Ramadan started on Friday. There was a definite buzz in the city on the days leading up to this, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar—clubs and bars were crowded with people getting up to shenanigans before the holy month, fruit stands stopped restocking so as not to have a rotting surplus over the course of the fast, my gym changed its hours and is now open from 8PM to midnight to allow the devout to continue with la musculation, and any plans I made for the coming month were rendered conditional with a vague “inchallah, because of Ramadan it’s hard to say…” My city transformed overnight; Dakar’s throbbing pulse has slowed down to match the churning metabolism of its inhabitants. This year Ramadan coincides with the beginning of the rainy season, and so the skies are low and cloudy, the dusty streets are packed down except for occasional gusts of stinging sand, and NOBODY is outside. The beach is empty, the markets are bare, the snack bars are shuttered, and only the mosque is constantly humming with chants and visitors.
I was excited about the beginning of Ramadan, even though I really didn’t understand it. On Thursday evening my host mother said to me “tomorrow you will fast with the family”—it might have been a question but I really don’t think it was. That night I hauled my mattress up on the roof to under the stars and new crescent moon that marked the beginning of the holy month, and then I was shook awake by my host brother at 4:45 AM to have breakfast with the family. I tottered downstairs, had a half a baguette with margarine spread and coffee, and then went out the door to go fishing before the sun rose and the day got hot. After a few hours of thrashing the waters of the Corniche with K.S., a half-Senegalese, half-Italian kid of 11 who lives in my neighborhood, I took him back into town to buy him breakfast. He chose an impossibly elegant air conditioned French pastry shop and ordered the most gorgeous croissant I’ve ever seen in my life. Glistening with butter and flakier than a snowstorm, he insisted on offering me bites of it that I refused until I felt my willpower beginning to weaken, after which I excused myself, went to the bathroom and washed my hands for 10 minutes, and came out to collect him right as he was swallowing the last morsel. We went back to Yoff, I dropped him off at his house, and then strolled slowly across the 4 lanes of deserted highway that separated his home from mine.
I got back to find the family ensconced on the couch reading the Quran quietly, to themselves, in Arabic. I joined them, for lack of anything else to do, and as my angry stomach roiled inside me I sat there and thought 1) I was very hungry, 2) I had no idea why I was fasting and 3) that croissant must have been incredible. The more I thought about it, the less sense it made: Why would my Muslim family choose to impose these privations on themselves for a month? My fast was optional, a cultural experience, but theirs was a ritual sacrifice designed to purify the mind and direct the soul away from temporal thoughts and concerns. Or so I’ve been told. I didn’t get it: I wondered why would discomfort direct your thoughts away from the physical realm, and why would Allah advocate this ascetic anorexia? Finally my host mother told me she couldn’t concentrate with me fidgeting and gave me a French-Arabic copy of the Quran to look through.
And so I found this, Ayah 185, Sura 2, a translation of which I’m including here: “The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran; a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the criterion (of right and wrong). And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days. Allah desires for you ease; He desires not hardship for you; and that you should complete the period, and that you should magnify Allah for having guided you, and that perhaps you may be thankful.”
I liked that. As I read my stomach settled and instead of feeling hungry I felt a little sharper, a little more aware of how my body was aligned and the space it was occupying. In the statement of purpose of Ramadan I found equal parts comfort and provocation: Allah wants you to be free from hardship and also hungry, an apparent paradox yet I could begin to see how we can be simultaneously ravenous and at ease. I think that might be what Ramadan is all about: it’s less a question of giving up food as it is a matter of acquiring hunger. Not eating is a means to an end, the end being a reaffirmation that one can go without, a link to famished holy men receiving unearthly visions in desert caves, a renewed appreciation of one’s own pulse and inhalations and exhalations, and finally the sense of unity and brotherhood that comes from knowing that everyone around shares your snappishness and frustration but also the newfound appreciation for your needy shell of a body that can go a whole 12 hours without refueling. Perhaps you may even be thankful.
To go a whole month without eating during daylight hours in Senegal in July is a luxury my job prohibits me from affording. Fasting imposes a universal lethargy: if you don’t eat, you need to learn to move slowly and stay in the shade and speak no more than necessary. Our clients are much easier to find these days: they all stay at home, and I hop around like a well-hydrated, well-fed jackrabbit visiting them and keeping business ticking. We’ll see. If I have a slow day, I may fast again.