Weight loss during fasting; tennis; teenage Muslim boys

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I began fasting for Ramadan thinking that besides learning loads myself, a blog would inform non-Muslims about Muslims in Ireland and about the aspects of Islam that aren’t so often portrayed in the media – fasting, charity etc. All very altruistic aims. But I’ll be honest – I was also thinking that I’d surely lose a bit of weight in the process.

I weighed in at the beginning of the month at 9 stone four pounds. I had visions of being a lithe 8 stone 8 at the end of the month. Fasting for around 20 hours a day? Surely the weight would fall off. Right? Wrong.

Almost one week into the fast and the question I’m asked most often by women is ‘are you losing any weight?’ They sound hopeful for me. Or maybe hopeful that I’ve stumbled on a tactic for losing a few pounds. The truth is that in the first few days I was up two pounds and now I’m just back to the pre-fast weight. This is despite the fact that everyday I’m starving. What am I doing wrong?

Turns out lots of people actually gain weight during Ramadan. I found this out AFTER I began the fast. No turning back. Emergency stations. Google.

Technically the fast only lasts during daylight hours so Muslims can eat all night if they fancy. The norm would be to eat a meal when the sun sets and another before the sun rises but to date I’ve been too lazy to get out of bed for the pre-sunset rise circa 3 a.m.

Seemingly because I’m only eating once a day my body detects famine and tries to hold on to my fat stores and so my metabolism has changed to ensure I’ll survive. I’ve obviously a very healthy metabolic calculator. So I have to soothe my fat stores into thinking there’s no famine and everything is alright by eating the 3 a.m. meal too.

During the day with my stomach grumbling my thoughts are often on what I’ll eat once the sun has set. Around nine o’clock I start lining up food across the kitchen counter in preparation for the breaking of the fast. Dates, strawberries, olives, tomatoes, salads, sweet desserts. Ice cream in the freezer.

Then it’s time to break the fast and I eat one date and drink a few glasses of water and feel full. And I feel cheated. But I’m determined to eat the food that I have been looking forward to all day and so I do. Or try to. Probably not a great idea in terms of weight loss. So today I went for a long walk and we went to play tennis.

At the tennis courts I get chatting to two teenage boys – Marwan and Hossam – who are fasting. They are tall, athletic and good looking and have soft Dublin accents. Their mother is Turkish, their father is Palestinian and they were born in Saudi Arabia but now live in Tallaght.

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They are at the courts with a friend, Reece, who, when the subject of Ramadan comes up is quick to say that he is Christian but does know all about Ramadan. Marwan and Hossam jokingly tell me that Reece is their adopted brother.

The boys say they find the days long and do get thirsty but they do the things they would normally do if not fasting. They tell me there are two mosques in Tallaght – one in an industrial estate and another in a house and this is the one they go to for prayers. They don’t really have much family in Ireland so for the Iftar meal their parents sometimes invite friends including one Irish woman who is a convert and ‘knows more than we do about Islam’.

It’s Reece who tells me that Marwan used to have difficulty in airports before he got his Irish passport. ‘Really?’ I ask. Marwan laughs it off ‘yeah, the security guys would look at my passport and call over the others to check me out and it used to take ages’. ‘And now that you’ve got your Irish passport?’ ‘Ah it’s no trouble now’. He says he didn’t used to mind it. I myself feel annoyed on his behalf.

This kind of treatment at airports is the kind of thing that many Muslims in Ireland are faced with regularly. And it’s a behaviour born from media portrayals of Islam and Muslims. The meta-narrative of Muslims as enemies. Tying in with the Clash of Civilisations theory put forward by Samuel Huntington in the early 90s that the biggest clash in the world today is that between civilisations and of these the biggest is one between Islam and the West. And we buy into it. And we look no further. But there is a beyond. The beyond includes fasting, Ramadan, prayer, charity, brotherhood, sisterhood, food. And tennis. And more.

And so with all this tennis and walking I’m confident that the next person who asks me hopefully about weight loss will receive an affirmative response. I remind myself that losing a few pounds was just a side-order, an added bonus of the exploration but tonight I will be getting up pre-three for a second almost-midnight feast.

Ramadan Day 5 – one sixth way there

Okay so usually I write my blog when I’m on a high and just after eating. Tonight it’s just after 9 o’clock and I haven’t eaten since 10 last night and haven’t drank anything since around half past two in the morning. I’m feeling slightly nauseous and have a headache and my lips are dry.

Today I played rounders (Irish version of cricket – I think) in the full heat of the midday sun and ran a lot. Later, in the afternoon, when everyone else was eating icecreams and sipping fizzy orange drinks or water, I sat with them on the sunny decking and played brave. ‘How’s the fasting going?’ ‘It’s grand. Really it’s fine. I can’t believe it’s so easy’. I didn’t even move to the shade.  For a long time. Too long.

I’m thinking strawberries. And a date. The fruit variety. And water. Did I say water? 

Friday night at the mosque and free Iftar meal

There is a ten year old girl who has been bouncing on trampolines and fasting all day and ‘didn’t feel hungry or thirsty at all’, an Irish woman who had converted to Islam ten years ago who is here with her two teenage daughters, and an Iraqi woman with diabetes who has fasted all day and ‘suffered a lot’ and still has a bad headache. Her doctor had advised against fasting but she wanted to try it for one day.

Although fasting is not obligatory for the sick, elderly or young – Muslims in these categories often want to participate regardless. One woman at the mosque tonight says Ramadan is ‘my favourite time of year’. It’s a celebratory month and the breaking of the fast brings together families and friends and whole communities.

I am back at the mosque in Clonskeagh for the Friday night communal (and free) Iftar meal. I arrive slightly early so pop into the restaurant which is still open and I stock up on the little sweet pastries they sell here. One of the pleasures of breaking the fast is having one or two each night with a cup of tea. Ramadan is about breaking habits but this could be one that will be formed.

Benarab Boualem is working again. ‘How many days you fast now?’ he smiles when he sees me. My lips are very dry. ‘Three’ I say. He looks impressed – like a proud father. ‘Irish people come in and ask me ‘how long do you fast for?’ and I say ’20 hours’ and they cannot believe it and say ‘I could not fast for one hour’’.

He turns and starts talking to a man who is walking past, pointing at me proudly ‘she is non-Muslim and she is fasting’. ‘It’s not hard to try’ the man responds disinterestedly but then turns to me and says ‘well done’ as he keeps on walking.

Inside, on the women’s balcony, veiled women and daughters sit with their backs against the walls, chatting softly amongst themselves. It has the feel of a tired lull at the end of the day. There are two white tablecloths spread out on the carpet in the centre of the balcony. They are laden with bottles of water, plastic glasses and a few plates piled high with dates.

An Irish-looking woman smiles up at me from against the wall. ‘Assalamu alaikum’ she says quietly, welcoming. She has come with her family from Drogheda for the night prayer and meal. She tells me she married a Muslim man but didn’t convert at first. ‘I didn’t like the thoughts of giving up sausages and rashers’ she smiles (pork is prohibited in Islam). ‘We were married a few years and when we started having children I converted’.

‘The fasting is not difficult when you don’t think about the food’ she says. Her teenage daughters who both have luminous smiles are also fasting. The woman tells me that her ten year old boy fasted the full first day but decides himself when he wants to fast and for how long. ‘He had his breakfast this morning at 10’ she explains ‘but he wanted to fast the rest of the day’.

Just before ten o’clock a flock of women rise from their spots by the wall and circle around the tablecloths. The Irish woman I’m speaking to is beckoned in. I go to the balcony rail to take photographs.

Downstairs the muezzin (prayer caller) comes out and in a sonorous voice intones ‘allahu akbar’ (god is great) into the microphone. The sound of the prayer call fills the mosque. And with his voice the fast is broken. Hungry hands pick at the dates like birds at crumbs.

I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to get through the circle to the dates and water when a young woman comes over to me holding out a plate of dates. I am grateful. Women smile at me. I am the only woman not wearing a hijab (hair covering).

After prayer the women file out and go to a large hall filled with tables for a free meal. The hall has a large partition. Men on one side. Women on the other. Our table seats six and has two plates of salad, a bowl of bread, bottle of Diet Coke, bunch of bananas and a large bowl of (what I think is) spicy butternut squash soup. I’m in the company of women from Iraq, Algeria and Egypt and two girls aged 10 and 7. Already I had spoken to a woman from Ireland and Morocco. Muslims from all over the world. After the soup is cleared, aluminium cartons of chicken biryani are passed around and then people leave the hall and head back to the mosque for the night prayer.

The women who are all dressed modestly and all veiled (just a few are wearing full nikkabs with only their eyes visible). I hear one woman say ‘I can’t eat, I’m too hot’ as she pulls at the black top that goes up to her neck. Another woman’s face is covered in tiny beads of sweat.

The woman beside me, from Iraq, says that though she loves Ramadan she also feels very sad. ‘It’s a time for family, when families get together to share breaking the fast’ she explains, ‘and so I miss my family a lot’.

Most of the Muslims in Ireland are immigrants and I begin to realise the paradoxes that make up Ramadan. It’s by going without that the pleasures of having are magnified. Fasting and food. And so it is with family. Breaking the fast with those who are loved magnifies the missing of those who are absent.

I leave the hall and am momentarily disorientated. It’s almost 11 o’clock on a Dublin July night and it’s warm. People of all nationalities are sitting on the grass, or gathered in groups on the pathways chatting. ‘Are you okay sister?’ two young women ask me. ‘I can’t figure out where I parked my car. Could you tell me where the entrance is and I will figure it out’. They point it out. Lines of cars are still filing in for the final prayer of the day. I find my car and head home. Ready for the cuppa tae and a little sweet desert.

  • Assalamu Alaikum is the traditional Muslim greeting meaning ‘peace be upon you’Image
  • The tablecloth laid out with dates and water on the centre of the women’s balcony
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  • Dates being brought out to the men below
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  • Women on the balcony of the mosque lined up for prayer
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  • The hall where the public meal is held – this is the women’s section, but you can see the partition beyond which is the men’s area.
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  • Outside the mosque security men direct cars arriving for the night prayer
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  • The little sweet desserts I bought at the mosque restaurant (desert, desserts – you know what I mean)

Ramadan and reading the Quran

Never before has a strawberry tasted so divine as the one I ate for the break-fast that came with the falling sun and fading light tonight.

I broke today’s fast with a date (fruit variety) followed by the strawberry. I closed my eyes and let the tastes melt into my happy mouth and sighed. The explosion of taste and gratitude for food and water at the fast’s end is what made the fast easy today. I knew what I had to look forward to.

The no-food factor is ending up at almost 24 hours daily simply because I’m too lazy to get out of bed before 3 a.m. for a refill. The hunger is easy. The thirst is thirsty. I lick my lips a lot. The stomach cranks up a few notches by eight or nine and shifts gears – loudly. But energy levels today were high. And I started reading the Quran. That is also part of what makes up Ramadan.

It’s my second time reading the Quran. I read it for the first time a few summers ago when I did a tiny bit of research on women in Islam. It took me the whole summer.  This time I’m trying to keep up with a chapter (or section) a day. There are 30 chapters and 30 days in Ramadan – it’s meant to be read one section a day. I’m already playing catch up.

The Quran is very different to the Bible. Less narrative. A very strong emphasis on faith and on the woes that will befall those who are faithless. The 114 Surah’s are not arranged chronologically but according to length.  It is an interesting read. They say that in Arabic it is perfect poetry but I’m on an English translation. I’ve heard the Arabic recited and it’s beautiful even to my ignorant ears.

I think it is perhaps okay to say that as a non-Muslim, Catholic-raised woman, like meself I do find the Quran a difficult read, a challenging read.

There are many verses about doing good and the importance of charity and looking after the needy, and being forgiving, and also on restraint, honesty, equality, hypocrisy. And then there is what is perhaps the most contentious verse – which happens to be in chapter 2 – and which is interpreted in many different ways:

‘Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loves not transgressors. And slay them wherever you catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.’

Sometimes I feel afraid of the potential reactions that my thoughts (if voiced) about Islam could elicit. And so I cannot (do not) speak them. Or write them. And so I stay silent. I don’t know where the boundaries of discussion lie. What is safe to say, what is not safe? What is acceptable to discuss and what is not? I know not what.

When I was researching Muslims in Ireland for my Master’s degree I received at least two emails from an Irish Muslim man asking me which intelligence agency I worked for. Was it the CIA or the FBI. The fear works both ways.

I will continue to read the Quran – I remember there are many beautiful sections. And in the meantime, from tomorrow, day three, it’s meant to all get easier again.

And regarding Ramadan? Right now I see only positives so there are no hidden silenced thoughts. But if there were? Who would be to know?

A discussion on the merits of fear, faith, silence, free speech is for another space. In the meantime, I’m off for another litre of uisce (water).Image

The Ramadan calendar I was given at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland yesterday

Effing Fog, Food, and Fasting

It’s 22.57 and I’m just after scoffing a delicious meal of lamb curry after fasting since three this morning. Day one of Ramadan is over. I made it.

I chomped through a cheese burger and bag of chips from the Italian chipper around the corner circa 10 pm last night – the last supper. Shared chips with the husband, being careful to load his plate – not for generous reasons but so I wouldn’t eat too much salt – for thirst reasons today. Programmed my brain to wake pre-three for a final food fix and some glasses of water. I woke at 3.30. The fast had already begun. The unopened bottle of water stood watching me from my bedside locker.

Morning dawned and the sun was already blasting at 7.30. Internet postings were saying that Met Eireann had issued its first ever ‘orange’ alert. I was thirsty already. Stevie (my almost-three-year-old boy) put some crusts of bread to my lips – ‘eat this mammy, eat this’.

Although I had been geared up for no food or drink it was only yesterday after speaking to a Dublin Muslim guy that I remembered it also involved good thoughts and good words – ‘fasting during Ramadan also means no cursing’ he told me. I texted my husband to tell him. He said ‘you’ll never do it’. By ten this morning I had used the ‘f’ variant five times and the ‘c’ word once. I debated with myself ‘well if I’ve already broken the no cursing rule maybe I should just break the no water rule too’.

My biggest concern, being mid-heatwave, was thirst. I updated myself with internet advice on fasting during the summer months – ‘stay indoors’, ‘avoid direct sunlight’, ‘pull the curtains and blinds’. So we went to the beach. Got there with a welcome surprise of fog hanging around the edge of the coast. For once I was happy to have fog.

By two I had a slight headache and had included the ‘sh’ word to my list of broken curses and probably a few more too. But I felt fine. So I visited the local mosque in Clonskeagh.

The usually buzzing restaurant was almost empty save for one man wearing an apron behind a stall of tiny desert sweet offerings and one man sitting at a table. I spoke to the aproned man and explained to him that I was interested in Ramadan. His eyes opened wide when I said I was non-Muslim but fasting. He sat down at a table and invited me to join him. He disappeared for a minute and came back to give me a Ramadan calendar. He told me as he beat his hand gently against his chest ‘Ramadan is great for the heart. And for the health’.

‘In Algeria’ he said ‘it’s 42 degrees and people work during Ramadan’. That put things into perspective. ‘Even manual labour?’ I asked. ‘Yes, even manual labour’.  He told me his name was Benarab Boualem.

Then I met his brother, also a chef in the Clonskeagh restaurant. ‘On Friday I will start cooking at two in the afternoon’ Smail told me. This is to cater for up to 450 people who arrive at the mosque to break the fast together. He told me Irish people are welcome too. And that the meal is free. My turn to have eyes opened wide.

The restaurant at the Clonskeagh mosque stays open until midnight during Ramadan and serves people the Iftar meal (breaking-the-fast-meal) which is on special offer for 8.99. They do take-away so I said I’d like to have one to take away. Smail said ‘I’m paying for you today because you are fasting’. And so he filled up cartons with lamb curry and rice and a big carton of beautiful fresh salads. This is the food I’ve just eaten. I bought some of the beautiful little deserts before I left.

Another man at the mosque – Ali Selim explained that Ramadan is also about giving to others. That it is normal to offer one meal to someone in need each day of the month and that at the end of Ramadan the man of the family gives money to charity or to someone in need on behalf of each person in the family.

I had covered up with just a long skirt and long-sleeved cardigan for visiting the mosque buildings but on the way out there was a young woman with a pair of fashionable shorts up to her ass and a short-sleeved top. I was still glad I covered – but I hadn’t covered my hair.

Driving home I bit my nails absent mindedly and then wondered ‘can I eat nails?’ – I think not but I didn’t swallow them so it was okay.

Five and the energy lull hit hard. Felt like a dead dodo duck and flopped to lying down with a leaflet about Ramadan in my hand and fell asleep. Woke a short time later to a busy evening and a long drive and then the time to break the fast came upon me and I was in the car on a motorway in County Kildare and thirty minutes from home and the lovely food that Smail had given me. We stopped at a shop and I bought a pear and a bottle of water and how sweet that pear was. Every mouthful I savoured.

Then home and I heated up the food and ate the salad and I was almost ecstatic. To actually appreciate the food I’m eating? Too rarely done. To even be conscious of, or grateful for, the food I eat? Probably never done. And I sit here at the table after eating, kettle on the boil for the cuppa tae and I imagine families of Muslims all over Ireland meeting and gathering to share the breaking of the fast and celebrating the food they have and I think ‘ah Ramadan, what a great idea’. ImageBenarab Boualem standing behind the counter at the restaurant at the mosque in ClonskeaghImagePoster advertising the Iftar meal – available at the Clonskeagh mosque restaurant (yummy)ImageThe Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland – featuring the Clonskeagh mosque ImageThe Ramadan sweet counter at the Clonskeagh mosque restaurant

Ramadan in Ireland 2013

It’s the nicest, bluest skied, cloudlessiest, sunniest Ireland in 40,000 years and the sun is set to shine all week. Heatwave haven and crash-bang landing into the heart of this anomalous Irish summer lands Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. This year I’m thinking of taking part in the fast. One more day before blast-off.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and during the month Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink (not the Irish version – this version includes abstaining from even water) and sex during daylight hours.

Daylight hours in July in Ireland this year last from 3 in the morning until 10 the following night – nineteen hours fasting every day for thirty days. Slightly more challenging than the Irish Catholic fasting that I grew up with of no meat on Fridays, giving up chocolate for Lent or even the 24 hour Concern fast when even hot soups are snuck in to the equation. Lough Derg penitentiary is probably the toughest version of fasting on Ireland and as far as I remember water was allowed and it lasted maybe 24 or 48 hours. I was on Lough Derg with my best friend who celebrated her 16th birthday walking barefooted around the rocks eating dried toast and black tea.

The length of the daily fast of Ramadan isn’t usually so long but, because the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan slips backwards through the seasons by about eleven days a year. Next year it will begin at the end of June. In countries closer to the equator the daylight hours don’t vary so much through the seasons but in Ireland the difference is dramatic.

The start date of the month of Ramadan is decided by the sight of the new moon. I had read earlier this week that it would begin in Ireland on the 9th but was told by the Imam in Waterford today that it wouldn’t be decided until night had fallen as it was only then that the moon’s newness could be identified. The decision on the start date was to be made by the European Council for Fatwa and Research.

It was decided in the last few hours that it would begin on Wednesday the 10th and not tomorrow as I’d earlier expected – notices have been posted on the websites of the Islamic Foundation of Ireland and the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland in Clonskeagh. I don’t know how universal or national the agreement of the start-date is – last year I visited a mosque in Blanchardstown on the first day of Ramadan and discovered that different mosques in Ireland had chosen different start dates so it can be a contentious matter.

So based on the IFI and ICCI dates I’ve one more full day of eating normally – whenever and whatever I want – if I am to take part in the fast. My biggest concern is that I would be going it alone – most Muslims meet in groups or as a family for a nightly feast when the sun sets. I’m not much of a cook myself so I’ll likely make do with a few fried pre-cooked spuds with onions and cheese.

Women who have their period are exempt from the fast. And there are lots of other exemptions too – the sick, pregnant women, young children. I might have to exempt myself for special occasions or other religious gatherings but in the meantime, if I manage even one day, I’d be delighted. The Imam also told me that it gets easier after the first three days. We will see.

The attraction of the fast?

Muslims in Ireland number around 50,000 and, with increasing incidents of Islamophobia fuelled by the dominant meta-narrative of Islam as enemy, they are often misunderstood by the Irish majority. What do we understand of Islamic fasting in Ireland? Or of Islam? Or of Muslims? Mostly close to zero.

Muslim colleagues work their way through the long hot days of a July real-Irish-summer of Ramadan whilst their non-Muslim colleagues munch and lick their way through snacks of cool drinks and ice-creams or salad sandwiches and tea or lattes or cappucinos. It might be nice to understand a smidgin of what it’s like.

Ramadan is said to teach the part-taker about self-restraint and equality. It gives the wealthy, instant-gratification-lives of western consumers an inkling of going without and of what it feels like to go hungry. Optionally. Optional hunger. A luxury of learning.

And so, one full more day and counting. I’ll probably change my mind but just for a day, just for one day, it might be nice (or at the least interesting) to try.