the ramadan experiment

I have been particularly struck by the prevalence and visibility of worship here in Saudi Arabia. We thought that we knew what it would be like, (five daily prayers, fasting at Ramadan, mosques everywhere) but I did not anticipate quite the expression of devotion that we’ve seen. More than once we’ve witnessed a crowd of men exiting a coffee shop to pray together at the call, or pulled over at the side of the road to pray alone while other’s simply drive by. There’s a refreshing quantity of spiritual devotion that is both prevalent enough to earn specific notice but not so universal as to invalidate it via an excuse of cultural conformity.

That’s just my long winded way of saying that I admire the devotion that I’ve seen here, and have been thinking about it a lot in reference to my own devotion to the rituals and lifestyle of Christianity. Of course, the logical reaction was to observe Ramadan.

First, a quick primer on modern Ramadan observances in Jeddah. For a twenty-eight-day month you don’t consume any food or drink (including water) or indulge oneself in any way, really, from sunrise until sunset. You work a shortened, 6-hour work day to compensate. Each morning, you get up before sunrise to eat the Sahur meal, and each night, at sunset, you break the fast at the Iftar meal. The practice of denying yourself something of which your body continually reminds you is meant to develop patience and self-control while directing attention toward Allah. This all sounded pretty good (from some perspectives of good) and I have fasted before (though admittedly nothing to this extent) so I thought I’ve give it a try.

After two days, I felt as though a train was about to burst out of my forehead–on fire–right after having ripped up my throat on the way out. Every single person who saw me asked me why I looked so drained (as I hadn’t really publicized my attempt). I couldn’t even eat much at Iftar, feeling as though I might just vomit it all back up. Even after admitting defeat I did not fully recover until three days of eating and drinking normally.

I was doing it wrong.

That shortened work week? I didn’t take it. “I’ve never asked for special treatment during a fast before!” I thought. I hadn’t ever not had water during a fast, either. I guess that’s a bigger deal than I gave it credit for.

The Sahur? I didn’t really take it. I’d have fruit, bread, and water in the morning, but I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask the hotel to serve me the real thing. As I found out later, I wasn’t even having a real Iftar, either. Apparently there are a few specific things that you are supposed to eat to replenish what your body has lost (like dates and whole milk), and I didn’t take the time to learn about any of it.

Most importantly, I didn’t actually use the experience to focus my attention on my faith, defeating the entire purpose of the exercise.

I’m not going to completely discount the possibility that I really did just get sick, but most likely I got an opportunistic infection after completely abusing myself for two days without sufficient replenishment, either physically, socially, or spiritually.

Lesson learned.