I could really use a drink. Of water, I mean. I'm also starving, but given the choice, I'd rather take the water. I haven't had anything to eat or drink since about 5:00 AM, and 13 hours later, I can really feel it. But in about 30 minutes I will be eating a fabulous, home-cooked meal with one of my colleagues, and the thought of this keeps me going.
Why is this? It's Ramadan, the Islamic holy month that ends this Sunday. A spiritual time, marked by fasting, reflection, and an effort to improve oneself. The closest thing in the Christian world would be Lent, but there really is no comparison. Ramadan isn't just observed, it's experienced. My experience so far, and a few more pictures, after the jump.
Here's how it works. At 4:30 AM, you wake up and have a meal. In my case, a cook prepares the meal the day before and my colleague, Tris, gets everything ready. If I doze off she calls my cell phone to wake me up. Today we had a delicious chicken curry soup, a glass of milk, and some spicy shrimp. I do my share by clearing the table. Then at 5:00 AM a siren goes off from the central mosque, which is nearby (and pictured above). The sound continues for about a minute, which is enough time to suck down a couple glasses of water. Then prayers start, and there will be neither food nor drink until sundown.
As a non-Muslim, I don't have to do this. My colleagues think I'm a little crazy, and joke that I want to become a Muslim so that I can have more wives. Initially, I decided to do this out of respect for my colleagues (I'd feel guilty stuffing my face in front of starving people) and because restaurants are all closed in the daytime. But I also want to experience it. Ramadan is clearly a special time for my colleagues, and I want to understand it better.
I'm not doing too badly. As a student I fasted every year as part of an Oxfam fund-raiser, and I managed fairly well. This is harder because you can't drink anything, even water. If you are a nicotine addict, you have to hold off. And you can't have sex either, I'm told.
My only previous exposure to Ramadan was through my good friend Shaela, the former Blogmistress of the Aceh Diary. Being a Muslim, she always fasts during Ramadan. It must be hard for her in Washington because food and drink are everywhere. When there is no food, and nobody is eating, it's much easier.
The cooks have finished their work, and in a few minutes the siren will sound. I will join Tris for the evening meal. I know I will be very grateful to eat it; perhaps that's a part of what it's all about.