So, this is probably how it’s going to go down. You’ll be awake around 3am – maybe 3:30 or 4am if you’re not preparing the food, but either way it’ll be inky black outside. You’ll eat at home with family, or perhaps go to the mosque, but one thing is certain: what’s on your plate now will be the last thing to pass your lips for the next 13 hours.
During Ramadan, it doesn’t take too long to separate the people fasting from those who aren’t – there’s an unmistakable thousand-yard stare that you get when you don’t eat. But want to know something funny? Ask anybody who’s experienced it and they invariably won’t mention the struggle. They’ll talk about the warm, fuzzy memories of time spent with family and friends.
Ask GQ Middle East’s digital editor, Ali Khaled, and he’ll tell you about the 1982 World Cup and playing football with friends, followed by the rush home to break the fast. He’ll mention how, when he was a child in Lebanon, a man would walk around the village calling out the family names in order to wake them for suhoor – the pre-dawn meal ahead of a day’s fasting.
Shahzad Sheikh will talk food – mainly pakoras – and how he began fasting later than most, aged nine and living in Jeddah. A British-born South Asian who also spent 12 years in the UAE, he talks of Ramadan as being like a birthday celebration – something that made him all the more determined to complete the fast – and how he’s brought that feeling into his family life now. And those deep-fried, gram flour-coated potato snacks he loves so much, well they’re here too. “Oil-soaked, slow burning carbs are probably the worst kind of food to break a fast,” he admits, “but they really are a must as far as I’m concerned.”
But it’s the abstinence that’s intended to give you most food for thought. During Ramadan, the idea is to forgo all vices and distractions in order to focus on faith, patience and generally becoming a kinder, more thoughtful version of yourself.
South African-born Shirlz Ramalto lived in Dubai for five years, and would regularly fast during Ramadan to experience the culture of a new home. She ended up learning almost as much about herself. “Once you get over the idea that your body controls your mind, you begin to feel more aware of the lives around you,” she explains. “You get your own meditation ritual going to push you through the tough times, but fasting slows the pace of life to a crawl – and that eventually makes you more reflective in the process.”
When it comes to fasting in general, you’ve no doubt heard about the health benefits (weight loss, heart health, lessened risk of type 2 diabetes) and the fad diets (the 16/8 plan, the warrior diet, the two day per week plan), but it’s also a brain boost too.
The neuroscientist Mark Mattson, among others, found that cutting your energy intake by fasting several days a week could actually help you ward off neuro-degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, while at the same time also improving memory and mood. Yeah, that’s right, mood.
There’s a reason the word hangry exists, but science disagrees. It’ll tell you it’s about depleted glycogen stores, ketone bodies and positive changes in the synapses that control brain health (well, they would say that), but the biggest mood-changer of all could just be the sense of achievement.
“Fasting tells you that you’re capable of much more than you think,” says Sheikh. “Not just in the physical feat of it all, but in terms of contemplation, spirituality, discipline, willpower, forgiveness, compassion, peacefulness and love – it reaffirms that we can always be better than we are.”
When Muslims fast, they do so in the belief that it can bring them closer to a state of being rendering them pure of heart and mind. It’s about tearing away the layers of excess and leaving behind only the things that matter. Beautiful, right?
It’s a method that can work, too. Often, what we’re looking for on our own journey has been there all along, only hidden by the habits accumulated on the way. That’s the reality of what happens when you fast. Strip it all back and the purpose isn’t to successfully starve yourself, it’s to wrestle back control over the direction of your own life. It’s about working out what’s important and focussing all your energy into that goal. In that respect, fasting is empowerment.
In 2019, it’s hard to think of a more positive message that that.