As a pasty white child raised Muslim in America, I have distant memories of sitting in the school cafeteria with my non-Muslim friends, and just watching them eat. As I fasted from sunup to sundown during the month of Ramadan — not even allowed to drink water — the smells of french fries and grilled cheese would tempt me, over and over, to abandon God and just eat. I’d wonder, Why am I doing this? I was a good American who looked exactly like my friends but, for some reason, I was starving myself. Why couldn’t I just have Christmas or Hanukkah, like my parents once did?
My mom was one of ten children in a Catholic household that moved from military base to military base throughout her childhood. Her parents, hard-working and hard-drinking, made a regimented and disciplined life for their children. This unquestionable and often hypocritical authority, to her, was something to escape. My father, born Jewish in Brooklyn, was a victim of the world of hippiedom and psychedelics that his mother found solace in after her divorce. (“Hippies,” my grandma still says, “are people who tried everything.”)
Both of my parents, through the grace of their chaotic childhoods and thirst for truth, ended up leaving these troubled worlds in exchange for the spiritual solace and purity of Islam. They separately found a Sufi Muslim Guru in Philadelphia, met under his wing and got married two years after his death. I was born eleven months later. Their guru’s teachings were the antidote to the turmoil of the world, and a surefire way to give their son the childhood of peace they never had. This was their dream. Islam would protect me from the temptations of our overly sexualized consumerist culture.
Ramadan is supposed to be the core of this. It is a time of self-reflection, spirituality, worship and bad breath. Yet while it’s the biggest holiday of the Muslim calendar, to me it didn’t feel like a holiday at all. Over winter break, my friends — even if they barely went to church or synagogue — would disappear into a magical land of presents and family and feasting. I’d peek into living rooms on my block and see the glowing trees that represented what my family lacked. And so, much like my parents, I yearned for something else, something quite the opposite. I wanted Christmas. I wanted America. I wanted to be normal.
Fast-forward 20 years — through the dating, puking, drugs, and the beginnings of a terrifying career in the arts. I went on birthright. I’ve owned a Christmas tree. And year after year, I continue to fast for 30 days. Sure, some years I took Ramadan off or skipped entire weeks of fasting. My identity has fluctuated as well, from reluctant Muslim to atheist to Jew to just a guy who likes hiking. My spiritual life is always heavily influenced by the experiences of my life and the people around me. So why, then, do I push myself to practice the exact thing that made me feel so isolated as a child?
I’ve found the answer is complicated. Part of it is reconnecting with my childhood and respecting the choices my parents made, but there’s also something even more important — something that I wish more Americans could experience.
The anticipation leading up to the fast is a lot like the anticipation of quitting cigarettes: excitement for the benefits mixed with fear of the losses. This excitement can fuel you through the first few days, but after that, the fast starts challenging you. Small things like coffee and snacks suddenly become tremendous losses. The pressures of life seem to weigh more than you can remember. You grow lethargic, bad at your job. The sun seems too bright. The days seem too long. You nap. You pace. You distract yourself. You just feel it. You can’t escape hunger; it lives inside your stomach and mind, and it demands all of your attention.
By week two, you’re getting better at it. The caffeine withdrawal is easier, and the hunger becomes normal. This is when you might start feeling stronger and get cocky, but the fast will eventually knock you back down. In America, you’ll watch everyone around you eat and drink water, and envy their simple life. You’ll question the practice, and then you’ll realize that you have another 15 days left. Why am I doing this? How is it possible that it’s only half over?
By week three, you begin feeling very separated from society, how it moves so quickly and efficiently around you, and you are forced to sit with yourself and just think. This is where introspection is at its greatest. The losses and wins of my career and life feel like a game I had once been playing. But now, with the perspective of the fast, they’re almost trivial. How can I forget, day after day, that eating isn’t a chore or a treat, but a gift? How many other things in our lives are like this? Mundane activities that we consider chores are more like royal experiences. Buying clothes, living inside, showering, driving cars and having every possible need satisfied at our fingertips. I reflect on those who don’t, or can’t, share this type of life. I promise myself I’ll never take it for granted again. Then I realize I still have a week left. How is it not over yet?
As opposed to holidays centered around indulgence, Ramadan strips you down and humbles you. It hurts your ego, especially in a country that prides itself on wealth, excess and spectacle, to practice the exact opposite for a month. You feel small and powerless, which is perfect for realizing that your culture has deluded you. You see how easy it was to lose perspective. When I see people doing yoga, silent retreats, meditation or psychedelics, I see a similar yearning. It’s a sense, even an epiphany, that the pursuit of material gratification is an empty one, which leads us to seek greater meaning.
Maybe we spend so much time thinking of ourselves and our advancement through society that we forget just how truly lucky we are. Ramadan forces you into a deep appreciation for life, and a connection to whatever God or universal power you choose. Time passes and you change, but the fast doesn’t.
When you cross the finish line, there’s no way to describe the feeling of once again eating whenever you want. It’s almost like a superpower, an extra sense. Your energy is limitless; anything is possible; and you now understand the illusion of comfort and excess. All you ever really needed was food. You can’t believe you’re just going to have this power, for months and months, until the next Ramadan.
But then the year goes by, and you once again become accustomed to everything you have. You feel annoyed, not by the speed of the world but that it’s not moving fast enough. You indulge in your senses, over and over. You’re tricked into accepting everything for granted and wanting more than any one person could fairly have. You become normal again.
Ramadan isn’t a better holiday than Christmas or Hanukkah, I’ve found. But it is different in a very useful way — it humbles you. It gives you a greater sense of compassion for your fellow man. It does not need to be an alternative to western culture, but it has been a valuable addition for me.
By the time that next Ramadan rolls around, I can’t wait to dive back in and remember what it feels like to starve. I can’t wait to once again reset my ego. And I can’t wait to get farther away from our society’s demands than ever before.