Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, begins next week. It’s a time of introspection but also togetherness. Ahead of next week, Ramadan Mubarak to all my readers, of all backgrounds; to those fasting and to those not!
My parents were never subtle about waking us up for sehri, the meal we’d eat, half-asleep, in as little as five or ten minutes before our day of fasting would begin.
They’d wake us loudly, because if they didn’t, chances were my brothers and I wouldn’t wake up at all. They’d put the radio on, tuned into one of the Asian stations, so we might wake to the sound of Arabic prayers, and they’d clatter the bowls and cups in the kitchen, coming back upstairs every ten minutes to try and rouse us again in their exasperation. It would not have surprised me to have woken up in the middle of the night to one of my parents standing right next to my bed, banging a saucepan with a wooden spoon in my ear. It is a wonder they did not think to try this.
Eventually though, they’d succeed in waking us and we’d succumb and make our way downstairs where we’d eat as quickly as we could. “It’s time! It’s time!” my mother would rush us, as we’d hurry to take our last bites of cereal or toast or sometimes - please don’t judge - pizza in the dead of the middle of the night, before the exact minute our fast would begin.
I don’t recall how old I was when I kept my first fast, only I think I might have been eight or nine. I remember time passing slowly, though there was something exciting about the last few minutes of the fast. We’d count down again. “It’s time! It’s time!” my brothers and I would yell, rushing for a plate of dates and gulping down water at dusk.
On weekends, we’d visit the homes of family friends who’d invite everyone they knew for iftar, the evening meal to open our fast. Often, my parents would host these dinners too, our dining table covered with platters of food, a practice run of Eid to come. I remember how exhausting these iftars were, and I’d often fall asleep in the corner somewhere, but they were sort of festive too. They were small celebrations of food but also of togetherness and some sort of collective remembrance.
I grew up fasting regularly even though it put me in the spotlight of curiosity at my senior school, being one of the only Muslim girls there. So as the years went by, I learnt not to talk about it at all. It was easier than facing the same old questions, the same old expressions of disdain (“But how can it be good for you? What’s the point?”) by both teachers and my fellow pupils, even my friends, again and again. Often, I didn’t even know what to say.
Years later, at work in a busy newsroom, I learnt to use the same tactic. Even the most well-meaning of colleagues somehow felt they were entitled to make a judgement on something they did not fully understand. I wrote about it, from time to time and time again, but also eventually learnt it was easier not to. It was easier not to feel so singled out.
But things were different at university. I mostly had friends who were not Muslim, but some of them joined in with me each year at Ramadan, fasting a couple of days here or there, counting down those minutes with me again, reminding me there wasn’t long to go every time I felt like caving in to defeat in the form of cake. You see, that’s the thing about Ramadan. In many ways, it is a very solitary pursuit. But in other ways, there’s solidarity in the most surprising of places too.
The only time I deliberately chose not to fast was the year my father died. It was the first time I questioned whether I was doing it just because I had been brought up to. It was the first time I questioned whether I was only doing it because I was afraid of what my mother might say if I ever decided not to. It was the first time I wondered whether I might even have a choice. At the time, I lived alone and I was sad. So while my friends planned big group iftars, that year I turned down their invitations. I simply did not feel a pull to be a part of something so big as Ramadan.
As it happens, my defiance lasted only a few days before I realised that not fasting made me feel even more alone, before I realised that the habits I’d grown up with had instilled a sort of rhythm in me and I felt off and out of sorts without it. And so I fasted after all, and though I’m not overly religious and I don’t ordinarily pray five times a day, I spent that month pouring my heart out in this way, all alone, and without still being able to put into words why, I felt better for it. My faith is personal to me and I don’t often talk about it, but in a way, this is the only way I know how to explain it: I may not be especially good at it, but I simply feel better for knowing I have it.
When my husband and I were newly-weds, before children came along, we fasted together and there was something special about that. He converted to Islam before we married and though he had fasted before, our first Ramadan together as a married couple was different to any Ramadan I had experienced before. It was as though we had made our own little world - working apart in the day, the constant messaging to see how the other was coping, coming home to cook together, and then open our fasts at our candlelit tiny dining table that had just enough and only room for two. The night before Ramadan started, I remember he pulled out his phone and texted all his friends and family (who are not Muslim): Ramadan Mubarak! I remember being humbled, touched by the way he found it so easy to be positive, to be open about being Muslim when for so long, I had found it easier to not draw attention to it at all.
Soon after we married, I fell pregnant - and then again and again - and so for years, my husband has fasted alone - often through the hottest and longest summers, often still cycling a daily commute into central London - and, truly, I have felt terrible for it, for it is hard to do it on your own. But he quietly kept at it, and the days soon passed. And that’s the other thing about Ramadan. Sometimes, it feels endless but, it’s only thirty days. There is a rigour to it, a sort of focus. It’s an excuse to think about purpose. There is something deeply humbling to know that we both go without willingly but will also receive; that there will always be a meal at the end of the day, anyway. Though sometimes it’s all you can think of, it’s not just about food. It is, as with any season, a chance to start over.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: there is humility.
This year is my first attempt in six years to fast again, after consecutive years of pregnancy and breastfeeding thrice over have meant I’ve slipped through the net. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how I’ll cope. In Ramadan, we’re supposed to be kinder, more generous, more introspective and encouraged to reflect. It’s hard to feel this way and do all this sometimes when, at times, your hunger stabs your stomach like a knife and your energy leaves you languishing, but therein lies the other lesson: that of patience.
Growing up, I’ve watched and listened and learned and I know that when it comes to religion, some people can be prescriptive about their versions of what it is. It must be their way, or no way. Like this, not that. Five prayers a day or none at all. There is judgement, even though there’s not supposed to be. I am clearly no scholar, but all I know, all I think, is that it’s enough to try your best.
So this year, after six years, that’s all I’m hoping to do: try my best. I’m seeing Ramadan this year as a chance to slow down; an excuse to shift my focus inwards, to realign and take a little time out in my own ways. And also, I’m looking forward to enjoying food again: there is nothing like Ramadan to sort you out of a meal slump. At the very least, preparing new kinds of food passes the time.
New Ramadan Traditions
I have children of my own now, and though I’d like to think I wouldn’t be quite so obtrusive as my own parents were in waking us up (though, to clarify, I actually won’t be waking them up, my children are far too young to fast), I would like to instil some sort of anticipation, excitement even, into Ramadan so that they shouldn’t see it as strange or as a chore.
I like the idea of creating our own Ramadan traditions, which is something I don’t think my generation, growing up in England, ever really had, through no fault of our parents. It is hard to navigate something quite as powerful and intensive as Ramadan while also quietly going about your day. It was hard, then, when the resources for our parents were so few and far between.
Now, things are changing. I’ve slowly grown a small collection of children’s books about Ramadan - books I certainly never saw as a child - and I read them with my children and hope that in some way, reading about Ramadan helps them make sense of it or better yet, captures their imagination. If I’m honest, almost all the children’s books on Ramadan are very educational, often trying cheerily (or too hard) to explain what Ramadan is and how it works. My wish is that one day, it might be easier to find stories that are just stories, stories that just so happen to be set to the tune of Ramadan or Eid ticking in the background (like children’s books on Christmas, for instance). I wish also that there might even one day be more children’s books on Ramadan and Eid actually written by Muslim writers and illustrators too (most of them are not), but in the meantime, I am at least appreciative of the efforts that do exist, for it is better than nothing at all. The books we read most at this time of year are listed below.
I also hope to simply add books that tell stories of other cultures, of other lands; books that demonstrate compassion, charity and understanding without necessarily being textbooks of religion; books that tell stories like The Journey, Ali’s Story, Everybody’s Welcome.
Last year, we talked at home about being especially generous in Ramadan and though it initially took some persuasion, the boys sifted through their toys and soon got into the spirit of selecting some to give to other children who might enjoy or need them more. We dropped them off at The Toy Project, a brilliant initiative in north London which passes preloved toys to children in need. We’ll be doing this again this year; my hope is, each year it will be a little easier for them to understand the concept of kindness to strangers, to those who must go without.
Finally, I’ve been inspired by the idea of putting together a Ramadan basket for them too, although with a week to go, I’m not sure how far I’ll go with it. The children shall receive gifts on Eid, and I’m mindful not to let this season become too much about stuff so I’d like to keep it simple and more aligned with what is needed - new tees for spring, perhaps a little sweet treat or three. I have ordered this little wooden crescent moon to help them count down until Eid. Though my children won’t be fasting, I shall set dates and milk on the table at their dinnertime too; a sweet and simple way for them to join in a little traditional practice. Some nights, I shall slip baklava unexpectedly onto their plates as pudding. We shall hang fairy lights. Should I let them stay up late, we shall use our binoculars and hunt for the moon like small adventurers.
My hope is only to make this month, which may well seem so abstract to a small child, feel more real and also a little fun, a little cosy, a little special. So that one day they might even find it fun to countdown the minutes and cry: “It’s time! It’s time!”
Children’s books about Ramadan
1 Ramadan (Celebrate The World) by Hannah Eliot: a pretty and simple short illustrated board book. This helped me explain Ramadan to my own children (I also happened to read this to my son’s Montessori class when I did a little talk about Eid for them - this is perfect for preschoolers).
2 Rashad’s Ramadan & Eid Al Fitr by Lisa Bullard: Another little story suitable for preschoolers following a little boy called Rashad and his family in Ramadan. The story is incredibly simple, the illustrations cheerful.
3 Iqbal and His Ingenious Idea by Elizabeth Suneby: This is the only book I have come across which references Ramadan naturally, without being school-like in its subject of it. We like this book for many reasons. There’s a little brown Asian boy on the cover but it also talks about sustainability and looking after the planet as well as opening children’s eyes to a different country (Bangladesh). There are so many other positive messages here too, for any time of year, not just Ramadan - Iqbal is helpful, thoughtful and clever too. He cares about his family, and looking after the planet. Better suited to a four/five-year-old as it’s a little long.
further reading: six more links for ramadan and beyond
2 Ramadan is a season particularly intent on giving. If you like, you can use this consumer report to choose a charity for donations.
3 Dishoom at Kings Cross is hosting a magical and delicious charity iftar (all welcome, fasting or not). Tickets cost £12 and all proceeds go to Akshaya Patra – a charity working towards eradicating childhood hunger as a barrier to education in India. The iftar feast will begin with a call to prayer at sunset.
4 The Big Iftar has been running for years and is a way for people of all backgrounds and faiths and cultures and race to get together and celebrate the act of sharing a meal together. Some years ago, my husband and I invited a couple we had never met before round to ours for iftar too; it was truly lovely.
5 There’s more on Ramadan Baskets at Janine’s blog, The Gentle Art of Learning. She has written about her tradition of gifting baskets to her children the night before Ramadan and has also put together her own Ramadan basket for herself too. I love the idea of looking after yourself a little more too while you’re fasting. Thanks to Mim for letting me know about Janine’s beautiful blog.
6 And here’s more on multi-cultural and diverse children’s books for preschoolers
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