By Rollo Romig
The other day, at loose ends in midtown Manhattan in the middle of the afternoon, I wandered up the stairs of the New York Public Library and into an exhibition on the history of lunch in the city. I haven’t eaten lunch in almost a month, and was excited to see what I was missing. There was a 1936 automat with slots for creamed spinach and lemon-meringue pie. There was a 1957 menu from the Forum of the Twelve Caesars: stuffed quail, broiled swordfish, stewed hare. There was a 1914 recipe for peanut butter and mayonnaise on brown bread. It all seemed positively delectable. Even Claes Oldenburg’s giant Swiss-cheese sandwich, which he built out of cardboard for some art joke in 1969, looked like it would go down easy. And I don’t even like Swiss cheese.
The reason I haven’t been eating lunch is that I’m fasting for Ramadan, which is what you’re supposed to do when you’re a Muslim, which I became nearly four years ago, not long before I was married. It’s true that I likely never would have converted if my wife wasn’t Muslim, but that doesn’t mean that my conversion was merely symbolic. I wanted to join her life and her family, and since being Muslim is so central to who they are, that meant joining Islam. Over the previous decade, my own, vaguely Irish-American family had gradually drifted from being very Catholic to not being Catholic at all, so I had nothing to turn away from. I was open to wherever love took me.
Technically, becoming a Muslim takes about as long as ordering a Swiss-cheese sandwich. All that’s required is to recite the brief Islamic creed—there is no god but God, and Muhammad is His prophet—with genuine intention. But adopting a new religion doesn’t happen in a moment. I figured I’d start by focussing on practice. You’ve heard people describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. For me, it’s the opposite: I’ve never felt even a twinge of the supernatural, but I like many of the rituals and traditions of religions. In Islam, there’s lots to do—scripture to memorize, prayers to perform, charity to disburse, a pilgrimage to take—and, during Ramadan especially, lots not to do. I would begin by quite literally going through the motions, and in going through them find out what they meant to me.
The problem was, nearly four years after becoming a Muslim, I hardly acted like a Muslim at all. I enjoy doing salat, the Muslim prayer cycle; I like the way it links a sequence of postures with a series of recitations, using the body itself like a string of prayer beads. I like the way the five prayer times are determined by the position of the sun, thereby putting the supplicant in close tune with the rhythms of the day—the afternoon prayer occurring when the shadow of an object stretches to twice its height; the evening prayer ending when the last bit of red disappears from the sunset. But liking the prayers wasn’t enough, because I almost never actually did them. As for fasting, I had tried it in Ramadans past, but only for a few days at most. The first year, after three days of fasting, I decided that it was too hard to do my job without eating. My very livelihood was at stake, I told myself; surely no God would want me to get fired over unforced office errors due to low blood sugar. The next year, my wife was exempted from fasting because she was pregnant, and I decided that it was too hard to fast alone. Fasting solo can be dreary. On the days I did wake alone in the dark to eat the pre-fast meal, I found myself eating to beat the clock, standing over the sink and stuffing whole hard-boiled eggs into my mouth.
In shorthand descriptions of Ramadan, it’s sometimes said that the fast lasts from sunrise to sunset. That’s not true. That would be easy! It actually begins at the first ray of dawn, or, as it says in the Koran, “when the white thread of day becomes distinct from the blackness of night.” On Day One this year, New York City time, sunrise occurred at 5:42 A.M.—a civilized hour at which to finish breakfasting. But dawn came at 4:10. On Day One, the fast lasted over sixteen hours; Day Thirty, this Saturday, will be a breezy fifteen. My father-in-law jokes that, depending on what time of year Ramadan falls, Saudi princes find excuses to spend the month in either Patagonia or Scandinavia, if not the poles themselves, to enjoy the shortest possible days of sacred abstemiousness.
This year, though, as July approached, I had stopped looking for an escape clause. I knew that it would be the first Ramadan I’d try to fast for the full thirty days. Of course it would be hard. But I remembered what my nurseryman grandfather used to say when I didn’t want to go to school: half the work in the world was done by people who didn’t feel so good today. The day before Ramadan began, I was conscious of all the things I was eating that I wouldn’t be able to the next day: the sample shot of some new brand of juice, handed to me as I passed through Times Square; the doughnuts my colleague brought to the office; the leftover green curry I’d packed for lunch. I was excited for the beginning of the fast.
The next morning at 4:10 A.M., I drank a final glass of water to “seal the fast,” and wished aloud that I’d had a second cup of coffee. My wife laughed. It’s impossible to fully stock up, she said. She’s right—no matter how much food or water or coffee you pour into yourself at dawn, it will never be enough to drown the body’s yearnings until sunset. But the day was easier than I had worried it would be, maybe because living with an infant had raised my threshold for frustration. My main struggle was keeping from unconsciously jamming food into my mouth whenever I passed through the kitchen. (This is also true when it’s not Ramadan.)
That evening, my mother played Shabbos goy and cooked us a delicious iftar—beet soup, fruit salad, and pasta—while my wife and I languished on the couch. At 8:23, we ate sweets and had our first gulps of water in over sixteen hours. I thought of how Muslims all over the city were doing exactly the same—and, in time with the turning of the earth, Muslims all over the world. A century ago, the Italian writer Edmondo de Amicis, visiting Istanbul, described his perception of fast-breaking moment: “On the instant, thirty two thousand teeth tear a thousand huge mouths-full from a thousand loaves! But why say a thousand when in every house and café and restaurant is being enacted at precisely the same moment, and for a short time, the Turkish city is nothing but a huge monster whose hundred thousand jaws are all tearing and devouring at once.” You say monster, I say community. There’s no tradition of monastic orders in Islam; instead, for one month out of every year, every observant Muslim becomes an ascetic. The simultaneity of this and other Muslim rituals is Islam’s way of fostering fellowship, mass sympathy, and a powerful sense of solidarity that works even without interaction; just passing an obviously Muslim person on the street, you know you’re in it together.
The second day was a Saturday, and at around 2 P.M. my wife came to me with an air of great melancholy. “I miss food,” she said. “How it’s delicious and how it divides the day and how it gives you something to do.” Not to mention how it gives you energy to run around, and the ability to think, and lunch breaks from work, and lunch dates with friends…
By Day Ten, the month was, incredibly, passing too quickly. The fast had become much easier; it’s remarkable how the body can adjust to a new pattern. Some days I felt almost disappointingly normal. Fasting is an essentially solitary act; it’s said that it’s the only Islamic practice that’s invisible to an observer. Only God knows if you’re actually sticking with it. But Ramadan is also supposed to be a highly social time: breaking fast with friends and neighbors, and communal prayers, for those who can manage it, deep into the night. With a toddler whose bedtime coincides uncannily with the fast-breaking hour, it was tough for us to join that party more than a handful of times. But we had plenty of communal feeling right at home. Most mornings, fortified by hearty food and the only coffee of the day, my wife and I fell into electric sunrise conversations, talking about the experience of the fast and anything else that came to mind as the light grew outside the window next to the breakfast table, while the infidels slept. (Just teasing, infidels.)
By Day Twelve, the fast once again seemed interminable and intolerable. Also absurd. I was hungry, bored, sleep-deprived from those ridiculously early breakfasts, and falling behind in my work. And I sit at a desk all day. How could Muslims who have to do real work—on a construction site, on a factory floor, selling vegetables in the sun, grilling sandwiches in a food cart—stand it? Why does Ramadan have to last an entire month?
In contrast to some other fasting traditions, Ramadan is intended primarily for focus and elevation, not for penance and atonement. It’s not about mortification of the flesh or otherwise beating yourself up. Around the middle of the month, though, it occurred to me that, despite successfully abstaining from all food and drink, I was only meeting the bare minimum requirements of the fast. During Ramadan, Muslims are also expected to refrain from gossip and complaining, to avoid anger and lust, to increase what should already be a high level of charitability. Fasting was the easy part. I liked to think of myself as someone who was slow to speak ill of people, and for whom generosity was a reflex, but the discipline of the month revealed to me that this was just not the case. I thought of my father, who always had single dollar bills ready in his pocket to hand out to anyone who asked as we walked around Detroit. I thought of a Muslim I know who makes turkey sandwiches every morning during Ramadan, as though he’s preparing his lunch as usual, and then passes them out to the hungry. I’d been focussed on the fast’s physical challenges, but it dawned on me that Ramadan is really about developing new habits, of thought, action, routine. The extremity of the test is what it makes it so vivid.
As the moon started waning toward Eid-ul-Fitr, the feast that caps the month, I thought of the incredible feats that Ramadan demands from the body. This is not a juice fast; this is not giving up candy bars for Lent. This is no food, no water, no nothing, whenever the sun is out, every day for thirty days. The difference is that fasting is not an expression of willpower. As the poet Ibn al-Arabi points out, it’s not an act at all; the only actor, he writes, is God.
This essay has made hardly any mention of God, when God is supposed to be the focus and purpose of all this abstention. God, to me, has always been elusive. I understand perfectly why atheists are baffled by religion, but I’m just as baffled by them; I could never claim such certainty about the workings of the universe as to rule out any possibility of God. Faith is misunderstood as a synonym for certitude, but really it’s a concept that has doubt folded into it. My own uncertainty about how to conceive of God is deep. As this month of dawns and sunsets neared its end, I began to wonder if the fast has something to do with God’s very unknowability.
Wherever they are, Muslims direct their prayers toward the Kaaba, the black cube at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which Muslims also circumambulate when they make their major pilgrimage. Inside, the Kaaba is empty. When the fast empties you out during Ramadan, no matter how well you adjust to the deprivation, you never stop feeling the tug of hunger. That tug is a reminder—a reminder, perhaps, of that void inside the Kaaba, and the silent mystery of the divine. On Day Twenty-seven, I happened upon a verse in the Koran about a mirage in the desert: “The thirsty man takes it to be water until he comes to it and finds it to be nothing, and where he thought it to be, there he finds God.”