Thirst. The thirst. It’s the thirst that gets you. I reckon I could go for days without food, as long I could drink some water.
But it’s Ramadan, so nothing passes my lips until sunset. The alarm on my phone is set, my air tebu readied to slide down my throat like the first rains of the season in the savannah.
I first fasted while I was living in Hanoi, three years ago. I was a member of a group chat with some badass Muslim women who were supporting each other through the trial. They graciously put up with my panic, ’Dudes, it’s raining so hard and I was on my bike and the water landed on my lips and I tried really hard but I think I accidentally swallowed some and I think I just broke my fast!!!!!’ (as long as it wasn’t on purpose, they assured me it was all ok!)
Learning patience was tough. I’m impatient, used to getting my own way, and relish being able to satisfy my every desire. Being surrounded by food and stalls pedalling freshly squeezed sugarcane juice on every corner was a massive challenge that required a strong presence of mind. Focusing on other tasks was so important, I cooked, read, and worked on maintaining friendships with people back home.
Hanoi hit 42 degrees that summer. It was on a Saturday. The height of the construction season meant dust filled air lingering in streets lined with high-rises. I had nine hours of teaching in three schools spread across the city that day. Motorbiking through the chaos that is Hanoi at the weekend was hell. Physically draining, mentally painful.
My favourite moment of that whole month was one afternoon, the suffocating heat smashed into a cold air mass that descended from the Chinese border and a massive storm drenched the city. Every window got opened, I turned off the fan, and listened to the rain pounding against the alley outside my apartment. Those few degrees drop in temperature were blissful, the constant hum of the fan was gone for a little while, a non-food smell rushed into my nostrils, and I found beauty in such a simple experience.
Breaking fast was a lonely experience that year. I worked evenings and my classes started about 30 minutes before sunset, so I’d go in to class armed with my sugarcane juice and an alarm to tell me when I could sate my thirst. I would eat late at night, sometimes with my adorable Muslimahs, sometimes with bemused friends, and then venture to the wholesale veg market in the city. It got going around midnight, perfect for Ramadan shopping in ever so slightly cooler air.
I found a sense of inner peace. When I realised that I was, in fact, able to control my desires it kicked in my competitive side and I loved seeing how long it would take before I would feel thirsty. I would cook more elaborate food just to put temptation in my way. I felt like I formed a bond with the women I was in the group chat with, they were happy to educate me and answer some of my dafter questions. An emergency trip to the dentist had me worriedly asking about swilling my mouth and that weird suction/water thing they use!
The most important part of my appreciation for those boss ladies is that I’m atheist. According to my world view there is no God, or gods. I’m pretty sure, based on historic records that Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and many others religious figures actually did exist, but I assign no special powers to them. I wholesale rejected my British, Protestant education at the age of eleven, read Richard Dawkins all through my teens, and would have gone as far as labelling myself anti-theist in my early twenties.
How does an avowed and determined atheist end up observing Ramadan? I chose to fast then, and still do now, because it helps me be a better person. My journey to understanding Islamic culture started with a move to Malaysia in 2011, and was greatly accelerated by meeting my Muslim partner in 2015. I know my future will be surrounded by Islam: my partner, my friends, my community, the children I will hopefully have, and my future in-laws. If I’m going to be around people who take on this challenge, and even just exist in a world with over one billion Muslims, being able to empathise with their shared experience can only be a good thing, in my opinion.
This year is my first time fasting in a Muslim country. I’m excitedly waiting for the call to prayer to tell me when I can hydrate, rather than the buzz of my phone. My work schedule means I’m able to share iftar with people who have fasted all day too, and I get to visit Ramadan markets and select my dinner and enjoy the anticipation of what is to come. Waking up for suhar isn’t a weird thing that disturbs my flatmates, whizzing up a smoothie at 5am isn’t frowned upon!
Instead of being the one teaching the people around me what I understand about Islam, I am getting to learn from loads of people. I don’t have to explain to anyone what it’s all about, although my script to explain why this British atheist is doing one of the most Islamic of acts is well honed and being put to use.
Would I recommend fasting for Ramadan to other non-Muslims? Yes, especially if you have Muslim friends, colleagues, staff, students. But you need to go all-in on it. One day of fasting isn’t going to bring you much of the experience, you’ll be hungry and thirsty, but you won’t have to concentrate your mind. If you want to do it, make a commitment to it one year and tell your Muslim friends so they know to invite you to dinner! In my experience there is nothing but support for anyone going into it with a genuine, kind heart. I’ll warn you now though, statistics show you’re unlikely to lose weight.