x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In the spirit of Ramadan: fasting because you want to

Fasting because you think you have to isn't always the best approach to Ramadan.

With all due respect to Guy Ferrer, I'm not the biggest fan of his bronze T.O.L.E.R.A.N.C.E. sculpture, which I pass daily on Bainuna Street when I'm home in Abu Dhabi and en route to the neighbourhood Spinneys. My dislike for the piece is mind over matter at its mostly semantics-obsessed; I prefer the word "acceptance", wherever applicable.

Acceptance over tolerance isn't always an easy or obvious route. For instance, when my friends and I asked an innkeeper in the US if she happened to have any cream cheese available for our bagels, which were almost finished toasting at the lodge's simple but good continental breakfast spread, she said no, then told us not to worry.

"There's a bowl of fat-free yoghurt out there, and it's practically the same thing as cream cheese. Just close your eyes and pretend!"

I love yoghurt, but I don't love voluntary self-deception, and I don't sign up for it. My appreciation for fasting can be reduced to a similarly basic bullet point: though often understood as a ritualistic form of perceived deprivation with the intention of soul-cleansing, it doesn't clean a thing if you're applying it to the wrong parts of your spiritual residence. Doing anything for the wrong reasons leads to bitterness, resentment, and, ultimately, scepticism.

Enter irony, karma, or good old-fashioned coincidence on the Sunday preceding Ramadan 2011, when I'm sneaking handfuls of free coffee-flavoured jelly beans in a non-denominational house of worship - a Unitarian Universalist Congregation - to hear my dear friend Werner's first sermon. During his talk, Werner quoted wisdom plucked from the teachings of Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Dr Seuss.

When I started fasting, I thought it was the quintessence of delayed gratification, but I see it differently now. Fasting depletes before it replaces; wears down so it can rebuild. I was born in 1981, making this summer the hottest Ramadan since I was old enough to develop any first-hand appreciation of the challenges that fasting presents. Between daybreak and sundown, the fasting person resists water and food, relying on sustenance that is spiritual rather than calorific in nature.

Though it may seem austere to anyone unfamiliar with the rules and rituals of the holy month (which, by the way, can make Lent look like a cakewalk), Ramadan is typically supplemented with the sort of celebratory spirit and festive gaiety that other Muslim holidays lack. It's one reason to love Ramadan, but it's not the only reason.

In Jakarta, Islamic clerics are calling for better television programming than the family-friendly Ramadan fallbacks. And local news in the UAE was recently abuzz with talk of a Dubai expatriate who had used Facebook as a soapbox for airing out her issues with Ramadan: she ended up being fined Dh3,000 by a Dubai court.

I'd argue that the real damage done had not been done in the spirit of slander and insult, for which she was ultimately fined, but in the spirit of cruel and unnecessary dichotomising and alienation.

Ramadan is a perfect example of a commitment that isn't for the faint of heart, the commitment-phobe, or the hypoglycaemic. And if there's one thing I've learnt, it will catch up with a person physically, emotionally and mentally in equal measure. It is the act of committing to things when your heart just isn't in them. After all, what good can you be if you don't want to be there to begin with? The reality is that not everyone is an eligible candidate for fasting; if you can't or won't, then don't. I say that without a modicum of judgment, except to those who fast unwillingly.

There really aren't any traditional Ramadan dishes consistent through the Muslim world, nor are there seasonal associations with Muslim holidays - in part because the lunar calendar allows for Eid to fall earlier each year by Gregorian standards - but thousands of Emirati iftar tables would be at a loss without a pot of harees: that gluey, gooey porridge of wheat and goat meat.

My friend Werner closed his sermon with a guided meditation, during which he asked us all to shut our eyes and our mouths; to shut our eyes to give thanks; to shut our eyes and picture an infinite vista of radiant golden threads descending from the sky and connecting the soul of every human as ceaseless witnesses in an endless narrative of human suffering. The unconditional, resonant, resolute acceptance that we all desire to see extended to us, despite the fact that many of us strive unsuccessfully to provide it.