I haven’t fasted in nearly 10 years. If my mother read this she would be so disappointed in me, but maybe she’d feel a little hope in the fact that this year I am fasting. Ramadan is a month of reflection, growth, cleansing and spirituality. As someone who felt so disconnected from her faith and her culture most of her life, this Ramadan means a lot to me. I am finally starting to see where these puzzle pieces fit into my life and as I start to embrace my faith things like fasting have become important to me.
Ramadan at home was a mixed bag of feelings. When I was small it was exciting. I wasn’t old enough to fast properly but would do ‘mini fasts’ where I would be given breakfast secretly and then told I had to fast till lunch time, then from lunch to dinner. It always felt special, like I was being a grown up. When I sat down to Iftar with my father and older brothers I felt like I had earned those pakora and fruit salad. Our house is always full of food during Ramadan, the smell of pakoras frying, spicy and at times a little unbearable when you haven’t eaten in 11 hours. My mother can’t fast because of kidney issues and therefore her gift to us all was endless food. Pakoras, samosas, spring rolls, kebabs, pasties and her absolutely legendary tamarind-mint chutney that was slathered on everything.
My grandfather used to tell us off as kids because it was the pakoras we all went for first, and also the tortilla chips and hummus. He was baffled by the fact we didn’t eat dates, like the prophet did. Trying to entice his rebellious grandchildren by telling us dates tasted like toffee but we never believed him. Now I’m 32 and can’t even begin to imagine why I wouldn’t eat dates, they do taste like toffee, they are so delicious and they have been what I’ve eaten first in the first week of my first Ramadan in a long time. The first time I ever broke my fast was at Seven Kings High School. I was in Year 8 and was sat with friends in our homeroom trying to get my hands on some fruit gums to eat. They were all trying to dissuade me but I was hungry and managed to eat a couple. It was a rush of guilt which was outweighed quickly by the sugar and hunger need satisfied a little. Once I left home I stopped fasting entirely.
The lack of connection to Ramadan is probably a lot to do with my confusion about Islam for so long. I was told a version of Islam that is so heavily culture based rather than spiritual. I was always scolded and talked down to for the choices I made, everything I did seemed to be some level of sin from the way I dressed (which seriously was huge baggy jeans and huge baggy t-shirts, I didn’t even like dresses back then) to what I wanted to do in life. I was always fighting something and it just got exhausting. The thing is that I could never let go of my faith, I was always agnostic, and there was always something missing in my life. The last few years I’ve been reading up on Sufism, beginning to understand Islam on a level where it’s not a force to fight against but something that embraces who I am. It’s an incredibly personal journey, one I don’t talk about a lot with any of my family or friends really, but it’s been such a concrete foundation to me coming to terms with my anxiety, my depression and just who I am as a person. It’s grounded me, and this year I wanted to fast.
It’s been emotional to get back into the swing of Ramadan though. Iftar in my house in London is a family affair. My brothers come over with their wives and all their kids. My mum cooks, my dad comes back from whatever adventure he has been at that day and we all help set the table whilst the Islam channel plays the tarawih from Mecca live. Our house is alive with the smells of food, the sound of Arabic prayer and many small children who are too overly eager to eat with everyone. We all sit around the table with plates full as the last minute ticks by till we can eat, the adverts for things sponsoring the Maghrib adhan seem to be never ending, the short duwah before the adhan never seems to arrive but then you hear it start and the mix of it and the first taste of dates and the first sip of water is kind of glorious.
Iftar in Chicago is a little different. My family fasting are mostly in the suburbs and with work I can’t really go home to spend time to eat together. The first Iftar I had by myself was lonely and a little sad. I was sat at my laptop, I ate two dates and chugged a big bottle of water and then ate a few pakoras and spring rolls I made myself. After praying I didn’t want to eat dinner, I just missed my family so much. It was too quiet and from that I learnt to open this Muslim App I have so that the adhan at least plays when I’m breaking my fast. The double beauty of that is that if my downstairs neighbour hears it it probably freaks him out because he hates Muslims so much. Iftar has gotten a little easier as the fasts have gone past me, more and more I’ve been able to just enjoy sitting down to eat, but I miss my family and this is the most I’ve missed them since I left. But I have found peace in myself, which is something I was lacking in London so much and I don’t think I would have ever got to where I am now without moving to Chicago. As I eat by myself I think about all the things I’m grateful to have in my life, all the obstacles I’ve overcome and all the ways I’ve grown.
I’m lucky. Lucky in the sense I have wonderful people around me here that have helped make this easier. The first fast I did I had Iftar with two of my best friends. We went grocery shopping together, made food together and when it was time for Iftar I was handed a massive glass full of ice cold water and we all had dates together. It wasn’t the same as my family home, but it was still an atmosphere full of love and food where you appreciate what you have. I have great friends and great family here, who help me when I need it and who are there for me all the time. Ramadan didn’t’t show me that, but it’s been helping me to show my appreciation for everyone around me (mostly by feeding them). I’m hosting my own Iftar for the first time, which is scary! I never understood why cooking stressed my mother out so much until I started to cook for friends and family.
This post came from something I wrote in the very wonderful South Asian Punks group on Facebook where I vented about how Ramadan was making me really emotional. It’s taken me nearly 31 years to come to terms with my own identity, to not feel like a mash up of many cultures and all of it being wrong. I’m starting to understand the family I come from, why they acted the way they did in certain situations and we’re all starting to heal, forgive and move on from the past. This Ramadan feels truly cleansing, like I’m actually starting to grow as a person and like I’m finally shaking off the weight of the past. You learn from every event in your life, whether it’s positive or negative and I was holding to hard onto the negative. By accepting things and feeling the emotions I needed to feel I honestly do think I’m finally in control of myself. It’s a wonderful feeling, it’s also scary and will have it’s ups and downs like all parts of life. But it feels good.
Ramadan Mubarak to you all. Let’s hope it’s a smooth ride of the next three weeks.
Maryam Hassan is a 32 year old Photographer, Montessori Teacher, Wearer of Yellow from London who transplanted herself to Chicago in 2015. She likes punk music, hash browns, animal facts and mangoes.
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