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Ramadan: Empty belly, nourished soul


28 July 2014

Joining millions of Muslims worldwide in their annual fast was an illuminating and ultimately enriching experience for The Age's Christopher Kremmer, The Age (Melbourne)

It was the quiet, but persistent ache in my kidneys that suggested going without food or drink during daylight hours for a month during Ramadan might not have been such a flash idea.

On the morning of June 30 I awoke to learn that one of the world's great religious rituals was under way. Hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide had begun their annual fast. There was still time to join them provided I ate breakfast before sunrise.

So join them I did in the physical, if not religious aspect of Ramadan, and as the curtain falls with the feast of Eid-ul-Fitr worldwide, I can say without reservation that it has been an illuminating, and ultimately enriching experience.

Reactions amongst friends and colleagues ranged from curiosity to outrage. Several said only a lunatic would go without anything to drink all day. My kidneys agreed.

But there was method to this madness. When better than the cool, short days of a Melbourne winter to attempt such a feat, I argued. It was perfect fasting weather! Not only that, but human beings evolved in conditions of erratic food supply. We're not genetically equipped to cope with 24-hour drive-thru fast food.

The first day went well until about 3pm when I experienced something akin to what alcoholics denied a drink describe as "the fear". Not quite the shakes, but a panic-inducing dryness of mouth worse than a camel's armpit. I have since learned that fasting Muslims are permitted to gargle occasionally, provided they do not swallow. Chewing gum is frowned upon.

Things got worse. In that first week, the afternoons dragged on as I stared blankly at my computer screen, thinking only of calories, kidneys, and water. And coffee. Had the weekend not intervened - and with it, the cunning strategy of a taking an afternoon nap to avoid the horrors - I might have tossed it in.

The second week brought a much-needed second wind, and like all odysseys produced wonders as well as terrors.

Instead of working my usual long hours, I would arrive home promptly at five for dinner, like my father used to do. Blame lack of energy, but I also felt more than usually relaxed.

And strange to say the terrors of Week One were replaced in Week Two by a surprising disinterest in food (but not water). And when the opportunity to eat eventually came around I ate well, with my normal diet of often fatty, processed junk replaced by avocados, fish, salads, fruit, milk and almonds. Only by emptying my stomach did I begin to 'listen' to it, and learn what kinds of nourishment it actually prefers.

Still, it's a struggle. More than just faith, organisation is required to avoid undue agony. In Ramadan, every day is like a journey for which you pack a great load of provisions, and then consume them all before departing.

And food isn't the only thing it forces you to forgo. Goodbye to those weekend sleep-ins. It's either that, or go the whole day on an empty stomach. On several cloudy weekend mornings I swear the sun didn't rise til nine o'clock. Fair dinkum it didn't.

Technical fouls aside, I was a good non-Muslim for the entire four weeks, occasionally breaking my fast with the odd glass of wine. As for the more religious aspects of the season - reading the Koran, telling no lies, and avoiding sex during daylight hours - well, the less said the better.

The curious fact is that the Ramadan fast need not involve eating less. You can eat more if you wish, provided you do so in darkness. Many people actually gain weight, the combined result of nocturnal bingeing and daytime inertia. There are special fitness programs to help Muslim fasters shed those unwanted kilos.

But then, Ramadan - like most rituals - is less about the body than the soul. Like those business executives sleeping rough to get a taste of poverty, Muslims fast to remember that many people all over the world go to bed hungry each night. The suffering of the unlucky reminds the fortunate to be grateful.

The other thing they say about Ramadan - that it's a celebration of shared community - is also true.

My enduring memory of this year's fast was walking into a restaurant on Sydney Road in Coburg early one evening to find every table laden with a preposterous array of Middle Eastern foods, but nobody there to eat any of it.

The proprietor had bet the bank on hungry Muslims converging, and sure enough, they came, in twos and threes, then large families.

The atmosphere was taut at first, all heads down, intensely preoccupied with the food and soft drinks. But as the kebabs began to disappear, the noise levels rose, and soon the place was pulsating with the joyous celebration of kinship and faith that is shared by more than a billion people on our planet for a month every year.

This year, Ramadan has coincided with a sickening upsurge in violence across the Muslim world. From Baghdad to Benghazi, and Damascus to Gaza and Abuja, the schisms of faith and foreign meddling have taken their toll.

In Syria and Iraq alone, the self-declared caliphate of the Islamic State has contributed to the displacement of almost 3 million people and the deaths of more than 50,000 others.

Some blame Muslims themselves, others the Iraq War initiated by the Bush administration supported by Australia, which undoubtedly contributed to destabilising the region. But amid all the blame, the average person - Muslim and non-Muslim - feels impotent to prevent the killing of innocent men, women and children.

I realised on that first day of Ramadan this year that this collective agony for so many in the Muslim world has been going on throughout my entire adult life, and seems not to be getting any better. Subconsciously, I suspect my decision to fast was all about that. Certainly, it is not a solution to the problem. But it was my way of not being oblivious to it.

Christopher Kremmer is the author of The Carpet Wars: A Journey Across the Islamic Heartlands published by HarperCollins.


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