I started fasting when I was 9. It was the fourth grade and although I had barely hit puberty, my mom was persistent. She was excited for me to start fasting – she told me that as the oldest of my siblings, it was my duty to lead by example, to do God’s good work so that my siblings would be inspired to follow in my steps. I felt grown up, abstaining from food and water for the duration of the day. I embraced the pangs of hunger and how incredibly dry my mouth was – I was doing God’s good work, I was inspiring children everywhere! Not just my siblings but their friends too, and their friends’ friends. The adults in my life oohed and aahed when my mom announced that I was fasting, everyone was incredibly proud of me. I bore the exhaustion of fasting with grace – I was, after all, a grown up now, and I had to behave like one.
The weather during Ramadan was always much too hot, even though Ramadan wasn’t always during the summer. I remember during break time in school, when we had to fast during exams, kids would wrap their mouths around the faucets of the water coolers in the school yard for some cold water to cool down under the scorching hot sun. My friends and I would stand in circles near the water coolers, gazing at the drops of water falling off the faucets excruciatingly slowly, glistening under the sun, refusing to be tempted by their coolness, their tantalizing promises of quenching our thirst and soothing our parched throats.
Ramadan was always a family-centric month. I can’t tell now whether I truly wanted to spent hours praying or if I had convinced myself that I wanted to avoid the heartache of disagreeing with my mom. My mother had managed to convince me of plenty; her tactics were an impossible to oppose trifecta of threats of hell, promises of fulfillment, and plaintive exclamations of how much I have disappointed her on various occasions.
With no older sibling to model myself after, I did my best to become a carbon copy of my mother. When she went to the mosque to stay up all night praying taraweeh, I went with her and stayed up all night praying. We would take refuge in the cool pearly white prayer rooms of Sheikh Zayed mosque where mom would spend the whole night crying for God to spare her from hell and I would pray that God would make me strong enough to face whatever trials and tribulations life had in store for me.
I remember watching the movie Thirteen, starring Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed, when I was fourteen and feeling completely criminal, watching the racy movie under the covers, acutely aware of the fact that I was fasting, and the fact that I was unmistakably turned on. My mom’s favorite Ramadan refrain was on a chorus in my head – the devil was put away during Ramadan, and so he wasn’t the reason that I was watching this movie, it was my own innately corrupted nature.
I don’t know where the devil was put away, but I understood his connection to my puberty-stricken body. He was the reason that I wanted to masturbate even when I prayed five times a day and read the Quran before going to bed. He was the reason that I looked at boys (well, girls actually). He was the reason that I listened to music and loved American movies. He was the reason that my head was not wonderfully void of any and all thoughts and feelings that made me a person.
My relationship with Ramadan got more complicated when I went to college. Fasting became increasingly hard as Ramadan edged closer and closer to the center of summer and the days got longer. The summer before college I spent the whole Ramadan breaking my fast with Burger King double chicken burgers. My first August as a college student coincided with the last few days of Ramadan. During freshmen orientation week I walked from tour to mandatory tour parched and starving. My social anxiety made it difficult for me to go to the dining hall to get food. I started losing weight. Ramadan came and went but I quickly found myself hooked to the thrill of feeling starved, the addictive emptiness of my body that emptied my head and deadened the intensity of my emotions. During my freshman year of college my health nosedived as my addictive personality got hooked onto this starving thing, this thing that caused me to lose weight at an alarming rate.
The last Ramadan I fasted during I stopped getting my period. My underweight, starved body was too weak to muster cramps and I spent the month before and after Ramadan panicking that I was knocked up. My mom gushed about how lucky I was that I could fast all of Ramadan because I didn’t get my period. I wonder how she managed to put herself in such a state of denial that she wasn’t worried about the fact that her nineteen-year-old daughter was wearing her nine-year-old son’s t-shirts.
The summer I turned twenty was the first Ramadan I didn’t even consider fasting since I was nine. At that point I had been in recovery for a year, had struggled through a relapse, my dad had passed away, and I had been sexually assaulted. I spent ten strange days in the psychiatric ward of the local hospital in Abu Dhabi, where none of the patients were allowed to fast because of how it intervened with medication and general recovery plans. I remember feeling relieved that someone else was telling me not to fast, that way I didn’t have to confront my growing doubts about my faith and about the existence of a God who had allowed me to suffer so acutely in such a short period of time. I couldn’t bring myself to look at my sexual assault as a test from God. I didn’t have the strength to fast, and I didn’t have the strength to believe. I remember the plastic trays in the hospital covered in plastic plates filled with unappetizing yellow food wrapped in plastic foil. The plastic made the food itself look sickly, like it needed to be hospitalized to work through its own issues.
This is the third Ramadan in a row I haven’t fasted. The excuse I give my parents is that it would trigger a relapse in my eating disorder. I have no interest in fasting – the ways in which it threatens my mental health make it difficult for me to see it as fulfilling or enlightening. Yesterday, due to a combination of laziness and lack of oversight, I didn’t eat till sunset, and I found myself simultaneously nauseous and dizzy with hunger. My body can’t handle starvation like it used to. I can’t expect it to suffer through mornings without food or water and come out unscathed.
Not fasting has cost me a few things that had made Ramadan meaningful. I have lost the sleepy comradeship that comes from waking up before dawn to eat suhoor in preparation for a day of fasting, the mumbled conversations, the constant checking of time, pricking our ears for the athan. I have lost the mutual understanding of sleeping days away because functioning on an empty stomach is hard. I have lost the eagerness for maghreb and the last minute rush in the kitchen for the daily feast of iftar. The shouted conversations across rooms about whether it is time to eat or not don’t include me anymore. Ramadan is a family event, a month that brings us together in our attempts to fast and obey God, and teaches us to bear each other through the hunger induced crankiness and the stressful preparations of feast after feast that we gift each other with. Not fasting has left me out of these family traditions, traditions I can’t contribute to or feel part of. And yet, not fasting is still the right decision for me.
I started fasting when I was 9 and stopped fasting when I was 19. Without fasting I have lost a sense of familial belonging but I have gained an understanding of the obligation I had to myself to keep myself healthy and sane.