The woman to our left has just exhaled in my sister’s direction, nearly knocking her over with the unmistakable smell of fasting breath: a ketone-laced tempest about as fragrant as a pile of rotting fruit, but which, according to the purported words of the Prophet Mohammed, “is preferred by Allah over the smell of musk.”
More than 1 billion Muslims worldwide observe Ramadan annually. This year, Sept. 1 marked the first day of the holy month, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. The celebrated Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr marks its end.
During the season, which lasts 29 or 30 days depending on the lunar cycle, observant Muslims abstain from food, drink and all sensual pleasures, including sex and smoking, from the break of dawn (fajr) until the moment of sunset (maghreb). Ritualistically, families are roused to partake in a pre-dawn meal, Suhoor, which fuels them through the day until Iftar, when lengthening shadows and the call to prayer bathe everything in a smoky lilac hush, signaling that it’s time to eat.
People fast for different reasons, but most Muslims do so in an effort to acquire closeness to God, self-discipline and personal growth through patience, restraint, sacrifice, meditation, generosity and humility.
Somewhat impervious to edification, I often found myself prone to hypoglycemic spates of irritability. A proper fast is meant to instill a sense of inner peace. Admittedly, mine led to fervent fantasies of milkshakes and the fat carved off the edge of a steak.
The name “Ramadan” is taken from the name of this month; the word itself is derived from an Arabic word for intense heat, sun-scorched ground and shortness of rations. Eating in public is forbidden in the Muslim world during Ramadan, but markets, workplaces and schools throughout the region close early to accommodate the fatigue that fasting can invoke. Those exempted from fasting include pre-pubescent children, pregnant and menstruating women, the elderly and the ill.
Ultimately, Ramadan is a time meant for minimalist living and a judicious appreciation of life’s immaterial luxuries, though it’s not uncommon to find a tendency to overcompensate.
In my hometown, people typically reward their daytime asceticism by indulging in bacchanalian pleasures throughout the night; consequently, many people gain a few pounds during this time. People erect temporary tents in their gardens, unannounced guests stop by, beggars show up on doorsteps and are invited in and people send food over to one another’s homes.
I fasted until I moved away, started college and discovered the vivid bliss of my newfound agnosticism. I don’t fast anymore. That said, I’ve felt no more tender sense of cultural or religious solidarity than I did back home during Ramadan.
Nothing has ever tasted as good as the traditional snack of fresh dates with which we broke our fasts, along with a glass of buttermilk or qamruddin, a nectar made with apricot leather.
Every family has their own tradition to uphold, and ours was the nightly kunafeh, a dessert common throughout the Levant and woefully unheard of here. Kunafeh is a baked slab of stretchy akawi cheese sandwiched between slices of moist semolina cake, doused in orange flower syrup and slapped between a split kaak bread flecked with fennel seeds.
Khawlah, a Saudi Arabian microbiologist who lives in Santa Fe with her two young sons, hails from Mecca, the religious capital of the Muslim world. Since Ramadan in the Muslim world often seems to have as much to do with one’s personal relationship with God as it has to do with a greater sense of community, I’ve wondered about how she’s adapted her customs to suit her lifestyle.
“I have a fairly abstract perspective on the five pillars of Islam; I think they’re about breaking monotony, changing dynamics and challenging oneself,” she says. “For me, fasting is detox and a chance to really focus on the nature of my own consumption.”
What’s the hardest part of fasting in Santa Fe?
“Doing it alone leaves a lot to be desired,” Khawlah tells me. “Sometimes I feel like I might as well order a pizza. I miss the smells of all the different traditional dishes being cooked and served together, but it’s an impractical, labor-intensive way of cooking when you have a
I have four packages of vacuum-packed, semi-dried dates from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sitting on my countertop. Unlike their leathery Californian counterparts, piled forlornly in waxy bulk food bins, these are moist and melting with the caramel sass of a dark, jammy conserve.
With Ramadan here, I think that Khawlah is just the recipient for these timely gifts—but I’ll be sure to keep some for myself.