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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Food Fast: A Ramadan Novice Goes Without

Aug. 27 (Jakarta Globe) I was invited to review a Ramadan buka puasa (breaking of the fast) buffet this week and decided I could only do it justice if I actually fasted. I’d recently arrived in Indonesia on the occasion of last Ramadan and knew little about it apart from that it was a month-long renunciation for Muslims.

Having decided to fast, I wanted to learn more so questioned Muslim friends and colleagues and read Islamic Web sites. I’d previously known that Ramadan involved renouncing food and sexual relations between sunrise and sunset but hadn’t realized it was a total abstention from drinking also, including water.

Not only that but one is expected to avoid immoral behavior and anger and exhibit patience, tolerance and compassion. As one friend told me, “You basically have to rein in your emotional outbursts and be more tolerant.”

I read on the Web site that fasting is prescribed in the Koran “in order that you may learn piety and God consciousness.” It went on to say that the act of abstinence was not meant to starve those fasting, but to be “an act of worship like prayer. It enables people with plenty to empathize with those who have very little in this world.”

I can’t fault any of those reasonings and, despite not being Muslim, felt I would also benefit from fasting with those precepts in mind.

Preparing for the fast

I asked friends observing the Ramadan fast what best to eat for sahur — the predawn meal — and got as many answers as people I asked.

“Eat plenty of fiber and succulent vegetables and fruit but no protein.”

“Eat a balanced meal with protein.”

“Treat it as an evening meal.”

“Eat what you regularly would.”

“Eat whatever’s in your fridge.”

All my advisers were clear on the need to drink a few glasses of water and avoid tea and coffee because of their diuretic effects. I seldom eat breakfast, having coffee and a few squares of chocolate in lieu most days, and eating what’s currently in my fridge would constitute a fast anyway so I made a trip to the store and bought fresh fruit — pineapple, oranges and mango — and a bottle of pomegranate juice. I prepared the pineapple the night before, leaving the mango and orange for the morning.

And I should have had an early night but a friend I hadn’t seen in years was passing through Jakarta for just one night so I went for dinner with her and her new husband instead and went to bed not long before midnight, having set my alarm for 4 a.m.

Too early o’clock

I’ve been wakened by the call to morning prayer outside my bedroom window every morning at around 4:30 a.m. for the past year, so didn’t think a half hour earlier would be a big deal. But it wasn’t easy to drag myself up and I definitely wasn’t accustomed to eating at that time. I took the pineapple, mango and an orange from the fridge, decided using a knife was beyond me at that hour and couldn’t be bothered peeling the orange, so ate chunks of pineapple while standing at the sink then took a glass of juice and one of water to my computer room, which overlooks a mosque. By the time I’d drunk both it was imsak — about 10 minutes before the morning call and time to begin my fast. I assume most Muslim families rise a lot earlier than I did to eat sahur. or they wouldn’t manage much food.

Following the subuh (dawn) call to prayer, I practice some God-consciousness of my own, then fall back into bed for a little more sleep.

6 a.m.

My usual morning routine is to rise about 6 a.m., check and answer e-mail (many of the important people in my life are on different time zones) then head to the pool with a cup of coffee, four to six squares of chocolate and the morning paper. My morning swim wakes me and I enjoy what passes for breakfast while perusing the paper. I’d thought I would miss the coffee this morning but it’s not a problem, though I do find myself at work earlier than usual without my usual routine to follow. Being patient and tolerant is going well so far, but I am the only person in the office.


The call to prayer began a few minutes ago so I took a break to go outside and be thankful for the people and advantages I have in life. My friend and desk-mate has told me how fasting can become such a tranquil cycle that by the end of the month it’s almost a disappointment to stop. Because family members all rise to share sahur then meet again to break the fast, quality time together is more common during Ramadan. Add in the calming and focusing effect of the ritual prayers and I can already see that the process would be beneficial.

In practical terms, it’s the daily habits that are harder to break so far than actually eating or drinking. The main time I leave my computer screen most days is to refill my water glass and I have to consciously find something else to do to allow myself short breaks. I’m missing my morning coffee but not particularly hungry, although I often forget to eat till late if it’s a particularly busy day so an empty stomach is nothing new. One of our interns has been baking for us regularly over the past few weeks and she’s brought a banana cake in today, which would go perfectly with the coffee I’m not drinking.

5 p.m.

It’s a little less than an hour until maghrib (dusk prayers) and half an hour until a Muslim friend and I will head to the Ritz-Carlton Pacific Place to break our fast. I’m looking forward to eating, although far from ravenous, and will enjoy a cool glass of water, or even juice. It hasn’t been too difficult though, and my major problem was changing ingrained habits, rather than craving food or drink.

In keeping with my goal of remaining calm and tolerant, I’ve been much quieter than I usually am, something noticeable to those around me. I feel I’ve also been less productive and have definitely been working and thinking more slowly than is my norm. I feel I’m in a semi-sedated state, which is no doubt ideal for spiritual contemplation but not so effective in terms of output. Even typing these words is taking me longer than usual and, although I don’t physically feel loss of energy, the mental effects are obvious.

The morning after

I was up and at the pool at my usual time this morning, and truly appreciated my morning coffee (no chocolate in my empty fridge), then ate the fruit I intended for yesterday’s sahur as breakfast.

The most important thing that came from my single day of fasting was a greater appreciation not only of food but of all I have in my life to be thankful for. I’m grateful for my friends, and enjoyed the many supportive comments I received on Facebook, especially the “Happy fasting” messages from Muslim friends doing the same. Going without food and drink for a relatively short time was easy physically, but I have a sedentary job in an air-conditioned office and was very much aware of how much more difficult fasting would be for many people. I expected patience might be difficult when hungry and found it to be the opposite, but didn’t enjoy the feeling that my brain was only running at half-speed. And, although I thoroughly enjoyed the buka puasa meal, the experience for me wasn’t so much what I went without, but what I learned.

I feel more connected to the culture and primary religion of the country I currently live in, to the friends and colleagues I spend my time with and to the luxuries I enjoy compared to many of the people around me. I’ll try to hold to the lessons I learned and remember when I next take a bite of food or a sip of a drink to not only be thankful for having it, but to be conscious of and try to help those who don’t.

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