unselfishly sharing the last bit of food with friends who feel like family. It didn’t matter how hungry we were if a friend knocked on our door unannounced around meal time when all the food was already prepared, they were automatically invited to dinner.
Often, I’d do things to pass time throughout the day that is not normal for me such as read and take naps. This was to distract me from the fact that time moved incredibly slow during Ramadan – mostly because I was constantly watching the clock like I was caught-up at a boring job on a slow day of work. However, the anticipation, as it got closer to sundown and the way the night seemed to last longer after the moon came up, was a nice, relaxing feeling.
Cheating Myself on New Experiences
There were times that I felt myself participating in Ramadan for the wrong reasons. Several times throughout the month, I felt myself making a competition of it; a ‘who could hold out on temptations the longest’ sort of competition. I knew this wasn’t the purpose of Ramadan and not at all what it represented, but I feel that having my competitive nature helped me keep going in times of weakness.
Other times, maybe two or three times throughout the course of Ramadan, the temptations got the best of me. I used excuses such as, “Well, if he broke his fast today and it’s his own religion, I suppose I can break mine.” I used these excuses as a reason for my weakness when, in fact, I was only cheating myself of my own Ramadan experience.
It always made me feel guilty afterward and the food or water was never as quenching as I had originally thought. It was always much more rewarding at the end of the day to know that I didn’t cheat myself.
Stereotyping, Assumptions, and Ignorance
By far the most annoying part about my Ramadan experience came from my peers around me who were not participating in the holy month. Friends, family, and even people I had just met would all question “Why?” as if I was being forced to fast and participate. It was a personal choice and not at all something that I was forced to do.
For those that asked me why I was participating out of pure curiosity, it was a pleasure to share with them why. In fact, I didn’t really know why I felt the urge to participate. It was mainly for the experience and I think that’s something most people didn’t or couldn’t understand.
However, with everyone who asked out of curiosity, there were two or three people who asked mockingly. People ignorantly based all their assumptions about the holy month of Ramadan on stereotypes of Muslims and asked why I would ever want to be a part of it.
Although they never asked so rudely, I always got the true reason behind their questioning. A lot of people were just like me and know very little about Ramadan or the Muslim religion in general.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked my flatmate or I why we were fasting, I’d surely be a richer man today. I can’t imagine how many Muslims traveling or living abroad get this question on an annual basis.
My Pet Peeve During the Holy Month
Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve always had a boiling point towards stereotyping against the Muslim religion. I still know very little about the religion myself, but from what I’ve experienced through living with Muslims and traveling through a Muslim country for a month, there’s no possible explanation for the type of stereotyping this religion receives.
America receives quite a harsh stereotype for being ignorant of other countries and cultures around the world. However, this was the first time I felt this type of ignorance that Americans are known for having from Europeans themselves. I was disappointed by that fact. I wanted to share that part of the experience only to shed some light on the problem.
New Experiences: The Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan
I was only introduced to a part of the traditions and will surely participate again some year. I had fun with it and am only intrigued more by the holy month of Ramadan. Next time, though, I look forward to taking part in Ramadan inside the borders of a Muslim-dominated country.