x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

1,001 Arabian bites: See Ramadan as opportunity for growth

Fasting alone is difficult, and although this is the hardest time of year to do it in the UAE, it does help that it is a communal effort.

There are people who forget to eat. I'm not one of them. Mealtimes, which generate inspiration in some and indifference or irritation in others, are the most consistent sentient forces in my life; beacons so powerful that my food-related memories serve as mental bookmarks for almost every experience I've had that's worth remembering. Like any honest-to-goodness hedonist, I'm suspicious of anyone who claims to love food but doesn't seem to know or care when their next meal is coming.

As we swelter through the dog days of the year's hottest month, Ramadan is upon us. The August hours ooze by, soporific and slow, then bring fast to a boil the tropical languor that's choreographed into the molasses daze of long Emirati summer days. This is the hardest time of the year to fast. For a month, from daybreak to sunset, neither food nor water will pass the lips of the fasting person. To someone unfamiliar with Ramadan rituals, the practice could be likened to an austere version of Lent supplemented with the gaiety of the Christian holiday season.

Almost all Americans (96 per cent) celebrate Christmas, and only some are practising Christians. Similarly, Ramadan is observed heavily outside the Muslim world. For a month, more than a billion people will rise each day to a new fast. Followers of Christmas and Ramadan share a propensity for gift-giving, inclusive spirituality that runs the gamut from casual to conservative, and let's face it, intoxicating but antithetical episodes of unbridled gluttony - or at least an attempt at it. Our empty stomachs shrink over the course of the day and it can be easy to forget that when we're piling rice on to our dinner plates.

The values that Ramadan reinforces include paucity, minimalism, reflection, appreciation and renewal, but the road to fulfilment doesn't so much end with dinner as stimulate the appetite for it. In Abu Dhabi, local families set up tents in their gardens, guests stop by unannounced, and people send their mothers' cooking over to one another's homes. The metaphysical tango between feast and famine resides in every one of us, whether we fast or not.

I fast all the time as part of a lifestyle regimen; partial fasts, juice fasts, dairy fasts, but the Ramadan fast takes the cake (and then hides it until sunset). When someone tells me that fasting isn't at all difficult for them, I inwardly raise an eyebrow the same way I do when someone tells me childbirth is painless or they don't like vanilla ice cream. (First, I search the neck for signs of a pulse.)

All fasting is exhausting before it is rejuvenating, and I discount the credibility of anyone who claims to draw only strength and never weakness from a full fast. There's a directly proportional relationship between the degree of a sacrifice and the greatness of the reward. But calories are just one source of nourishment. Last Ramadan, I had the opportunity to cook a special iftar meal for a fundraiser at a mosque in the US. Ramadan in the Muslim world sometimes seems to have as much to do with one's spiritual identity and highly personal relationship with God as it has to do with public identity and a sense of community.

At the dinner, several guests admitted the hardest part of observing Ramadan in the US was the breaking of the fast while alone. Outside the Muslim world, some fasting folk may choose to shroud their choices preemptively in a thin veil of privacy; and privacy is something that's closely aligned with western values. At the mosque, I met people with fascinating and fairly abstract perspectives on Ramadan. For them, fasting had come to represent everything from breaking monotony, renewing resolutions, disrupting the cycle of taking things for granted to detoxing, as well as a chance really to focus on the nature of their own consumption.

The spiritual fast is older than the written word. In addition to the Quran, fasting is referenced in many religious texts, including the Bible, the Upanishads, the Mahabharata. Conversely, the Sikh Holy Scripture discourages fasting under the reasoning that it "brings no spiritual benefit to the person" and that self-discipline, when rigid, is a fruitless pursuit.Though the inspiration varies between one religious paradigm and the next, the practice is founded on the same basic principles.

Withholding anything the body has grown to depend on, and particularly something primal, quickly poses a threat to mind, body and spirit. It's possible to avoid depletion, but without the risk of it the pay-off would be paltry. Ramadan is about so much more than abstaining from food and drink; it is about using consistency, patience, meditation, supplication, self-discipline and restraint to cultivate growth, acceptance and empowerment.